WisBusiness: Entrepreneur sees state image tarnished by political unrest

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

The Badger State’s image took a hit from recent political unrest in Madison, self-described marketing “geek” and Milwaukee entrepreneur Sue Marks acknowledged Tuesday at a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon.

But that doesn’t mean efforts to sell the state as a good place to do business and live should be put on hold.

On the contrary, good marketers would find a way to take advantage of all the recent publicity, said Marks, who is founder and CEO of Pinstripe Inc., a human resources and recruitment firm. She is also president of Competitive Wisconsin Inc., a nonpartisan economic development consortium that represents business, labor, agriculture and education interests.

Marks said massive protests at the Capitol in recent weeks created a great deal of “unaided brand awareness for Wisconsin, though it may not be the brand we want. It’s unfortunate and only we can fix it.”

Now that more people are aware of the state, she said efforts should be made to promote Wisconsin’s talented workforce, resources and top-notch university system, added Marks, whose firm has grown rapidly over the past five years.

“We have an enormously rich entrepreneurial heritage, but we’ve lost it,” she said. “We need to regain that so my three kids will want to come back to this state to start and run businesses.”

Marks touted the new Wis4Biz campaign and told how she hopes guerilla marketing efforts and videos on the www.Wis4Biz.com website will reinforce Wisconsin’s “open for business” message. She also said the campaign would take full advantage of the supportive legislative environment for spawning innovation and economic growth in Wisconsin.

But Rajai Atalla, CEO and chief scientific officer at Cellulose Sciences International; and Kay Plantes, a consultant with an MIT doctorate in economics, both said the state has a gotten a black eye from efforts by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislative leaders to remove most public employees’ collective bargain rights.

Atalla said he was greatly impressed with the civility and openness in Wisconsin’s government when he moved to the Badger State more than 40 years ago.

“It was a model of sophistication and I knew I did not want to go back to the East Coast,” he recalled.

But what he called recent behavior “infantile.”

“The notion of ‘come let us reason together’ has gone out the window and I don’t think that is very good for our image,” he said.

Plantes said she has long believed Wisconsin needs to do a better job of telling its story.

“But this is coming at the worst possible time,” she said. “And the question is, where should we direct this marketing effort?

“Someone needs to be a voice of reason in this state and business has been frighteningly silent. Today, 108 windmills were cancelled in Green Bay because of uncertainty over the future of wind energy here.

“Business could be the moderate, data-based voice to bring us together and their silence is going to come back and chop business off at the knees in this state.

“So I would encourage you to take this branding concept, but focus it internally as well as externally and try to get political leaders on both sides back to being the way the state used to be.”

If that doesn’t happen, she predicted that even the best marketing effort could fail.