Life & Culture

PR guru using 'Dogfluencers' to boost Israel's image

Joanna Landau also brings digital influencers to the Jewish state for tours


"You can sell a country like you do Coca-Cola.” This is Joanna Landau’s take on Israel. Unfortunately, for most of us, trying to sell Israel feels more akin to trying to sell a sludgy smoothie made from broccoli and spirulina, the idea of which at best evokes ambivalence and, at worst, a visceral revulsion.

Today, I am on Zoom with the Israel branding expert to find out how to solve Israel’s PR problem. First things first: the PR problem isn’t what most of us think it is: that whenever the Israeli-Palestinian situation erupts, Israel — even when defending itself against rocket fire — is almost always portrayed as the Goliath to the Palestinians’ David. The PR problem, says Landau, is that the conflict is almost all anyone talks about.

“I can’t understand why this story is such a big proportion of who we are,” says Landau from her home in Tel Aviv. “Yes, of course, we live in a county that’s in a state of conflict, maybe 50 per cent, maybe 30 per cent, but it’s not 100 per cent. Underneath, you’ve got incredible people massively contributing to the world.”

The reason we can’t shift people’s perception of Israel is due to what in marketing jargon is known as “brand positioning” — and Landau is frustrated. “Millions of dollars and pounds are invested in advocating for Israel and educating about Israel, but there’s no innovation. They take the same messages and arguments, but don’t understand why they’re not working. If this was a company, you would probably close it down.”

Harsh words perhaps, but London-born Landau, who moved to Israel when she was four, has put her money where her mouth is by founding Vibe Israel, the first tourist operator to arrange visits to Israel for digital influencers. The premise was that if Israel could be “sold” to online personalities, they would then go on to sell it to their thousands and, in some cases, millions of followers.

Rather than trying to turn the Israel-haters into Israel-lovers, Landau focuses on influencers from “the largest majority, who are just completely indifferent. If I’ve got one pound, I’d rather invest it in someone whom I could really shift very quickly.”

Unlike conventional Israel tours designed around historical landmarks, Landau taps into the influencers’ passions and uses Israel to feed them. For their first tour, Vibe invited well-known mummy-bloggers and “showed them what family life is like in Israel”. Since then, Landau, herself a mum of three, has invited a whole range of online trailblazers, including foodies, designers and female entrepreneurs. “Coming to Israel is not the draw. What they’re looking for is disruptive content.”

This word “disruptive” comes up a lot in Landau’s conversation and if, like me, you are new to the lexicon of social media, Landau explains: “When you post something on a social media campaign, it has to be disruptive in the sense that it has to surprise people. It has to get them to stop scrolling and pay attention.”

And what causes the most disruption? Dogfluencers. That’s right  — dogs with their own Instagram following. Cue a tour of Israel for six dogs (and their owners).

“Tel Aviv has the highest number of dogs per capita in the world and think what dogs represent — loyalty, friendship, love, happiness and joy — all the things I want people to see in Israeli people.”

The tour included a trip down Jimmy’s Alley — so called “because some guy had a dog called Jimmy and he used to walk him up and down the alleyway” — and a three-course meal for dogs. “It was the most ridiculous, fun and surprising topic. That’s disruptive.” The posts received 700 million hits. “It was insane.”

But there is no such thing as a free lunch — even for dogs — and all participants have to sign a contract agreeing to post a certain number of times on their feed during or soon after the trip.

Landau measures success according to the number of “positive mentions” in response to these posts, and since the tours began over a decade ago, Landau says there have been over a billion. “It’s what word-of-mouth used to be.”

Perhaps inevitably, there is a small minority of naysayers who don’t “like” a picture of a dog parading down Rothschild Boulevard. “But most of them aren’t real followers and are just there to cause a ruckus.”

While Covid put a stop to tours, it afforded Landau the opportunity to put her branding know-how into a book, Ethical Tribing, co-authored by journalist Michael Golden.

The book aims to be a wake-up call to Israel’s “gatekeepers” — Jewish leaders, Israel educators, the Israeli government and the philanthropists. “It offers a strategy to the Jewish community on how to engage Jewish and non-Jewish millennials and the Gen Z with Israel in the digital era. At the moment, there is no disruption in Israel advocacy  — zero. The book offers them a restart.”

Israel branding wasn’t an obvious career choice for Landau, 49, who, after attending boarding school in the UK, served in the IDF before studying law at Cambridge.

But in her RP English, interspersed with faultless Ivrit, Landau says her dual identity means she is seeing Israel “from the inside out and the outside in”.

Although Landau’s form of branding is “emotional, not political”, it is impossible to take politics entirely out of the equation.

Since the publication of the book coincided with the government’s incendiary judicial reform proposals, Landau and Golden ended up adding an author’s note. “It says to the readers not to judge what is written in this book based on what is going on right now.”

Landau, who has been joining the rallies, says it is the first time she has felt conflicted about promoting her country. “I’ve never had to question my love for what Israel represents. Now I do and it’s a very sad state of affairs.”

But not wanting to “end on a negative note”, she shares an amusing anecdote. Her original intention was that the book would be her “gift” to the Jewish community before leaving Vibe and taking her branding strategy to other countries.

Two years later, she is still there, bringing over the biggest stars of Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. In an impressive Italian-American drawl, she says: “You know the part in Godfather Three when Al Pacino says: ‘Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in’? As I’m writing this book, I’m noticing that doing this for Israel is the only thing I am really passionate about.”

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