State marketing campaign gives Wisconsin business a brand of its own

It’s safe to say Wisconsin has a mixed record when it comes to slogans and brands.

Remember “Live like you mean it”? That slogan only lived about seven months in 2009 after it was introduced by the state’s tourism department. Critics said it sounded like something a motivational speaker might chant – and exactly like a slogan once used by a major distillery.

“Escape to Wisconsin” was enduringly popular, even if people sliced and diced the bumper stickers to cobble together their own slogans, off-color or otherwise.

In the mid-1980s, Gov. Anthony Earl asked state residents to submit their ideas for a new Wisconsin brand. The most popular suggestion – “Eat Cheese or Die” – never made it out of the starting blocks with state officials.

For better or worse, most state brands, slogans, and logos over time have been driven either by tourism or agriculture, such as the “America’s Dairyland” line that anchors the bottom of passenger vehicle license plates. Tourism and farming have been the tail that has wagged the branding dog.

That approach is changing with “In Wisconsin,” the marketing initiative launched in late September by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to highlight the advantages of starting, expanding, or locating a business in Wisconsin.

“In Wisconsin” is a business brand designed to work at different levels and across all sectors. It conveys a sense of successful companies at home and hints to non-Wisconsin companies why they should consider expanding or locating here. It also suggests a history of innovation and invention, which has long been the reality of Wisconsin businesses – although not always the perception.

“The reality of our business climate has changed. Now it’s time to work on the perception,” said Kelly Lietz, WEDC’s vice president for marketing.

You might be surprised to learn the primary targets of the campaign are people living, working, and running businesses in Wisconsin, not people across the Illinois or Minnesota state lines. It’s not a new declaration of “border war” but an attempt to build a sense of pride in Wisconsin businesses among those who are best prepared to serve as ambassadors – its own citizens.

An advertising schedule that begins this month in business-oriented media in Chicago, Wisconsin, and the Twin Cities will use print, online, and outdoor media to direct people to online video testimonials from prominent Wisconsin companies – Rockwell Automation, Schneider National, Organic Valley, Trek, and Virent Energy. Direct outreach to audiences such as corporate site selection planners is also planned.

“It’s not us telling the story. It is Wisconsin companies saying it,” Lietz noted. “It’s business people talking passionately about the advantages of being here.”

The testimonials underscore the diversity of Wisconsin’s business landscape, with companies such as Virent engaged in producing next-generation biofuels and biomaterials and Rockwell Automation focused on industrial automation and information. Trek is a global brand in bicycles, Organic Valley is a leading producer of organic dairy products, and Schneider National is one of the world’s largest logistics companies.

The campaign also underscores the importance and history of entrepreneurism in Wisconsin, where innovative small businesses create most jobs. That’s true in Wisconsin as well as nationally.

My own organization, the Wisconsin Technology Council, has used its “I-Q Corridor” brand to highlight the importance of tech-based entrepreneurism. The “I” suggests innovation, invention, intellectual property, and investment as well as the interstate strengths of the upper Midwest; the “Q” suggests quality of living, education, and workforce.

It remains to be seen if the $500,000 “In Wisconsin” campaign pays off over time – and such marketing initiatives always take time to work – but it’s already a departure from the state’s spotty branding history. The important business of telling the story of business in Wisconsin is no longer an afterthought. 

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