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Apr 6, 201510:25 AMInside Wisconsin

with Tom Still

Managing state or regional brands is hard to get right — and keep right

(page 1 of 2)

Brands are finicky things. If you don’t believe so, ask the red-faced politicians in Indiana.

Just when the Hoosier state should be basking in the light of the Final Four men’s collegiate basketball tournament in Indianapolis, most of the news about Indiana’s image is focused on its “religious objections” law. Critics say the law, unless repealed or amended, will open the door for discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Despite Indiana’s other business attraction and retention efforts over time, the reaction to the law from businesses — especially outside the state — has been dramatic. Angie’s List scrapped a planned $40 million expansion in Indianapolis, Salesforce canceled all events in the state, and companies such as Apple, Gap, Levi Strauss, Walmart, and Twitter have all spoken out against the law or a similar measure pending in Arkansas.

In short, years of work on Indiana’s “brand” as a good place to do business have been put at risk.

Wisconsin is not among the 20 states with a religious objection law, also known as a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but stranger things have happened in the State Capitol.

For years, some Wisconsin lawmakers wanted to pass legislation to essentially outlaw human embryonic stem-cell research — despite the state’s status as a pioneer for such research, and its reputation for developing ethical research standards that guide much of the scientific world.

Had that anti-stem cell law been passed, people in Wisconsin would not have read this week’s headlines about the $307 million acquisition of Cellular Dynamics International by Tokyo-based Fujifilm Holdings. Madison-based CDI would have been long gone, and the wealth and economic opportunity created by the company’s sale would have accrued elsewhere. As it is, CDI’s headquarters will remain in Madison, along with a well-paid workforce that stands to grow over time.

While brands are easily destroyed, they are not easily built or rebuilt.

That’s a problem for the Upper Midwest, Wisconsin included, which still labors under a “Rust Belt” image that is largely history. The shakeout in manufacturing jobs and companies that peaked during the Great Recession left a surviving corps of generally nimble, innovative, and tech-savvy companies in what might now be called the “Closebelt.”

That’s a term for a Great Lakes cluster of cities — Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee included — bound by proximity as well as common values, expertise, and resources, both human and natural.

(Continued)

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About This Blog

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

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