“Go use a urinal and you’re using Milwaukee-made water technology.” This was Richard Meeusen’s opening assertion at the Feb. 13 MilMag Live! event, Branding MKE: Who the Hell Are We?
After a lively set by local blues musician Luke Cerny and a crowd-pleasing performance by Hamburger Mary’s own drag queen Cee-Cee LaRouge (channeling Adele just one night after her big Grammy sweep), moderators Mitch Teich of WUWM’s Lake Effect (co-sponsor of the event series) and Milwaukee Magazine’s own Editor-in-Chief Carole Nicksin welcomed to the stage six spirited panelists with Milwaukee’s branding on their minds.
Meeusen, CEO of Badger Meter, hasn’t been quiet about his desire to rebrand Milwaukee as “the Silicon Valley of water technology.” His extended urinal metaphor walked the audience through every step of a Wisconsin-water-facilitated bathroom visit, without which, he argued, we wouldn’t even be able to wash our hands.
Meeusen’s passionate and humorous assertion spoke to Milwaukee as a place of innovation but also warned the audience not to lose sight of the fact that “we still make things in this city” and that it is something to be proud of. Still, it became clear that to Meeusen, branding Milwaukee is mainly about attracting talent, creating jobs and boosting the local economy. His viewpoint drew some support from audience members, while others yelled, “It’s not about the money!”
Panelist Steve Kodis, co-designer of the People’s Flag of Milwaukee initiative, agreed that water is the lifeblood of Milwaukee. Other ideas were floated by panelists Corry Joe Biddle of Fuel MKE, photographer and social commentator Tom Bamberger (who seemed to offend almost everyone with his condemnation of UWM) and Ian Abston, who brought their own perspectives to questions that perplex Milwaukee natives and residents alike about our city’s identity and brand. There was no shortage of opinions among audience members, one of whom questioned why Milwaukeeans eschew the beer, cheese and brats reputation instead of embracing it. And it wouldn’t be a serious conversation about Milwaukee without an acknowledgment of segregation and diversity within the city. We’ll be revisiting this topic in-depth at our March 6 MilMag Live! event, focusing the conversation on race and segregation.
The Milwaukee flags—both of them—played a key role in the evening’s discussion. The two flags, a frequent source of friction in Milwaukee for almost a year now, clashed onstage as Laura Vanderbilt, graphic designer for the City of Milwaukee and City Clerk’s Office, unexpectedly unfurled an official Milwaukee flag, which she even donned for part of the discussion. (Perhaps it was the oft-cited busyness of the flag’s design that made it hard to tell she was holding it backwards at first.) Vanderbilt made a case for that flag’s continued popularity, while explaining the seemingly random imagery it features. Kodis made a case for the People’s Flag as an important piece of the Milwaukee branding puzzle, and he implored audience members to make it official by contacting their Alderpersons.
Attendees at the event included Rachaad Howard, owner of Rep Wisconsin Apparel and Gifts. Howard attended MilMag Live! to see how others were branding the city. He wore a “Milwaukee Raised Me” hoodie and a hat that read “Milwaukee Made” across the city’s skyline, which he had screen printed himself—right here in Milwaukee.
“I’d like to see more diversity when it comes to handmade goods,” especially at craft fairs, he said, echoing the sentiments of some of the panelists and audience members about Milwaukee’s wealth of diversity, and the all-too-common practice of not embracing it.
When an audience member and representative from VISIT Milwaukee asked the panelists to pinpoint Milwaukee in a feeling, some asserted it couldn’t be done (particularly local opinionated curmudgeon, Tom Bamberger: “I grew up in the ’50s, and branding was always a bad thing!” he said).
Others agreed, because the “feeling” of Milwaukee is different for everyone. Corry Joe Biddle of FUEL Milwaukee noted that the universal feeling of Milwaukee is this “sense of ownership” that is true to anyone who connects to the city. She pointed to Ian Abston’s Milwaukee Home T-shirt (which was in need of laundering, boasted Abston), and gave a shout-out to Howard’s “Milwaukee Raised Me” apparel, which is gaining popularity in the city.
Biddle noted she lives in “two Milwaukees.” While qualifying her comments by saying that she didn’t want to only focus on the negative things about Milwaukee, she explained that her perspective is unique, having grown up on Milwaukee’s North Side and now being in a position where she is invited to speak on panels like these. She said she uses her voice to “include the perspective of people not in the room,” people who wouldn’t be aware of the event or who would be uncomfortable attending. “These impassioned conversations are not easy to have,” she said. “But they are fulfilling. And they produce results.”
The word “impassioned” came up again and again: from panelists, from co-moderator Mitch Teich, and from the audience members. Could it be Milwaukee’s passion, represented in the strong opinions and the solid turnout at our second MilMag Live! event, defines who we are?