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Milwaukee Tourism Blows It Again in Chicago

Update 6/29/12: Welcome readers from Thanks for considering the issue–what would you choose as a Milwaukee tourism slogan for the Chicago market? Please leave a comment here or there, and thanks for stopping by…

In summer 2010, I compared two urban tourism ad campaigns that were plastered on Chicago Transit Authority buses and ‘L’ car ad panels: one for Milwaukee; another for St. Louis. Back then, I faulted Milwaukee for selling itself with generic claims of greatness, and applauded St. Louis’ quirky, interesting, only-in-St. Louis approach. This year, Milwaukee’s CTA ads are back–and continue to show little understanding of their target market: Chicagoans.

A little looking back will help give context to this year’s tourism misfire. In 2010, Milwaukee’s CTA tourism ads asked Chicagoans to spend a week in Wisconsin’s largest city, enticing them with language about “fun”, “water”, and urban festivals that sounded a lot like Chicago–or any city really. Back then I asked who in Chicago would be moved by such claims when all of those things can be found right here–in an actual world city? I thought it was a reasonable question, though I got flamed for asking it by an undercover employee of the P.R. firm that created the campaign.

In contrast, St. Louis’ “Kidnapped Chicagoan” campaign asked Chicagoans to follow clues–in the form of specific, one-of-a-kind tourist attractions–to figure out where our pretend-kidnapped friend had been taken. Following the clues led to an interactive website about specific and emphatically local–and thus, interesting–things to do and see in St. Louis.

My point in 2010 was this: to get Chicagoans–or anyone–to leave the town they live in and visit another–you’ve got to 1.) know what you’re selling, and 2.) know your market. That summer, Milwaukee tourism authorities didn’t demonstrate knowledge of either one, while St. Louis tourism authorities proved they knew their own town and they knew Chicago, too. The Missouri city didn’t tell Chicagoans it could beat them at their own game–it invited Chicagoans to come play their game for a little while, instead.

This summer, Milwaukee tourism ads are back on the sides of Chicago buses. The first one, which I saw in early June, said:

“Brat. Beer. If you had another hand, we’d go on.”

Oy. We do beer and brats just fine–and often–on back decks, in backyards, and at neighborhood festivals up and down Chicago all summer long. Why would be bother traveling 95 miles north to do what we already do right here at home? Shades of 2010, anyone? How about telling us about Summerfest, or the the Public Market, or Brady Street, or the Domes, or the Calatrava wing, or quirky Bayview, or the zoo? Or…anything specific, really?

But the real kicker was this bus ad seen last week:

“Milwaukee. Think of us as Chicago’s Upper, Upper North Side.”

This ad is as dunce-cap as it gets, and clearly was written by someone more familiar with New York City than Chicago. Because New York City has an Upper East Side and an Upper West Side. But-Hello? McFly?–Chicago doesn’t have an “Upper” anything. What the Windy City does have is a Far North Side, a Far South Side, a Far Northwest Side, etc. If Milwaukee’s current tourism P.R. firm had done its homework, the above ad would read, “Think of us as Chicago’s Far, Far North Side”–which would have made absolutely perfect sense in the target-market minds of Chicagoans. Instead, this second ad just reminds Chicagoans of the last time they visited New York. And that doesn’t sound very effective for a Milwaukee tourism ad to me.

Genug with the generic ads already. Before 2013 rolls around, Milwaukee’s tourism powers-that-be might want to take some time to learn how to communicate what their city truly offers–which is quite a lot. Ask any Chicagoan who has ever visited Milwaukee. We tend to love the place and we tend to come back. But not because of unfortunate tourism ads like these.

Milwaukee tourism mavens should also, finally, learn a thing or two about Chicago. Here’s an idea: before writing 2013’s ads, why not do exactly what your misfired ads keep asking us to do? Come visit. We’re only 95 miles down the lakefront.

Just head towards Mars Cheese Castle, then keep driving until everyone honks at you to speed up.

Categories: Branding & Marketing Milwaukee

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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9 replies

  1. I have to disagree on the “Kidnapped Chicagoan” ads. I think they are stupid. This post told me what the ads are about. Until now I did not know what they were about, I don’t carry a smart phone around, and if I did, I am not going to look up somebody’s web site on an ad that gives absolutely no indication what it is selling.

    Maybe I am becoming a grumpy old man, but over time I have less patience for hints and mystery.. If you are selling something, you tell me what it is. Don’t make me figure it out or do your job for you. And if you don’t believe enough in your product to tell me what it is, then maybe you should try a more direct approach or find another line of work.

    1. I agree, you’re grumpy. I am, too. That’s why I liked the second part of the St. Louis campaign–at least when you get to the meat of the brat, there’s actually meat there. On the other hand, nothing will probably ever get me to pull my phone out of my pocket to scan a QR code. Just hand me a mall map, please. (Yes, Oakbrook Center, I’m talking to you.)

  2. You hit the nail on the head here. I saw the “Beer.Brat.” ad last week and thought “so?” So what? That doesn’t get me to go to Milwaukee. It’s like having a tourism ad for Grand Rapids, MI with the tag line “It’s a city on Lake Michigan!” Yeah, so is Chicago. The beer-brat one is especially bad because it could be an ad for literally any city in the US or Canada (or Germany for that matter). It speaks NOTHING of Milwaukee and is so generic it redefines the word “meh.”

    1. You know, I wonder if Milwaukee’s tourism authority ever does marketing research (read: focus groups) in target markets and especially in Chicago. The current bus ads could have been easily shot down if they had. I also wonder whether they ever survey Chicagoans about how they visit Milwaukee–how do they get there?, where do they stay?, what do they do there?, what do they visit?, what do they eat there?, there, and most importantly, why do they go in the first place? I can only speak for myself, but nearly my entire list of answers to those questions has never been represented in a Milwaukee CTA tourism ad.

  3. Agreed – the whole beer/brats/water business just accents what Chicago already has.

    If I wanted to promote Milwaukee or Madison, I’d promote other aspects.

    Like: the beaches and parks aren’t as crowded there. The pace is calmer and mellower. It’s a getaway, not a More Of The Same.

    I’d accentuate the quirkiness of Wisconsin and the growing foodie community and indie community in Milwaukee.

    1. I will say, there are print ads running in Chicago publications that show off specific Milwaukee attractions, and Summerfest gets (does?) its own transit-ad campaign. I don’t know why this approach for the general tourism campaign doesn’t ever translate to the sides of buses, though.

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