Identity Crisis

Milwaukee has struggled to reach beyond its beer-and-brats identity in a way that stirs both visitors and residents. Are we finally close to getting it right?

Rich Meeusen was doing something Rust Belt ordinary – driving his car – when he had the idea that he believes will reform Milwaukee’s image for the 21st century.

Meeusen, CEO of water meter manufacturer Badger Meter, had just finished a United Way meeting with Paul Jones, CEO of the A.O. Smith company. After the meeting, Jones, whose company makes water heaters, gave Meeusen a tour of the Smith research labs. Meeusen was struck by how similar the labs were to his own. Driving back to his office – a short four-mile trip – Meeusen began to consider the possibility of a collaboration. 

“It was an ‘aha!’ moment,” Meeusen says.

A decade later, recounting his epiphany still excites the native Milwaukeean. In that moment, he saw a bigger picture. Meeusen had recently been involved with civic leaders in discussions about what might be Milwaukee’s next big thing. It was a question being asked in many Midwestern cities. Could Milwaukee become the printing capital of the United States? A biotech center?

“I started ticking off all the water tech companies in the area,” Meeusen says, “and wondering if there might be a way to get them together and do some joint research and joint work with the universities.”

That train of thought eventually spawned The Water Council, a nonprofit that unites the area’s water businesses and universities. Since its establishment in 2007, the council has gone a long way toward positioning Milwaukee as a world leader in freshwater research and education. The Water Council’s CEO, Dan Amhaus, says there are currently 170 companies in the Milwaukee area “coming up with new and innovative approaches to water use and water quantity and quality.” The national media has taken notice. A Forbes headline called Milwaukee “The Capital of Water.”

Amhaus earlier helmed the now-shuttered Spirit of Milwaukee, a promotional organization created by Midwest Airlines to celebrate and market the city to national and international audiences. The Water Council is a direct offshoot of Spirit, selling the region in a singular, focused way by homing in on one specific storyline – Milwaukee’s the place for water technology entrepreneurs – and building out an infrastructure to foster investment and encourage collaboration among water companies and researchers. It’s a one-stop shop where message and industry meet.

Meanwhile, another story of Milwaukee’s changing identity – smaller but perhaps as impressive in its way – also begins in a car, this time the trunk.

That’s where Melissa Thornton Kuykendall, a Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design grad, stored the T-shirts she sold to people in bars and coffee shops who wanted what she was wearing.

“People would literally get up in a restaurant,” Kuykendall says, “and say, ‘Excuse me, but where did you get that shirt?'”

Kuykendall’s shirt said “Milwaukee Home,” the two words stacked vertically in all capital letters: MIL-WAU-KEE-HOME. Sales of the shirts were so encouraging that in 2012 she moved into retail space in the city’s Third Ward.

The concept was inspired by the “energy and vibe” Kuykendall encountered when she moved back to her hometown from Florida in 2010. “I told myself I would never move back,” Kuykendall says. “But when I came back, I was shocked. The city was really cool; it had a lot to offer. The restaurants, the music, the young entrepreneurs saying, ‘I could do it in L.A. but I can also do it here.'”

Indeed, the stats back up the feeling that there’s something happening right here in Milwaukee. Businesses have been moving Downtown, attracted by a young demographic. According to Bret Mayborne, economic research director at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, 56 percent of the Downtown population over age 25 has a bachelor’s degree or higher (compared with 32 percent metrowide) and 55 percent of its population falls in the millennial 18-to-35 age group. This has likely influenced a number of companies – including Bader Rutter, Plunkett Raysich Architects, REV Group and Dohmen Co. – that have moved Downtown. And it may be one reason the city ranks 11th in the nation and second in the Midwest in the influx of millennials in the last decade among the 50 largest metro areas, according to a study released last November by the real estate tracking firm Apartment List. The city’s population in that age range grew by 8.8 percent, second in the Midwest only to Omaha. Notably, Chicago’s dropped 3.5 percent in that category.

In addition, according to MMAC, a recent U.S. Census Bureau report indicated that young adult in-movers (age 18-34) to metro Milwaukee accounted for 54 percent of all Milwaukee area in-movers (people moving from one metro area to another) between 2010 and 2012. The percentage is higher than the national average and in the upper third among large U.S. metro areas.

But ask someone who has never visited the Cream City, and the association remains: Beer, brats, “Laverne & Shirley.”

“I think it is difficult to brand and quantify the quality-of-life that Milwaukee affords,” says entrepreneur Betsy Rowbottom, who left her hometown to work in a variety of cities including Chicago, L.A. and Seattle before moving back in 2007.

“I think there’s a boomerang movement happening, but nobody’s talking about it,” she says. “I know a lot of people I went to high school with who have lived in Brooklyn or San Francisco, and they’re coming back. There are so many things about Milwaukee that make it a livable city, but it suffers from a brand crisis.” She says the hardest part is getting this city, often too humble for its own good, on the radar of talented and innovative folks.

“Once we get them here,” she says, “they’re sold.”

But how to get that message out and land the coveted “creative class” and business leaders in our city? How does a region whose national image can feel set in concrete as a last-century manufacturing hub reinvent itself? Look at Pittsburgh, once universally known as “Steel City.” Starting in the early 1980s, Pittsburgh began a reinvention led by the health care and higher education sectors that eventually reversed a longstanding population decline and brought about other quality-of-life changes, with a revived dining scene, a walkable riverfront, high-end arts and culture and relatively low cost of living. The city’s blue-collar roots have been replaced by a white-collar present, such that a 2008 book, The Paris of Appalachia, now seems prescient instead of comical.

Cities have moved away from taglines or slogans in favor of a more holistic approach to branding that involves word-of-mouth, placement in national media outlets and of course an aggressive social-media presence to remake themselves.

“Unfortunately, there is the common misconception that branding is simply a communications strategy, a tagline, visual identity or logo,” wrote the authors of a report by CEOs for Cities, a nonprofit alliance of U.S. mayors, corporate executives, university presidents and nonprofit leaders. “It is much, much more. It is a strategic process for developing a long-term vision for a place that is relevant and compelling to key audiences. Ultimately, it influences and shapes positive perceptions of a place.”

Rebecca Ryan, a Madison-based consultant who grew up in West Bend and authored the book, Live First, Work Second, points out that one of the country’s most successful branding efforts came from a budget of nothing.

Rich Meeusen. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

“‘Keep Austin Weird’ wasn’t invented by an ad agency,” she says about Texas’ capital city. Rather it grew by word of mouth – or bumper sticker to bumper sticker – from the Texas city residents who feared Austin was becoming too gentrified. The slogan stuck. “That’s the best kind of branding,” Ryan says.


Here in Milwaukee, Kuykendall has added inventory to the Milwaukee Home line – coffee mugs, sweat pants and tote bags – and the business has grown every year. She says she has had discussions with organizations chartered to promote the city about utilizing “Milwaukee Home” in some larger campaign. Those ideas never came to fruition, and Kuykendall thinks that’s for the best. “I feel like [the phrase] built by itself, organically, to become a symbol of the city.”

Should Milwaukee Home have been granted some official status? Or for that matter, should fresh water? Mayor Tom Barrett likes to call the city the “fresh coast.” The real question might be: How important is it for Milwaukee to have a symbol to represent it – a slogan or logo, or in the current lexicon, a brand? And what is a brand, anyway?

Julie Granger is senior vice president of MMAC, and she has served on numerous task forces looking to effectively brand Milwaukee more effectively.

“It’s a tough job,” Granger says. “You’re trying to serve a lot of masters.” A chamber of commerce might want to stress one thing, and a visitors group another.

The last semi-official logo for the city was unveiled in 2005 by Spirit of Milwaukee, the promotional organization that later morphed into The Water Council. The logo features the iconic addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Santiago Calatrava, and it was quickly adopted by Visit Milwaukee, the new name for the convention and visitors bureau.

“We used it and encouraged other people in the community to use it,” says Dana Jones, Visit Milwaukee’s vice president of finance and administration, who has been with the organization for two decades.

To this day, the Calatrava remains the city’s most recognizable building, and an example of world-class architecture. But it doesn’t constitute a brand. Similarly, what can a few words in a slogan do to create a cohesive, potent image of Milwaukee int he minds of visitors and those who have never been here?

Well, nobody said it was going to be easy. Historically, no place knows that better than Milwaukee.

The city’s first widely used slogan, dating to the early years of the 20th century, was “Milwaukee: A Bright Spot.” The first of many, it might fairly be said, that failed to resonate.

As years came and went, so did slogans purporting to capture the spirit of Milwaukee: “Making Milwaukee Mighty”; “Milwaukee: Talk It Up!” (championed by Mayor Henry Maier in the early 1970s); “Discover Milwaukee”; and “Milwaukee Builds Winners” (inspired by the Brewers’ 1982 run to the World Series, which, alas, they lost).

In 1984, a new branding effort – it wasn’t yet called that – brought a New York Times reporter to Milwaukee.

“It is clear,” the Times noted in the story, “that Milwaukee, long famous for its beer, bratwurst (brats, for short), heavy manufacturing and Friday-night fish fries, is working hard at becoming known for something else: for being a sophisticated, cosmopolitan town.”

The Greater Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau – the predecessor of Visit Milwaukee – sponsored the contest, which included a $2,500 prize for the best slogan. When the Times story was published, there were 750 entries; that number would eventually grow to more than 1,000. Among the more memorable entries: “Milwaukee: The ‘Kee’ to the Good Life.”

The winner was “A Great Place by a Great Lake,” submitted by Jack White, a graphic designer and founder of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

A decade later, in 1995, the convention and visitors bureau introduced a new logo and slogan – “Milwaukee: Genuine American” – that was greeted somewhat quizzically, with a country supervisor telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he thought it would be impossible to come up with something worse than “A Great Place by a Great Lake” – “but I think they’ve done it.”

No, it isn’t easy.

“Brands change based on events and activities and how a community perceives itself at that point in time,” Julia Taylor, of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, says. “It is a matter of being able to read that interior dialog that a community is having with itself. Then find a way to visually and with wordsmithing recreate what that interior dialog is.”

The dialog these days, at least among the movers and shakers in Milwaukee, involves water.

It’s not new, of course. Mayor Tom Barrett has been promoting the “fresh coast” phrase – as an alternative to the rust or frost belt – since at least 2007, when he told the Milwaukee Business Journal that he thought the phrase should be used to describe cities bordering the Great Lakes. He didn’t propose making it a formal campaign, perhaps aware of a similar venture of decades past.

In 1989, eight Great Lakes states and the Canadian province of Ontario came together to launch a $6 million marketing campaign celebrating the “Fresh Coast.” (The actual slogan was, “The Great Lakes, North America’s Fresh Coast.”)

It was aimed at tourists. Referencing the Great Lakes, Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste said, “We have a great commodity here. We have never really taken the opportunity to tout it. We have been bashful about it. We’re no longer bashful.”

The day after the “fresh coast” collaboration was announced at a press conference in Chicago, the Toronto Star’s story began with this:

“The Great Lakes, which contain some of the dirtiest water on the continent, are being billed as ‘The Fresh Coast’ in a new ad campaign to attract tourists.”

A few paragraphs later, there was this: “The Great Lakes contain more than 1,000 polluting chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects, with more than 250 of them considered highly toxic.” Seeing oneself objectively can be difficult.

Milwaukee’s emergence as a water hub began quietly enough, though that didn’t last long. Since The Water Council grew out of the Spirit of Milwaukee – an organization that Dean Amhaus also headed, with a mission of marketing the city not just to tourists but potential residents, business decision-makers and their families – it was inevitable that aggressive promotion would be part of the program. People need to know you’re a hub before they can think about getting in on the action.

To that end, Meeusen – the Badger Meter executive who had the water hub epiphany in his car a decade ago – and Paul Jones from A.O. Smith sponsored a symposium in July 2007 at Discovery World on the lakefront. They invited academics, entrepreneurs, economic development experts and small business owners.

One attendee – Ed Morrison of Purdue University, a leading expert on regional and civic collaboration – came away impressed, and remains so.

“A lot of people in the Midwest had been talking about water hubs,” Morrison says. “But nobody had been doing anything until Milwaukee stepped forward. And Milwaukee stepped forward in a big way.”

Melissa Thornton Kuykendall. Photo by Jessie Paetzke

Morrison has continued to follow its progress, and looking back today, nearly a decade after the water hub symposium, he says, “What you had in Milwaukee was a really good example of a collective civic leadership coming together, and what we call the civic economy – basically the economy of foundations, the government and universities – all supporting the private sector in a new direction. It really became a model for how regions have to compete in a global economy. Milwaukee is a textbook case.”

The results seem to support Morrison’s claim. The state helped fund a School of Freshwater Sciences at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee in 2011. In 2014, the federal government designated Milwaukee a “water technology cluster.” Last June, The Water Council opened the seven-story Global Water Center on (the renamed) Freshwater Way in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, with a mix of more than 40 public- and private-sector tenants.

Proponents have suggested a new brand for the city: Milwaukee as the “Silicon Valley of Water.” There has, of course, been pushback. There have been news stories quoting unconvinced academics calling it overhyped, even smoke-and-mirrors.

“One day I was in Pittsburgh, and they introduced me as the guy who turned Milwaukee into the Silicon Valley of water technology,” Meeusen says. “A very nice introduction. The next day, I came back and spoke to a group in Milwaukee. I was introduced as the guy who is trying to turn Milwaukee into the Silicon Valley of water technology.” Perhaps humility should be the city’s brand.

Ian Abston, a founder of NEWaukee, an organization that in 2009 began building a vast network of young professionals, thinks the city can and should do an even better job promoting itself to millennials. Abston notes that by age 30, people are 50 percent less likely to move cities, so hooking 20-somethings into life here becomes increasingly important. He’d like to see a social-media campaign stressing Milwaukee’s low cost of living and arts and dining scenes.

Abston is a full-throated fan of the city’s efforts to brand itself around fresh water.

“We’re going to need a couple of water-related start-ups to hit,” he says. “That’s going to get the investor community excited. We need to start building a culture around water – taking into consideration our river and our lakefront and really making those places where iconic cultural events happen.”

Yet even people who value what The Water Council has accomplished think the water hub brand may be too narrow or too nascent.

“I’m a here-and-now guy,” says Jim Paetsch, vice president of the Milwaukee 7, the economic development entity for the seven-county Southeastern Wisconsin region. “I’m not the guy who is thinking about what we want to look like in 10 years. My job is to secure deals today. We are judged by capital expenditure and the jobs that are created.”

For Paetsch, branding Milwaukee comes down to one word: manufacturing. He is unabashed about celebrating what some see as a fading industry. “It’s what we’re good at,” Paetsch says, citing over 7,000 jobs attracted or retained from 2010 to 2014 and $654 million in total expenditures.

He points to an excellent engineering work force. “We’re within a 90-minute drive of five engineering schools.” And the manufacturing floor. “Welders, machinists, you look at the numbers and we’re off the charts. We don’t brand on all the things we wish we were.”

When Paetsch makes pitches for the city around the world, he often cites the Calatrava art museum addition as a metaphor for Milwaukee, starting presentations with the message behind the structure.

“Calatrava picked Milwaukee for a reason. He knew his building had to work. He knew about the people in Milwaukee. He knew about the engineering talent and also the talent in the trades.”

When he picks up visiting corporate executives at the airport, he takes them over the Hoan Bridge, so they can see the Calatrava. “It speaks well of us that we can build a building like that.”

The grit of an industrial past defined by smokestacks and the grandeur of a present defined by the soaring wings of the Calatrava over our big lake: tough to fit into a single brand.

Rebecca Ryan, the Madison-based consultant and author who served on the board of Spirit of Milwaukee, says the real question to ask – more important than whether the city can settle on a single brand – might be this: “Is Milwaukee a place whose best days are ahead of it, or behind it?”

For all the city’s struggles – segregation, schools, the list is not short – Ryan sees a positive answer to that question.

“I think for awhile in the 1990s,” Ryan says, “Milwaukee – like many Rust Belt cities – felt like its best days were behind it. But I think Milwaukee is moving in the right direction.”

The thing about a brand is that it’s not a slogan, and it’s not a logo. Nike has its swoosh, and “Just Do It,” but each is meaningless without a recognition that behind it is sports equipment and apparel that represents tenacity and excellence. The logo, or the slogan, is a tickler, a reminder.

If Paris is romance and New York is excitement, maybe Milwaukee can be water (or the City of Festivals, another moniker touted by Visit Milwaukee).

In the end, a slogan or a logo won’t decide it. “A brand is only a brand if you’re famous for it,” Marsha Lindsay says. Which means that for Milwaukee and water – or anything else – only time will tell. ◆

Doug Moe is a regular contributor.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to fix the 1995 slogan, which was incorrect in earlier versions.

What Made Milwaukee Famous

It’s Miller Time

Schlitz may have been the beer that made Milwaukee famous, but Miller is king nowadays.

Byron Kilbourn (Railroads)

Our beloved city could’ve fallen off the map if it weren’t for this guy. A 19th century pioneer and railway man, he literally helped to build the city, with today’s Westtown formerly known as Kilbourntown.

Milwaukee Braves

Before departing for a warmer climate in 1966, the Braves established Milwaukee as a baseball town, partly thanks to Hank Aaron and the 398 home runs he hit while wearing a Milwaukee Braves jersey.

“Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “That ’70s Show”

These sitcoms helped to embed classic American stereotypes into our regional image, all while reminding the rest of the country of our ongoing appreciation for a cold brew.

Les Paul

As the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, Les Paul is one of the fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, and he just so happens to have hailed from Waukesha.


This Sheboygan Falls company made nearly $200 million in 2015 just from sausages, ranking it as the No. 1 seller in the US.


Now with more than 20 locations worldwide, improv troupe ComedySportz has been making Wisconsinites laugh since 1984. Its home court, 420 S. First St., hosts competitions every weekend in its iconic style.


The only major motorcycle manufacturer based in the U.S. was born, and still resides, in Milwaukee. More than just helping to put the city on the map, Harley-Davidson has made its birthplace city a motorcyclist’s Mecca.

– Sidebars by Adam Rogan

Subliminal Marketing

Five seasons in and “Nashville,” a fictional account of the real world of country in Music City, has become a household name in Tennessee and beyond. Despite the show’s fictitiousness, songs from it have charted on Billboard, and its actors have become country music icons.

A Tennessee tourism study found that almost a fifth of travelers who said they’d watched the show were at least somewhat inspired by it to visit the city. People so inspired also spent more money and stayed in the Tennessee city longer. Although no TV shows have adopted our city’s name for their own, Milwaukee has still reaped the benefits of similarly inadvertent advertisements. 

Blues Brothers

The ending car pile-up was filmed near the Hoan Bridge while it was still under construction.

Danny Gokey

The former “American Idol” finalist and eyewear aficionado is from Milwaukee. While his pop career didn’t pan out, Gokey has since enjoyed success as a Christian/gospel singer.

Dawn of the Dead

The 2004 reimagining of the George Romero zombie classic was based in Milwaukee but wasn’t filmed here.

Dungeons & Dragons

Generations of nerds have been inspired to embark on epic fantasy adventures thanks to D&D, created by David Arneson and Gary Gygax in Milwaukee 40-plus years ago.

“Happy Days”

One of the most popular and important sitcoms of all time started right here.

Love Actually

In this middle-to-low-brow film, lead character Colin takes a trip to the States and, uh, finds the end zone with some welcoming Milwaukee bar girls.

Major League

Although this sports comedy was set in Cleveland, baseball scenes were filmed at County Stadium (rest in peace) and featured legendary announcer Bob Uecker.

Mr. 3000

Bernie Mac stars as the titular character seeking his 3,000th hit in a Brewers uniform. The 2004 film showcased Miller Park, which had opened three years earlier.

“Mr. Sandman”

The first song from a Milwaukee-area group to ever top the Billboard charts was released in 1954 by female quartet, The Chordettes.

Public Enemies

When Johnny Depp played famed bank robber and gangster John Dillinger in this 2009 movie, the filmmakers shot scenes on location across Wisconsin.

Shank Hall

Originally a made-up venue for the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap, Shank Hall opened five years later and the rest is rock history.

Transformers 3

Wisconsinites may recognize the Milwaukee Art Museum as a filming location in Michael Bay’s blockbuster.


What Is Making Milwaukee Famous



More than just a hometown favorite, this (usually) non-alcoholic root beer is beloved beyond state lines. For what it’s worth, Sprecher is The New York Times’ Number 1-ranked root beer.


By bringing custard and burgers to non-Cheeseheads, Culver’s has become one of the country’s fastest growing burger chains.

The Onion

Although this satirical news outlet started in Madison in 1988 and is currently an online-only company headquartered in Chicago, The Onion was a staple of Milwaukee’s bar scene for decades.

Paul Ryan / Scott Walker

No, neither are businesses, but both Badger State Republicans are political powerhouses who have brought attention to the state at levels not seen since the days of Sen. Joe McCarthy or Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette.


Whenever friends and family come to visit, you know they’re going to want a taste of this Danish-Wisconsinite staple. Our favorites come from Peter Sciortino’s on Brady Street and a Kringle powerhouse, O&H Danish Bakery in Racine.

What Will Continue Making Milwaukee Famous

Milwaukee Art Museum / Calatrava

Unquestionably the most recognizable silhouette in the city’s skyline, Santiago Calatrava’s swan-like design for the 2001 expansion of the museum looks perched and ready to soar.

Northwestern Mutual

This life insurance company is pouring money into Milwaukee with two skyscrapers expected to be completed by the end of the decade. Combined, they’ll stand at 65 stories and more than 1,000 feet tall. Individually, the two towers should fall just short of the U.S. Bank Center.

Milwaukee Bucks

The team’s social media mantra of #OwnTheFuture may actually come true so long as confusingly named stars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Matthew Dellavedova, along with easier names like Jabari Parker, fulfill their potential to bring on-the-court success back to Milwaukee.

Cities That Tackled Branding and Won


Marijuana legislation is far from the only change the Mile High City (pun not intended) has undergone over the past decade. Since 2012, the median household income of Colorado’s capital city has grown at about twice the rate of the rest of the U.S., and only a small margin of that is from the 200-plus dispensaries in the metro area.

The city has used this economic surge to lay the groundwork for a great many community projects, such as expanding commercial centers and adding to Denver’s already extensive city park system. 

As a result, the Mile High City has maintained its strong position as the state’s tourism hub, and many natives living out of the state rep its iconic flag with T-shirts and stickers — good luck doing that with Wisconsin’s coat of arms.

On the downside, Denver is experiencing one of the worst gentrification crises in the U.S. as out-of-staters flood into the city faster than new housing can be built, driving up prices for what houses and apartments are available.

Photo by Brandon Barr/weloveatl

Milwaukee isn’t the first city to grapple with an identity crisis. Atlanta responded to its own in 2005 with an $8 million promotional campaign, on top of nearly $400 million in investments in public projects, including renovations to The High Museum of Art and a massive aquarium.

Since the mid-2000s, metro Atlanta’s population has grown by about 500,000 while crime has dropped by nearly 40 percent. As branding caught on, so did love for good ol’ ATL.

In 2012, Atlanta photographers launched an Instagram campaign, #weloveatl, that led to more than 50,000 submissions from amateurs and pros alike, with the best shots getting displayed at an art show for charity.

Even as some ATL campaigns took off, others have bombed.

As part of the 2005 effort, rapper Dallas Austin released the song “The ATL,” which has fewer than 9,000 views on YouTube. And let’s not mention the city’s newfangled slogan: “Every Day Is an Opening Day.”

Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” Feb. 16 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

‘Identity Crisis’ appears in the February issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning January 30, or buy a copy at

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Doug Moe is a Madison-based writer and former longtime columnist for Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times.