State of the States: CNBC’s take on the best ones for business.

In CNBC’s recently published scorecard, don’t look to the Northeast or California to find the states that are best ones for business.

CNBC State Rankings for Business
L’Etoile du nord: Just as in its state motto “Star of the North,” Minnesota is the stellar performer in CNBC’s 2015 state ranking of business competitiveness. (Click on the map for a larger view.)

State and city rankings are a source of fascination for many people. Of course, there are many ways to fashion them to place nearly any state or city you like at the top of the heap.  Some of the lists use criteria that are so convoluted, it stretches credulity.

Since when is Baltimore the best city in America for single men?  Since it was ranked #1 in this evaluation, evidently.  Many of us who know the city’s innards really well would disagree heartily, of course.

But I think the CNBC 2015 scorecard on state business climates, published earlier this month, is based on a more solid set of criteria.

CNBC created it by scoring all 50 states on approximately 60 separate measures of competitiveness – a list that was developed with input from an array of business and policy experts, official government sources, and CNBC’s own Global CFO Council, and that uses government-generated data.

CNBC then grouped these measures into ten broader categories, weighting the results based on how often each is used as “selling point” in state economic development marketing and promotional efforts. This was done in order to rank the states based on the criteria they themselves use to showcase their attractiveness to businesses considering expansion or relocation.

Here are the ten broad categories in the CNBC evaluation, and which states ranked first and last within them:

  • Access to capital: #1 North Carolina … #50 Wyoming
  • Business friendliness: #1 North Dakota … #50 California
  • Cost of doing business: #1 Indiana … #50 Hawaii
  • Cost of living: #1 Mississippi … #50 Hawaii
  • Economy: #1 Utah … #50 Mississippi
  • Education: #1 Massachusetts … #50 Nevada
  • Infrastructure: #1 Texas … #50 Rhode Island
  • Quality of life: #1 Hawaii … #50 Tennessee
  • Technology/innovation: #1 Washington … #50 West Virginia
  • Workforce: #1 North Dakota … #50 Maine

Do we see any surprises here?  To my mind, the high and low rankings look pretty well-aligned with the anecdotal information we hear all the time.

Perhaps we might consider several other states besides Nevada to be “bottoms” in education. And personally, I am pretty shocked to see Tennessee ranked last in quality of life. Having lived there during my college years at Vanderbilt University, I never considered the state to be substandard when it came to that attribute.

But It’s when CNBC amalgamates all of the rankings to come up with its overall state ranking that a few surprises emerge.

Such as … Minnesota notches first place overall. I’m sure some people are genuinely surprised to see that.

For the record, here is CNBC’s list of the Top 10 states for business in 2015:

  • #1 – Minnesota
  • #2 – Texas
  • #3 – Utah
  • #4 – Colorado
  • #5 – Georgia
  • #6 – North Dakota
  • #7 – Nebraska
  • #8 – Washington
  • #9 – North Carolina
  • #10 – Iowa

We see that four of the ten top states are in the Midwest … three are in the South … three are in the West … but none are in the Northeast.

CNBC study on business competitiveness
The center holds: According to CNBC, most of the most competitive states for business are in the Mid-Continent region.

By contrast, for the most part the Bottom 10 states are clustered in other areas of the country … including four Northeastern states plus Alaska and Hawaii, two states that clearly have unique locational circumstances:

Hawaii lacks business competitiveness
Not so sunny: Hawaii’s bad business climate.
  • #40 – Pennsylvania
  • #41 – Alabama
  • #42 – Vermont
  • #43 – Mississippi
  • #44 – Maine
  • #45 – Nevada
  • #46 – Louisiana
  • #47 – Alaska
  • #48 – Rhode Island
  • #49 – West Virginia
  • #50 – Hawaii

CNBC has issued a raft of charts and maps providing details behind how their ratings were formulated, and the results for each of the major categories. You can view the data here.

Speaking for yourselves, in what ways would you challenge the rankings? What strikes you here as different from your own personal experience in doing business in various states? Please share your perspectives with other readers.

The Discover Card Discovers … Minnesota’s No Pushover

Discover cardAs someone who lived in the state of Minnesota for years, long ago I came to the understanding that many people there view themselves as the ethical if not intellectual “umbilical cord” for the nation.

And why not? Minnesota has long been the font of “good government” initiatives many other states have sought to emulate. It’s the state that routinely leads all others in voter turnout, not to mention being the springboard of reformist politicians such as Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.

So I wasn’t surprised to read last week that Minnesota’s Attorney General Office has filed a lawsuit against the Discover card for “deceptive marketing” practices. Discover is accused of making “aggressive, misleading and deceptive” telemarketing contacts in an attempt to lure customers into signing up for additional services that they didn’t realize carried a charge.

According to the complaint, customers were ostensibly being informed of Discover’s well-known “cash-back rewards” program, but then were told of the fee-based services as if those were regular features of the card’s benefits.

“Discover’s telemarketers employ an array of deceptive tactics to elicit an affirmative response from the cardholder without the cardholder actually understanding that they are supposedly aggreeing to purchase an optional product for a monthly fee,” the lawsuit contends.

According to the suit, Discover allegedly enrolled “tens of thousands of Minnesotans and charged them millions of dollars for enrollment in the plans” which include a “payment protection plan” that allows unemployed or disabled customers to suspend making credit card payments without penalty, an identity theft protection plan that costs ~$13 per month, and a credit-score tracking service that bills at ~$8 per month.

I love the way Lori Swanson, Minnesota’s attorney general, put it. “People expect their credit card company to stop and prevent these fraudulent charges – not be the ones making them.”

Or course, it’s not surprising that credit card companies are attempting to sell customers on fee-based services; the lawsuit claims that Discover earned over $295 million on these optional products during 2009 alone.

But the fact is, consumers are paying for additional services they don’t really need, as much if not all of their risk exposure is covered by other laws on the books. Of course, Discover conveniently left out that bit of information in their sales pitch to consumers.

“The biggest credit card companies make huge amounts of money by getting their customers to sign up for add-ons that are useless,” says Edmund Mierzwinski, a consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The Minnesota lawsuit seeks to order Discover not only to cease its aggressive marketing of these services, but also to reimburse customers who signed up for services they no longer want.

Based on how earlier cases of a similar nature against Experian and Providian have turned out … my guess is that Minnesota is going to be successful.

A Social Media Success Story from the Far North

Lily and Hope, the famous black bear mom-and-daughter duoNow that social media has gone from being a novelty to becoming standard fare in marketing and communications programs, we’re seeing evidence as to where these tactics shine their best.

One aspect that’s become clearer over time is that the most effective uses of social media must have an underlying “hook”; it’s not sufficient simply to engage in social media as just “business as usual.”

An interesting example of this phenomenon at work is Bear Head Lake State Park in extreme Northern Minnesota. It’s located near Ely, a town that’s miles from nowhere but somewhat famous as the embarkation point for exploring Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

This is the most famous park you’ve never heard of. How so? Because it beat out every other national and state park in the country in winning a popularity vote on the Internet.

In a just-completed “America’s Favorite Park” contest co-sponsored by the National Park Foundation and Coca-Cola, Bear Head easily outpolled every other park in the United States by garnering nearly 1.7 million votes out of 5.7 million cast, far outdistancing the runner-up (Great Smokey Mountain National Park).

How does a park ranked just 11th in the state of Minnesota and visited by only ~100,000 people annually accomplish such a feat?

The answer lies in taking a fortuitous event and figuring out how to give it velocity through the social media world. In this case, the “hook” was a webcam that had been set up in the park by the Ely-based North American Bear Center to record the birth of a bear cub named Hope.

Hope and her mother Lily were given their own Facebook page and had attracted more than 112,000 fans, while another ~90,000 people followed the bears on the North American Bear Center’s own web site.

So when the Coca-Cola contest came along, the web site administrators went into action, asking the bears’ friends and supporters to vote for the local park as home to the research bears. They emphasized that people could vote as often as they wanted, which resulted in some friends placing dozens or even hundreds of votes for the park.

The objective wasn’t just to gain fame as America’s “favorite park.” The contest also included a $100,000 prize for the winning park. That was the big incentive in the case of Bear Head Lake, which as a small state park has an annual working budget of only ~$226,000.

Reportedly, the prize winnings will go toward building a three-season trail center, a project that has been on the drawing boards for years but never begun due to lack of state funding. “At a time when many parks are facing difficult financial and budget decisions and reducing services … this is quite an opportunity for us,” noted Jan Westlund, the park’s manager.

Lynn Rogers, a researcher at the North American Bear Center, summed up the success of the initiative this way: “None of this would have happened without our 200,000 fans.”

This one example of social media success tells us an awful lot about how to harness the power and “viral velocity” of social media as a tactic.

The key is to consider each event or opportunity that comes along and then envision what could happen if social media tactics are applied. By contrast, starting out with social media is approaching it backwards … and more than likely, mediocre results will be the result.