By Tom Still

MADISON – 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, even with revisions signed by Gov. Mike Pence, doesn’t offer protections against discrimination of 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 cancelled all events in the state and
companies such as Apple, Gap, Levi Strauss, Wal-Mart 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 “Rustbelt” 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.

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 and 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

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.