Rash Report: Shutdown tarnishes Minnesota's national image

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 8, 2011 - 10:42 PM

State's hard-earned, earnest 'good life' reputation suffers a self-inflicted wound that won't be easily repaired.

Former Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson graced the cover of Time magazine in 1973.

Photo: Courtesy, Time Magazine

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One governor and 200 state legislators, and not a single one lists their primary occupation as advertising executive.

Who can blame them? Advertising is one of the only professions that has an image problem as bad as politics. Pop culture's current characterization of an ad man -- the boozing, womanizing, lying Don Draper of "Mad Men" -- might be an improvement from previous incarnations.

But maybe state government could benefit by having a legislator or executive who has run an ad campaign. Clearly, current officeholders can't see how deeply damaging the state government shutdown is to Minnesota's brand.

"A brand is a set of associations that resides in people's minds," said my former colleague Steve Wehrenberg, CEO of Campbell Mithun. Wehrenberg also teaches a course in the University of Minnesota's graduate school of strategic communication, in which his semester project is to create a campaign to resuscitate a troubled brand.

Next semester's target could be the state of Minnesota. The state's national image today is based on images of padlocked parks and locked-in partisanship.

And the national media sees the state as a canary in a coal mine for what's in store if Washington can't resolve its fiscal crises. Wisconsin was similarly used as a framing device for the national debate over public employee unions when its capitol was convulsed with protests last winter.

Shutdown stories have been splashed on the front pages of national newspapers. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times opined about it Wednesday.

Cable and network newscasts have routinely run reports and commentary on our dysfunctional democracy. And these brand-damaging stories have been echoed online, as well as on air via local and national talk radio shows.

Adding brand insult to injury, Fitch Rating just cut our bond rating from AAA to AA+. And presidential campaign ads from former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, boasting that he "won" in 2005, remind the country that this is our second shutdown in six years.

The brand damage may be significant, according to Wehrenberg and three other local business leaders -- "job creators," in today's political parlance -- from major Minnesota advertising agencies.

"These things leave indelible marks, especially within Minnesota, as far as our ability to trust," said Tom Moudry, CEO of Martin Williams. "And when it comes to a brand, trust is one of the most important dynamics. People may or may not like a brand, but they have to trust it, and the damage has been done there. An inability of a brand to do its core competency at its lowest level is damaging."

Kevin DiLorenzo, CEO of the firm Olson, agrees. "The perception is that a state that used to have it figured out, and was able to enjoy moving along without the other distractions other states have had to deal with, has come to a screeching halt."

This sense of having figured it out was an essential part of Minnesota's brand legacy, said DiLorenzo. "Our brand always stood for quality of life. We've always managed to balance arts, culture, social agendas and fiscal responsibility that optimized the quality of life here -- this thriving metropolitan area with a rich outstate area that were very complementary."

This quality was best represented by former DFL Gov. Wendell Anderson holding up a fish on the cover of Time, touting "The Good Life in Minnesota," according to both Wehrenberg and Doug Spong, president of Carmichael Lynch.

"That's been Minnesota's brand: We're wholesome, a state that works," said Spong, who added that, "You get what you pay for in Minnesota -- you pay for this good life."

"All brands have a value equation," said Wehrenberg. "What I expect to get, divided by what I expect to pay. I think taxes are like that. To me, part of the Minnesota brand value equation is I expect to live in a wonderful state, where the mentality is fairly open-minded and progressive, where government and business work together to provide fantastic, high-quality education and quality of life, which includes parks, schools and community organizations that help people in need."

For that, he added, "I might pay a little bit more in state income taxes than other states that don't have this quality of life."

Beyond the business perceptions, the state's brand is critically important, Moudry said, "Because it not only affects tourism, but also our lot in lives in the state we live in."

Our traditional brand deficits include January blizzards, July mosquitoes and year-round road construction, which the "good life" brand attributes helped blur. So did the label "Minnesota Nice."

It's also been very un-Minnesotan to brag. Our license plates may say 10,000 lakes, but we really have about 12,000. This Minnesota modesty extended to our "good life" brand as well, and we were known for electing lawmakers who created consensus, not conflict.

The good life wasn't a product, it was a process -- of sound fiscal management and prudent, long-term investment that truly made Minnesota exceptional. And far from the national image of Democratic dominance, both the DFL and the GOP contributed.

This is not lost on some of the agency leaders, who believe Minnesota needs to function more smoothly before making any attempt to improve its national image.

"Actions speak louder than words," said DiLorenzo. "They've already tried to politicize this thing by running ad campaigns. It's better to put your head down and get the job done."

Once our leaders do take action, then it might be appropriate to try to rebrand Minnesota. But it won't be easy: No paid-media budget could come close to the ceaseless news narrative of a divided and dysfunctional state.

And if a campaign is considered, "you continue to market the assets of the state," said Spong, adding, "I would not allude to 'we're open for business again,'" as Wisconsin has under its GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

Wehrenberg believes it could be "galvanizing" to have an apolitical rallying point like "the good life" again.

But, he said, "you can't really create a 'good life' if you don't have a government. ... Part of what's behind a great brand is a great story. Maybe we've lost sight of what that story is here. We don't want that story to be that our government can't figure out how to solve problems."

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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