Meet Me in St. Louis, Not Milwaukee: How Not to Oversell Your Urban Tourism Campaign

(UPDATE 7/29/10: The IP address of the scathing “Dave” comment below seems to belong to a PR firm employed by none other than…Visit Milwaukee. Yes, really. Click through for more.)

Recently, two other fine Midwestern cities, St. Louis, MO, and Milwaukee, WI, launched tourism campaigns aimed at attracting Chicago visitors. Raging urbanist that I am, I love spending time in nearby metropoli, and have a particular fondness for our sister city to the north. It’s the Windy City’s smaller, quieter, less-flashy Lake Michigan alternative–and that’s why Milwaukee’s current tourism campaign has me wondering whether the city’s overselling itself in a potentially damaging way.

This summer, the Brew City’s ads are posted on Chicago ‘L’ trains and buses with powerful headlines claiming things like, “If I had a week, I’d spend it in Milwaukee.” Follow up those ads with a browse of the VisitMilwaukee website and you get more hubris-induced marketing messages claiming the city sits “At the Intersection of Water and Fun“–not to mention celebration, success, and value, too.

Considering that most Chicagoans have likely been to Milwaukee before–and, not for nothing, live in Chicago, already–you have to wonder why Milwaukee’s tourism board would think the ads would be effective here. I mean, I enjoy Bayview restaurants, the Art Museum, and the Domes as much as the next Windy Citizen. Send me to State Fair or Summerfest for a weekend and I’m all set.

But a week? Really? I have never met a Chicagoan willing to spend a week of valuable vacation time in Milwaukee and I probably never will. When we have that much time to get away, we tend to head for O’Hare and Midway airports to really get away–usually from the Midwest entirely, much less from just the Lake Michigan shoreline.

And call me a stuck-up Chicagoan, but those “At the Intersection of Water and…” tourism messages sure sound a lot like Chicago, to me. (Well, except maybe “value.”) Reading them on the VisitMilwaukee website, I couldn’t help thinking how generic and misplaced they were.

Urbanophile blogger Aaron Renn said it best last year in his criticism of small-city marketing, Our Product Is Better Than Our Brand:

“The Midwest suffers from a failure of ambition. I’m not talking about booster club society cheers about how great we are. I’m talking about ambition properly so-called. About understanding who you are, what your values are, where you stand, and where you want to be. The fundamental problem with modest ambitions, as I said, is that they have no power to inspire.”

VisitMilwaukee sure doesn’t sound like it knows who Milwaukee is, what its values are, or where it wants to be. You can’t tell potential visitors–especially potential visitors from a world city like Chicago–that your town’s worth a week of their time, and then support your grandiose claim with a series of generic marketing messages that could have just as easily been written about any other Great Lakes city. If there’s anything unique or special communicated about Milwaukee in these tourism ads, I don’t see it. And as a result, even as someone who likes the place, they don’t particularly make we want to visit it.

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I am dying to visit St. Louis, however. Unlike Milwaukee, I’ve never been there, but I’ve been curious about the city since moving to Chicago in 2003. I always say I want to visit, I just never seem to get around to it. Imagine my surprise to discover that hiding behind the KidnappedChicagoan ads festooning CTA transit vehicles (and at least at the moment, positively peppering the Adams/Wabash ‘L’ station) was a cleverly covert tourism campaign for St. Louis.

You don’t know that when you see the ads. They don’t tell you anything except that an average Chicagoan has been stolen away to an interesting place–that it’s not far away, he’s not angry at being kidnapped there, and you’d want to be him if only you could figure out where he’s been taken. Holy Interactive Interest Raiser, Batman!

Every time I saw these ads I thought, “Dammit, I keep meaning to go to that website!” When I finally did, I was greeted by a curiously familiar map with clickable push pins, and an invitation to click through to try and figure out my kidnapped compatriot’s current location. Mousing over each push-pin opened a photo and capsule summary about an interesting tourist destination–a museum, or historic site. Or an arch, for that matter.

I chuckled when I saw the message that sat below the map:

“Okay, so you’ve figured out which city—St. Louis. Der. But admit it. You were a little surprised by all the stuff there is to do in the Gateway City.”

You know what? I was. And without the help of an overblown, generically empty ad campaign, either. Unlike Milwaukee’s currently hard-to-believe tourism claims, the soft-shoed Explore St. Louis approach sends potential visitors on an Internet adventure to learn the city’s glories for themselves. Did I mention the Foursquare badges for checking in at locations he’s visited? (Earlier this week I sang the praises of Chicago’s own Foursquare-based tourism campaign.)

By mischievously whetting their whistle for adventure and then letting them learn about the city from their own task-oriented click-throughs, Explore St. Louis’s Kidnapped Chicagoan campaign gets potential visitors to arrive at the conclusion that the city is an interesting place on their own. (While I’m at it, feel free to check out the ongoing CityToRiver campaign to rebuild the urban fabric of the St. Louis waterfront.)

And in my book, letting the wonders of your city speak for themselves beats unstrategically overselling it any day.

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