Israeli companies are inept at messaging, branding and positioning. Excellence in branding, marketing and messaging are a key element inhibiting Israeli companies from becoming multi-billion dollar big companies. We want your feedback on how to solve it
This post was written by Michael Eisenberg, Founding Partner at Aleph, and originally posted on the Aleph blog
If you are reading this and know who Conduit or Wix are for more than 2 years, you are probably Israeli. In fact, as I sat on their boards, I often referred to Conduit and Wix as “the biggest internet companies nobody has ever heard of”…outside of Israel.
During my time as a partner at Benchmark I always marvelled at how companies that were significantly smaller and not yet as successful as Conduit or Wix were already household names, buzzing from the New York Times to the WSJ to Techcrunch and AllthingsD (now re/code). And, they jumped from those media outlets to social media and customers’ lips. Uber was buzzing when it was just serving technophiles going to parties in San Francisco. Zillow was reinventing the Real Estate market and was an authority on housing data when it had 1 million users; GlassDoor was already the reigning leader reimagining the job interview and selection process when it had a small number of listed companies with small amounts of data and reviews. Now, over time, portfolio companies such as Uber, Zillow, GlassDoor as well as Benchmark’s enterprise companies such as Hortonworks, New Relic, Elastic Search and others have fulfilled those prophecies and gone on to dominate their industries.
This is not an accident. These are all great companies, with great founders and great products but they also have something else: great messaging and branding from the start. That great messaging inserts these early companies into key conversations and helps them self-fulfill their destiny. It makes them H O T. Hot companies get talked about and get invited to the right conferences and events and it is a positive feedback loop that helps propel these companies. Solving messaging and how you deliver that message creates a critical foundation for building leading and dominant businesses.
To my great frustration, I can’t recall a single Israeli company that had as much buzz nor moxy as any of the Benchmark companies I mention above. Therefore, to my great consternation, every Israeli start up enters the competitive arena handicapped. I work dramatically harder to get our Israeli companies the PR they need and invited to the right conferences and even when there, they are not in the stream of conversations that matter.
When we started Aleph, we sat down to analyze why Israeli companies are so inept at messaging and branding and then we asked ourselves what we could do about it. Here is our “why” analysis:
1. Israelis prefer substance to form. Israelis naturally disdain artificial fluff and selling ahead of reality. Israel is a real and raw place where niceties and polish are the exception and not the rule. Ergo, Israelis attribute less value to messaging, branding and positioning at the early stages of a company, thinking that it is not real and not accurate and consequently not important. Anyone who looks at the incompetent managing of our national messaging and PR will know this is true.
2. We are handicapped by geography (many great stories start in the valley and a smaller number in NYC). Israel is not in the echo chamber of Silicon Valley where buzz can pick up ever faster once it gets rolling.
3. Israelis are misunderstood and misunderstand their audiences and mediums. Language, accents and cultural sensibilities are certainly a barrier to getting your message across. However, even more challenging, Israelis are not good at understanding a fundamental tenet of messaging, which is crafting it for the cultural sensibilities and interests of your AUDIENCE and then CONSISTENTLY and CONSTANTLY staying on message with the right words, phrases and rhymes.
When you are Israeli, it is hard to understand American or Silicon Valley sensibilities. You need an interpreter. Oftentimes, even when Israelis get the messaging and positioning right, they will use the same message and medium to communicate to a customer, an investor and a journalist and even the same message to a general journalist and a financial or specialty journalist. This obviously does not play well in Peoria. Alternatively, Israeli entrepreneurs will use different words and messages that confuse the brand. Adam Hanft, one of the best marketing and branding people I have met, pointed me to this amazing quote from The Great Gatsby, “Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.” So is messaging and branding says Hanft. Israelis struggle with keeping the series unbroken and making successful gestures in general and especially in places that they do not understand.
4. Israelis actually do not think precision messaging and positioning is important to the core of the business. To the Israeli entrepreneur, messaging and positioning is a tag line and not a statement of who my company is and what it stands for. It is part of a natural approach that we can figure things out so why can’t they. When I look at Uber’s early positioning and messaging of “everybody’s private driver” I realize how that has remained their “True North.” It is not only an external statement but one that influences product and company strategy. It is the dog and not the tail. The same is true at Amazon where Jeff Bezos has both put the customer first consistently and created a place where you can get anything. This was Amazon’s early positioning, messaging and brand and he has made the business conform to this brand, consistently, one successful gesture after another, creating one of the world’s greatest businesses at customer service and satisfaction. Israeli’s think exactly the opposite. Israelis think that if they change their product or culture so they will change the message and positioning to conform. Again, as Adam Hanft correctly says, “if you are not upsetting at least one product manager (or engineer) with your brand strategy, it tries too hard to please.”
5. Israeli companies are insufficiently aspirational in their branding approach. If you do not aspire to something that is world changing, the masses of consumers or enterprises do not follow. Shai Agassi did a great job at aspirational marketing and branding and hence he was on everybody’s lips (businesses can still fail if their fundamentals are flawed but Shai got the branding right). Who does not want to be able to afford a private driver? Uber created aspirations for people! Google aspired to organize all of the worlds information and Facebook aspired to connect all of the world’s people. Most Israeli companies are focusing on niche marketing, poking a hole through without changing the world. That does not work and it does not make the customer want to join you for the journey.
6. Marketing requires friction and pissing some people off. Israelis do not create enough friction in their messaging. Rich Barton, founder, CEO and Chairman of Expedia and Zillow is a master at what he terms “friction marketing.” Using the Zestimate, Zillow created dissonance in people’s minds about the value of their most important asset, their homes. The press also bought into that because data on housing was a big deal to their readers, especially when it contradicted what the experts and government were saying. Google tapped into this by creating an enemy through its “Do no evil” comment. Everyone and their grandmother knew they were talking about the Evil Empire in Redmond. Uber took on the regulators, Airbnb took on the hotel industry. You need friction in your marketing and positioning. If you do not create dissonance or friction in people’s minds, they do not remember you.
With this analysis in hand and feedback from a number of entrepreneurs, we realized that marketing, messaging and branding support was a critical issue that we, at Aleph needed to tackle for our companies. More broadly, it is a challenge that the Israeli tech ecosystem and Israeli entrepreneurs need to get help with if we all want to build big billion dollar global companies form Israel. What made the advice stand out more, was that the person most passionate about Aleph solving the problem was Omer Perchik, founder and CEO of Any.do. Omer is the best messaging and branding-minded Israeli entrepreneur that we have encountered. When we asked Omer what we could do to help surmount this challenge, he specifically advised us to hire someone who, through early intervention, would focus our companies on delivering the highest standard of messaging and branding, as representations of who they are, their purpose and how they can culturally and intelligently communicate with different constituencies.
We think that excellence in branding, marketing and messaging are a key element inhibiting Israeli companies from becoming multi-billion dollar big companies. We were only able to really zero in on this need through our conversations with many Israeli companies and learnings from the broader tech community. We want to continue to address this challenge as a fund and as a country and hence, we welcome – as always – your thoughts and suggestions.