Branding Milwaukee

by rthieme on March 1, 2007

The Milwaukee 7 and their supporters and allies are struggling to give birth to a new vision for Milwaukee and South-east Wisconsin.

They are getting it almost right … but “almost” doesn’t win a cigar.

They are trying too hard to turn what isn’t into what is and what is into what isn’t.

The Milwaukee 7 looks here, there and everywhere to see what works. Members take trips to Ireland and China, look at neighboring second-tier cities – but miss what’s already here. Ireland sells a green world that no longer exists. China sells the Great Wall. Behind the scenes, they do what they need to do, but that’s not what they sell.

The Milwaukee 7 was created in 2005 to market southeastern Wisconsin as a strong region for business investment. Because members are business-oriented, they look at the economic drivers of a regional economy. They’re focusing, that is, on the horse we have in the race.

But racing fans know that the jockey is just as important. Marketing is not about the economic backbone. It’s about what people think they’re buying.

The jockey is the social and cultural fabric of Milwaukee as it exists in the minds of others. That’s the rider that wields the whip.

James B. Twitchell, a professor at the University of Florida, wrote a brilliant book called “Branded Nation.” He illuminates how the management of perception is creating communities of all kinds, how universities, museums, and mega-churches are creating lifestyle enclaves relating to every aspect of life. The process is driven by globalization. As every place becomes more and more like every other, the creation of “mental spaces” that people believe they inhabit are more important. People move to university towns or to the gated community of the mind inside a church to buy a complete lifestyle.

That’s what Milwaukee ought to market.

By emphasizing underlying economic conditions, the M-7 is doing what we might expect a conservative culture to do – focus on the infrastructure.

But a brand is a perception, a belief, an image. It lives in the mind. A brand doesn’t just happen – it must be created and sustained. The infrastructure must exist, but the brand does not sell the infrastructure. It presumes it. The infrastructure is only noticed like a pot hole or broken main when something goes wrong.

Globalization has created homogenous landscapes all over the world. The same stores, restaurants and streetscapes are everywhere. Localities reflect the single economy of which they are all a part. They are differentiated not by what is different but by what is perceived to be different.

Milwaukee doesn’t have a brand – Milwaukee is a brand. If we look only at how we might resemble other cities, we’re missing the point. To be one more city with financial services, restaurants, and coffee shops does not let us compete. All cities have that.

When we moved here from Hawaii twenty years ago, we told friends where we were going.

“Milwaukee!” cried a biker. “Harley!”

“Milwaukee!” cried a porky pal. “Cheese and sauerbraten!”

“Milwaukee!” cried a drinking buddy. “Beer!”

Forget the facts. It’s not important that California makes more cheese, nor that most breweries are gone. The point is that there is already an image in people’s minds and that’s what they buy, not the stony granite faces of a corporate boardroom. Those faces look great on Mount Rushmore but not on a marketing brochure.

We should be selling our brand under the banner of gemultlekeit, fellowship in beer halls, robust eating, bikers riding loud into the sunset, summer festivals and winter dreams. We should be selling the party of life. Tech-savvy people, the ones we say we want, love those things. They don’t move to a place for its banks, insurance companies, or financial services. They want to live and play in the fantasy world in their heads.

It’s easier to ride a horse in the direction it’s going. When Vegas stopped pretending to be a family destination and returned to its roots (“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”), it took off like a rocket.

People think they know what’s here. Let’s stop trying to change their minds and project that image on steroids. Yes, build the infrastructure behind the scenes, but sell the lifestyle people think they want.

If Minneapolis can sell a winter festival, we can sell dreams of the fifties and a good time with friends and family.  But we can’t be ashamed of how we’re perceived. We have to be ourselves, celebrate ourselves, and invite others to the party.

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