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Brand Leadership: Focus, Focus, Focus - Then Focus Some More

"Without focus, it is impossible to build a brand." - Al Ries

The other day on LinkedIn, Al Ries shared the simple statement above.

Ries, along with David Aaker, David Ogilvy and Walter Landor is one of the "founding fathers" of modern branding. What sets him apart is how accessible and common-sense his writing is. It seemed to me he wouldn't waste words. So it was striking that after so many years he found such a seemingly obvious statement worth repeating.

It struck me to ask Ries and others, what makes brands lose focus? I wanted to hear what others had to say, not only as a semi-academic but also because I've got one particular brand - Israel - on the brain.

Thirty years ago everybody had a certain basic respect for the Jewish homeland. Its image was captured in Raid on Entebbe (1977), a true story on an elite group of commandos who saved a plane full of Jews taken hostage in Uganda.

Israel's brand as portrayed in the movie was highly focused: Jewish survival.

It was personified by the Israeli soldier. He (it's a gendered persona) had five key personality clusters, or characteristics:

  • Patriotic, passionate, dedicated - a believer in the cause
  • Strong, brave, courageous - walked through the fear, did not run away from it
  • Nimble, adaptable, ingenious - could handle any situation, including being outgunned
  • Self-sacrificing for the team - not just humble but willing to die
  • Skilled, smart, quick to learn - intelligent and capable
The distinguishing factor of Israel can be captured in the post-Holocaust slogan: "Never again." 

We will not be as sheep to the slaughter anymore.

The head of the Israeli special assault team in that movie, Yoni Netanyahu, was also the only Israeli soldier killed in the operation. He was lionized as a hero - but today his younger brother, Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's current Prime Minister, is widely reviled in the media.

It seems to me that Israel as a nation-brand has severely lost its focus. 

In his answer to my question, Ries said that the #1 reason brands lose focus is that they seek to expand. That made a lot of sense to me.

Israel started out as a program with a very limited scope: Establish a state in the historical Jewish homeland that would enable this tiny nation to survive. Everyone was on board with that.

Over time, the same internecine hatreds that have always torn the Jews apart also had their impact on Israel. Religious infighting and political disputation abound, to the point where some Israelis even question the basic right of Israel to self-defense. Its tourism campaigns talk about the beaches. It boasts of high-tech industry and has adopted so many Western ways. 

But all of this gets away from what's core or essential to the brand: Its Jewishness, its celebration of Jewish diversity in the context of a struggle for survival.

Unless and until Israel gets back to its brand roots, I fear its brand will continue to suffer.

* All opinions my own.

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