"Powerhouse or punchline

Uh-oh. Indiana’s got a branding problem. According to a new online survey by a Seattle-based consultant named Simon Anholt and his Anholt State Brands Index (SBI for short), Indiana ranks 42nd among all the states. California, Florida and Hawaii rank first, second and third, respectively. New Jersey, in spite of its being the location of a Revolutionary War battle and birthplace to Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen, comes in last. Go figure.

According to a press release, the SBI measures each state’s brand based on six alliterative criteria: Presence (contribution to culture/science), Place (physical aspects), Potential (job/education opportunities), Pulse (urban lifestyle), People (welcome diversity) and Prerequisites (basic qualities). “It’s crucial for the political, cultural, social, educational and business leaders of Indiana to understand their brand, and to see how it is viewed by potential visitors, investors, customers and future citizens around the world,” Anholt says.

It would be tempting to dismiss this sort of thing if it weren’t for the fact that the language of branding has become a kind of shorthand we use nowadays for understanding how people think and behave. Brands are a way of organizing the world, they inspire loyalty and prompt people to act in predictable ways. A highly regarded brand is a valuable thing; in some quarters it’s tantamount to a license to print money. Some people, apparently, will buy anything, from running shoes to golf balls, with a Nike swoosh imprinted on it. The Nike brand is that powerful.

On the other hand, a weak brand can turn you into a punchline. Ben Affleck had a nifty movie career going for himself until he let his brand get weird by getting mixed up with Jennifer Lopez. Now he’s trying to save himself from becoming the next Burt Reynolds.

So Indiana has some work to do when it comes to our brand “identity.” Given the high rankings accorded to such ocean-front hot spots as California, Florida and Hawaii, this does not come as a surprise. As fervently as some of our state planners might wish for global warming to turn Indiana into a coastal paradise, this isn’t likely to happen any time soon. If we’re going to improve our brand, we’re going to have to do it with the resources we have at hand.

It turns out we have plenty to work with. In the first place, Indiana has an abundance of fertile land available for agriculture. In the past we’ve diminished the value of this land by devoting too much of it to too few types of crops. But we’re entering an era that increasingly prizes quality food products, freshness and close proximity. We shouldn’t be relying on California for so much of our produce (spinach, anyone?) when we have the capacity to grow more of it here. Instead of promoting the growth of factory hog farming, Indiana should be doing all it can to build a national reputation based not on sheer quantity, but on the quality of its food products.

This connects to another area where the state could bolster its brand. Although Indiana has fewer than 7 million people, compared, say, to California’s more than 33 million, our ratings for air and water quality are deplorable. You shouldn’t eat the fish from our rivers and streams. We’ve behaved as if a small town image might compensate for this dirty secret. It hasn’t worked. When Indiana can brag about the quality of its environment, you’ll know we’re on our way to having a better brand.

Since we don’t have a seacoast or four seasons of sun, Indiana needs to show that it’s creative when it comes to things where people can make a difference. Education comes first. And not because our business leaders want supposedly better workers. Rather, because we want our kids to have as many options for life as possible. Imagine what it would do for this state if we could say that, town for town, we had the best public schools in the country. We like to say that this is a great place to raise kids — let’s make it so.

Unless there’s a major hiccup along the New Madrid faultline, we’re not going to be growing any mountain scenery in these parts. That means we’re going to have to build the views ourselves. For too long our leaders have acted as if anyone wanting to put up a building here was doing us such a big favor it didn’t matter what the thing looked like. And so we’ve thoughtlessly torn down many of our historic structures and twiddled our thumbs while developers threw up generic boxes. Well, here’s a news flash: It turns out that people really enjoy great architecture. They like to look at it, work in it and play around it. They will even travel from one place to another just to see it. Architecture can actually define a place’s brand — just ask the folks in Columbus, Ind.

Fresh, wholesome food and a healthy environment; a genuine belief in education and great design — sounds like the basis for an Indiana brand to me. These things should be within our reach. If that’s not true, then we should ask why not? Who stands in the way? In the end, building Indiana’s brand won’t come about through wishful thinking or acts of God. How we think about this place will determine whether Indiana becomes a powerhouse — or a punchline.