Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wither Brand Wisconsin

There's no shortage of contenders for the worst marketing campaign in the history of the world, but most of them do all have something in common: the company doing the marketing usually had the good sense to end the campaign before it could do further damage to the brand.

Not so in Wisconsin. Whether we realize it or not, Wisconsin is a brand and one that's dogged by an unflattering, and not entirely inaccurate, reputation for being cold, rural, obese and drunk. Usually the one positive thing out-of-staters think about Wisconsin is that we're very friendly. Unfortunately, the further from the midwest one travels the more frequently one finds that Wisconsin is not a destination people aspire to so much as it is a place where people happen to eventually find themselves. That's not good for business, both figuratively and literally.

The last 16 months have done unspeakable damage to Wisconsin's reputation. The current fiasco in Madison has taken a brand no one was terribly thrilled about to begin with and made it toxic, like replacing a Olive Garden with a White Castle. It's already entirely possible that this image will take a generation to repair and it's not going to get any better any time soon.

It's impossible to imagine any business would want to either move to Wisconsin or start up a company here given the political climate. The current "uncertainty" that Walker blames the state's anemic economic performance isn't going to end when the recalls are over. This whole affair has been so protracted that it's likely that most out-of-staters will just assume that this is the new normal in Wisconsin and they're probably right.

In all likelihood, Scott Walker will win the recall election next month. That will be followed by a ferocious five month fight for control of the Senate. Depending on the outcome, we might see a special legislative session to end the year before we sprint headlong into either very tense budget talks (if the Dems win the senate) or "right to work" legislation (if the GOP keeps control). February 2013 could look a lot like February 2011 did. None of this will help mend the perception of the state as being hotbed of partisan angst.

It's also possible that in 2013 we might finally see an indictment brought against Walker for some kind of misuse of the Milwaukee County Executive's office. Since he's already set up a defense fund, it's a good bet that this will happen. Milwaukee DA John Chisholm can't bring charges before November of this year or in 2014 without facing allegations that he's "politicizing his office" (wank, wank, wank...), so it would seem like mid-2013 would be his best window of opportunity. If that happens, expect the Wisconsin brand to be further tarnished.

And for a very long time. Walker will almost certainly use the Scott Jensen strategy for defending one's indiscretions in office, namely, delay, delay, delay. It's a smart legal strategy, but not a very good political one and an awful marketing tactic. Then it's on to Walker's re-election campaign. That'll give Wisconsin four years of continuous, terrible press and in a 24 hour news cycle world four years are eons.

The damage Walker's done to the Wisconsin brand will long outlast his time in office, however long that happens to be. What makes this all the more incomprehensible is that Walker's entire job creation strategy is based on bringing business from out-of-state into Wisconsin. Walker is his own worst enemy when it comes to economic growth in Wisconsin.

Say what you will about Jim Doyle, but the guy was as dedicated to bringing jobs to Wisconsin as any Governor in recent memory. Doyle frequently traveled outside the state and personally met with many business owners to try to convince them to move their operations to Wisconsin. Most of the companies that did make the move were very small (fewer than 10 employees) biotech firms that have yet to win FDA approval for their products. These are very tedious and unsexy "gets," and many of them might not be around ten years from now, but biotech and pharmaceutical companies have a nasty habit of blowing up once they get an OK from the feds. A company with four or five employees today can have 50 or 60 a decade from now and 500-600 twenty years down the road. This was all in addition to providing home-grown biotech firms with a ton of state resources to help them succeed. Doyle focused on this industry for a reason: he saw the potential for biotech to become an integral part of the state's economy and a way to make Wisconsin a leader of cutting edge science. Doyle had a long-term vision, one that would ultimately and fundamentally change the Wisconsin brand for the better.

The results of those efforts might not be evident for decades. It took EPIC Systems in Madison nearly 30 years to become what it is today and science ain't easy, but it was was a well-thought out plan very much worth the risk.

By contrast Walker's efforts to create jobs have been catastrophic. Last year's budget forced hundreds of teachers and public employees into early retirement and many of those positions aren't being refilled. The stunning way in which he handled Talgo upon entering office was offensive to even passive bystanders. I don't know how any business could watch that episode unfold and come away thinking that the Walker administration was capable of forming a functional partnership with the private sector. The venture capital fund is something that should have sailed through the legislature in one form or another, but Walker's was much more concerned about appearing to balance the state's ledgers.

The only business Walker has appeared to personally stick his neck out for was the G-Tac mining interest, another disastrous bust. This was an especially pitiful ordeal to watch because it demonstrated just how ill-equipped Walker is at creating jobs, despite his aggressive arrogance. First Walker, and the rest of the GOP caucus, appeared the be willing to give away the store by letting a single company re-write the law to suit it's own purposes. G-Tac ran such an incompetent PR operation that it almost seemed like Walker had given them assurances that the law would pass, despite the certainty of a legal challenge from the Bad River Chippewa. It's also the same part of the state that spent 30 years fighting  a mine in Crandon. Walker never visited the area to build support. He seemed to think the mining bill would sail through the legislature. Then he lost two vote when a pair of GOP senators were recalled largely for supporting his budget.

Plus, it's mining--not exactly the industry of tomorrow.

Unlike Doyle, Walker hasn't had any time to schmooze the private sector and sell them on Wisconsin. He's been too busy raising money for his own recall campaign. Don't expect that to change after the recall election. Walker will still be tending to distractions of his own creation until the John Doe investigation concludes. It's also pretty hard to imagine Walker being very effective at outreach while he's under investigation.

But don't worry: Walker still plans on creating 250,000 new jobs in Wisconsin by New Year's Day 2015, as he reaffirmed at the state GOP convention this month, even though this might not even be mathematically possible:

It appears it will be difficult for Walker to achieve his job-creation goal. Jobs data is available through March, and from this April to December 2014, Walker would have to create nearly 7,400 private-sector jobs a month, or 88,800 a year, to meet his mark. 
Nothing close to that has happened over the past two decades. The most private-sector job growth came in 1994, when 72,400 jobs were added, according to average annual employment figures from the state Department of Workforce Development. Jobs numbers for April are due Thursday.

And now we know how he's going to achieve it: by changing the metrics.

Walker's legions of GOP voters might be taken by this bullshit, but actual business people won't be. Even if Wisconsin was free from all of the political rancor which Scott Walker is alone responsible for it would still have a hard time attracting businesses because we're lagging in economic growth, a massive detail that is far more important than tax breaks in most business owners minds. After all, what good are tax breaks if your company's not making any money to begin with? No one's going to invest in a state that's heading in the wrong direction.

None of that really matters to Walker how badly he damages the Wisconsin brand because it will all be in the name of growing the Scott Walker brand. Walker's entire political career has been acting with an aim to the next office in mind. The problem is that, one way or another, this is Walker's last job in politics--only he doesn't realize it yet. The only promotion he can get will require Senate confirmation and he's never going to get that so long as there are 41 Dems in upper house and that's what makes Walker's Wisconsin's brand for the sake of his all the more frustrating.