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.

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

Read the rest of this story in the February issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Find a copy on newsstands beginning Monday, Jan. 30, buy a copy online at, or read it now using Member Pass.



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