Wisconsin’s Internal Brand Damage

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Until mid-February, Wisconsin’s brand appeared headed in the right direction. The university football team made it to the Rose Bowl while the pro team, the iconic Green Bay Packers, won the Super Bowl. In January, the University of Wisconsin topped an internet brand equity study.

But then the battle began over Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill, which aimed to destroy unions’ collective bargaining rights. Democratic state Senators fled the state to prevent a vote on the bill and hundreds of thousands protested at the capitol in Madison over the following three weeks.

In two rushed votes, the bill passed and Walker signed it into law today. As the Democrats and labor leaders protest, Steve Earle strums and the GOP stages a victory lap, is there any upside for Wisconsin’s brand?[more]

The simple answer is, not really. Fans of the bill will contend that it will create a better environment for employers, thus creating more jobs. But critics of the bill will point to how all the cuts on education that provide that pro-jobs environment will make many think twice about coming to, or staying in, Wisconsin. The true impacts of the bill will probably not be seen for a decade, when Walker will be judged as a visionary before his time — or the worst state governor in generations.

Wisconsin’s brand, meanwhile, lives in the here and now. So while it could be argued that the political activism on display on both sides paints Wisconsin as a vibrant state of concerned citizens, it’s rarely good for any brand (or individual) to have its dirty laundry aired so publicly.

For three weeks, national news banged on about “goons” and “thugs” storming the capitol. In its rhetorical fight for message, protesters compared the state to Libya and Egypt, analogies that may have energized the movement at the time, but will doubtless have a negative lasting effect.

It’s important to note that Wisconsin has two brands: the one seen nationally and the one held by state residents themselves. While the external view of Wisconsin’s brand is up for grabs, there is no doubt that the internal brand, that held in the minds of Wisconsinites themselves, has been deeply damaged. The pride that many felt about continuing a long tradition of activism and protest has been eclipsed by a feelings that a state that has always been atop national education statistics, will only go drop.

In the end, this internal brand damage may be more devastating to Wisconsin’s long-term image.

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