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

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 Critics say the law, unless repealed or amended, will open the door for discrimination against gays and lesbians.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.

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Another regional brand, one that I coined in the early 2000s, is the “I-Q Corridor.” That refers to the interstate highway that binds Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, but it also references innovation, intellectual property, investment, quality of life, workforce, and more. Those are shared brands that shouldn’t stop at state borders — especially as the Upper Midwest competes with the East and West coasts for business attention.

Want to live and work someplace where water isn’t rationed … or where business and housing costs aren’t artificially high … and where people actually show up for work when they’re supposed to do so? Then maybe the Upper Midwest’s I-Q Corridor is for you.

Cities also have a stake in smart branding. At the recent South by Southwest festival, the city of Austin, Texas, continued to stake its claim to being the nation’s digital health capital. That might surprise many people in the Madison area, who may assume Wisconsin’s capital city has a leg up thanks to the presence of Epic (the nation’s electronic health records leader) as well as a host of emerging health-tech companies.

That’s only true if the rest of the world knows about it, too. Maybe it’s time for Madison to become MED-ison when it comes to spreading the word about its expertise in digital health and other life sciences.

Brands matter. As Indiana has learned of late, years of work can be jeopardized overnight in a world that moves at the speed of social media and public opinion. It’s a lesson Wisconsin would do well to keep in mind.

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