shutterstock_136761965It’s a rare thing when I get into politics on here; in fact it’s something I usually go out of my way to avoid. But I’m a brand strategist, and sometimes the world of brands and politics collide in a way from which I believe we can all learn.

At the heart of brand strategy is figuring out why a brand is different, what is its appeal, and what it stands for. Most people, when they think of brands, think of consumer products that they buy every week at the supermarket or restaurants they drive past as they are out and about. But we’ve become a branded world, and this extends well beyond its traditional boundaries.

There are many definitions of brands, but I’ve always favored the simplicity of this: a brand is a collection of perceptions. Sometimes those perceptions are in sync, often times they are not. Some people love Starbucks, others go out of their way to avoid it. It’s a personal thing and it’s what makes the world of brand strategy so interesting –– and challenging.

But how about a place. Is a country, a city, or a state a brand? Based on the above definition, it’s easy to argue that it certainly is. It’s why “places” have dedicated considerable budgets to travel, tourism and attracting businesses to promote their geographical brand.

If you want to cut to the Cliff Notes of brand strategy, here you go: Brand = Reputation.

But what happens when a geographical brand gets into crisis? Aloft conducted a study a couple of years ago to measure Americans’ opinions on how their perceptions of Greece had changed during its financial crisis. This study showed that the perception of Greece as a “pleasant place” dropped by 41% due to the financial crisis. It has, and will, take Greece years to get past this perception.

Another geographical crisis has unfolded in the United States, in my home state of Indiana. In just two short weeks, along with millions of Americans, I have watched in horror as Indiana has dragged its brand through the mud.

Played out, minute by minute, on national (and international media) has been the Indiana government’s decision to sign into law legislation that would make it legal to discriminate against someone in the name of their individual religion beliefs. If you want the details, just Google “Indiana discrimination” and thousands and thousands of links will pop up.

Who, exactly, one could choose to discriminate was left very open, but it was clear that it was mostly targeted to gay, lesbian and bisexuals.

Now, a key measure that brand strategists use to measure brand perception is the “top of mind association question.” In other words, “what images or words come to mind when you think of brand X.”?

So let’s try that: “what images or words come to mind when you think of Indiana?”

You just answered the question as to what Indiana’s new brand is: Discrimination.

Before this turn of unfortunate events, I would have classified Indiana as a “neutral brand,” neither overly positive, nor overly negative. Indiana doesn’t have the powerful images of mountains and oceans that other state brands do, but it has many positive aspects. And if you are from Indiana, we all know what the state’s greatest asset is: the Hoosiers themselves.

So this is my personal struggle with this. If Indiana’s greatest asset is its people, what does this say about its brand when it legalizes discrimination? (Note to Governor Pence: you can spin this any way you like, but call a spade a spade).

Julian Stubbs, a friend and colleague of mine, is a global expert on branding places. His company, based in Stockholm, has helped many places identify what its unique brand is and why people should be attracted to it. Like all good brand strategists, his advice is to first start with helping a city or country identify its vision for the next 5 to 15 years. What does the place want to be known for? What does it have today that it can build upon?

Indiana needs to follow Julian’s lead and think long and hard about its vision. If part of its vision is to be a warm and inviting place, the Indiana that I know, it has some serious damage control to do and a problem to fix. I truly believe that it will take Indiana 2-3 years to regain the place that it took only two weeks to lose. Remember what a brand is – a “collection of perceptions.” From my experience, changing perceptions when they are negative is the most challenging task that brands face. It most certainly can be done, but it takes a long time and significant effort.

But at the same time, those of you who know me know what an optimist I am. I think Indiana has a wonderful opportunity here to not only repair its brand, but also to make a leap ahead and use this as the dialog that clearly was needed to assess what kind of brand it really wants to be. As the oft-quoted saying goes, “never waste a good crisis.”   Or, as Julian says, most great cities and places need a decent crisis before they get their act together.

So, Indiana, now’s the time.

Take this opportunity to identify what Indiana’s brand wants to be 5 years from now. Then, take the steps that will be required to move that vision forward, day by day. You have the opportunity to be a great brand image turnaround success story that would be the formation of a fantastic Ted talk or Harvard Case Study.

Who wants to step up and lead this process? It’s clear the current government leadership is not qualified, nor interested.

--Matt

 

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