By Tom Still

MADISON – Unless you subscribe to glamorous magazines such as Expansion Management or wait impatiently for weekly reports from the State Science and Technology Institute, you probably don’t know that Wisconsin does a poor job of marketing itself as a business location.

Oh, sure, the Green Bay Packers show up on the occasional Monday Night Football game and there’s no end of on-air comments about cheese, beer and frozen tundra. As a result, most Americans know everything about Brett Favre – and next to nothing about what Wisconsin has to offer beyond cheese, beer and frozen tundra.

The full story gets told from time to time on the news side of the national press, but you’ll never see an ad touting Wisconsin in Business Week or a national TV spot urging CEOs to think of us the next time they add jobs or facilities. Why? It’s not because Wisconsin can’t compete with other states, but that we choose not to.

So-called “business attraction” dollars in the state budget have historically been little more than a rounding error. The state Department of Commerce spends a grand total of $30,000 on business attraction, which is shorthand for marketing, and the non-profit Forward Wisconsin gets about $320,000 a year from the state to serve as its marketing arm. 

Your hometown grocery store or car dealer may have a bigger marketing budget.

Unless Wisconsin touts itself at national business conventions and trade shows, or earns news coverage because of the accomplishments of its companies, researchers and innovators, you would pretty much never hear about the state in California or Massachusetts. You might see a tourism or Wisconsin dairy ad someplace, but that’s about it. (By the way: How did Wisconsin become a leading dairy state? Research, refrigeration, roads and marketing.)

Gov. Jim Doyle’s budget proposal took a modest step toward raising the state’s visibility by suggesting the state spend about $1.2 million on specific, targeted business attraction over the next two years. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee reduced that to about $750,000 and the Senate concurred, but the Assembly deleted all spending increases. A committee made up of leaders from the Senate and Assembly is now hashing out differences in the full $57-billion budget.

In defense of the Assembly, its members may not have wanted to spend more on the same old thing. For years, state marketing efforts were focused on chasing smokestacks. That’s no longer the strategy, due to the declining number of smokestacks available to be chased. But what’s the replacement strategy? The state should target sectors of industry that are a right fit for Wisconsin, either because we have existing “clusters” of similar companies, a reliable workforce, a strong infrastructure and a dynamic research base.

Some legislators believe that marketing job should fall to Wisconsin’s new regional economic development groups, but don’t bet on that being a cohesive effort any time soon. Forward Wisconsin could lead the way with the right resources, but it has always been viewed as a tool of the incumbent governor – no matter what party is in power. Organizations such as my own, the Wisconsin Technology Council, focus on helping in-state companies make connections and grow. Our marketing tools could be leveraged outside Wisconsin, as part of a revamped state strategy.

This is not a suggestion that Wisconsin try to spend toe-to-toe with neighbors such as Michigan ($8 million a year), Iowa ($5.7 million) or Ohio ($5.2 million). But we should at least match Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana, which spend $500,000 to $1 million each per year.

Doyle’s idea is to spend more on targeted marketing and follow up with sector-specific sales calls, a basic in any business. Marketing alone can’t do it; a good salesman must “make the ask.”

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