The Rise of the 'Info-sumer' and the Future of Public Diplomacy

Brand Equity Is Now Part of National Security, Says Israeli Ambassador Ido Aharoni

New York, February 22, 2016—Nations must learn to communicate differently in the New Media Age, as the Internet changes the ways people socialize as well as create and share information, said Ido Aharoni, the Consul General of Israel in New York, in a talk last week at Columbia Law School.

The Feb. 10 event was sponsored by the Law School’s Center for Israeli Legal Studies and the student Columbia Law Israel Organization, as part of the Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy Faculty-Student Intellectual Life Series. The talk was introduced by Zohar Goshen, the Alfred W. Bressler Professor of Law and co-director of the Center for Israeli Legal Studies.
Aharoni pointed out that people are not only consuming more information now—they are consuming it differently. “For the first time in the history of mankind, we are able to create our own information bubbles dedicated to what we care about, whether that's sports or fashion or food,” Aharoni said. “This has tremendous implications for governments.”
The new consumers of information, or “info-sumers,” tend to be young, but increasingly they’re not. “My mother is 84 years old and she's spending six to seven hours a day online,” said Aharoni. “Becoming a new information consumer is a state of mind.”
To better understand info-sumers, Aharoni culled insights from the research of Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner as well as Young & Rubicam's international Brand Asset Valuator. “Researchers estimate the number [of info-sumers] at 30 percent in the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—but in the rest of the world they’re 40 to 50 percent of the population,” said Aharoni. “We're looking at billions of people who spend hours and hours online every day, designing their own information environments. Their national identity is eroding, and their urban identity is on the rise.
Their world is borderless. “They feel part of a global community, and what ties them to others is their area of interest,” Aharoni said. “The most important thing about them when it comes to government and institutions, including universities and hospitals and corporations, is their profound mistrust. You can see it in the American voter today, but it's all over the world—people do not trust establishments. They do not trust big governments, big corporations, big brands. They prefer to trust their friends.”
Technology makes info-sumers feel empowered. They seek immediate gratification, but they also care about the concept of fairness, said Aharoni. “Fairness across the board. Be fair to your fellow human beings, be fair to the environment, be fair to your own body. And when it comes to the use of force to settle conflict—which is an issue for countries like mine, which in the midst of a conflict—the new type of information consumer does not view using force, whether by police or the military, as favorable or even legitimate. This is posing a huge challenge for governments that must deal with crises.”
The challenge became Aharoni’s in 2007, when he was named the head of Israel's Brand Management Team in Jerusalem. He had been a senior advisor to the country’s Foreign Minister and Vice Prime Minister, in charge of media and public affairs. In 2011, he was appointed Consul General in New York, his third overseas position in Israel’s diplomatic corps. “My job is to be the chief marketing officer,” Aharoni said. “So I asked what does the info-sumer see in my story, and the research showed he's struggling with whether the story of Israel is the story of a victim or a victor.”
Israel commissioned a 2009 study to gauge public opinion in France just as its military pushed into Gaza. “The French public is viewed as being very critical of Israel's actions,” said Aharoni. “We targeted the French elite, the top 30 percent, with at least one college degree and an above-average income. We asked them first, in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, who do you support? Sixteen percent were against Israel, and you can assume that many of them were Muslims. Only 9 percent were for Israel, and you can assume many of them were Jews. Traditionally the government thought our job was to change the balance between these columns, making a cold, historical, clinical argument to convince the 16 percent that we are right.
But in today's public diplomacy—an approach that comes not from the world of political science but from the world of marketing—you say 9 plus 16 is only 25. Seventy-five percent don't really care about the issue, so that 75 percent of the French elite is your room to grow. The question then is simple: What do they care about and do I have something in my inventory that is relevant to them?
“One of the things you learn in public diplomacy is that it's not about what you say as a government—it’s about what people hear. You need to study your audience in order to understand what they are hearing. You have to stick to relevance, because unless you're relevant to the conversation, the conversation will not take place. There is a term in marketing called twinning. You have a competing product—Coke and Pepsi, Burger King and McDonald’s. In our case, it is Israel and Palestine. When you have a twin, you have to take a proactive approach to defining who you are. If you do not take the proactive approach, rest assured your competition will define you.
“This is what our government learned. It's not about winning debates in 2016. Most debates are a form of entertainment. It's about building relationships with people who matter. Your image, your brand capital, is part and parcel with your national security. That's the main reason why nation branding, or country positioning, is an emerging field in public diplomacy. Your image as a place is part of your strength as a nation.”