Milwaukee City Slogans: Talk 'em Up!

Nov. 3, 2015
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Great Place! Great Lake! Great Slogan?

Can a slogan really change the way you feel about your city? Or alter your image of a potential travel destination? It’s arguable that people have come to (heart) NY more over the past few decades. And it’s probable that much of what has happened in Vegas has stayed there in recent years. But what about the Cream City? Over the past century-plus, Milwaukee has had a number of official and quasi-official city slogans. Did these mottos make Milwaukee mightier? Did they drive citizens to talk up the town? Or to build winners? Were visitors more apt to think, “Gee, what a great place. And so close to a Great Lake…”?

The answer seems to be no. But even if Milwaukee’s various city slogans have had a negligible impact, the roots of these sayings reveal how the city has seen itself – and how they wished outsiders to view it. The first city slogan to gain mass acceptance was “Milwaukee: A Bright Spot.” Simple and upbeat, the slogan first appeared in the early 1900s and can be found on various promotional materials – primarily buttons and badges – and was also adapted as the name of two different semi-pro Milwaukee basketball teams. The phrase was occasionally paired with other “sub-slogans,” including one of my favorites, “Milwaukee: Where the Welcome Sign Works Overtime!

A pin promoting Milwaukee as a “Bright Spot.”

“Bright Spot” was used on-and-off at least through the 1930s. But other slogans appeared during these years as well. In 1918, the Milwaukee Journal suggested the city adapt “Milwaukee: A City for Children” as its motto, citing the fact that no other city made such a claim and predicting the future of Milwaukee as a kind of cultural and educational utopia in which children would prosper. In 1920, the Milwaukee Association of Commerce asked city business leaders to use the phrase “Making Milwaukee Mighty” on their letterhead and correspondence. The group recognized the potential of modern advertising techniques to affect the city’s image. Unlike “Bright Spot” and “City for Children,” the “Mighty” slogan was a nod to Milwaukee’s industrial prowess, a tag meant to appeal not to families but to men with money to invest.

Despite the Association of Commerce’s best efforts, “Making Milwaukee Mighty” never took root. The Great Depression and the Second World War dulled the want of city slogans. People were traveling less and civic pride took a back seat to nationalism and patriotism. It was not until the 1960s that agitation was next seen for a city slogan. In 1961, the common council passed a resolution declaring that the city needed a slogan. This was the first time a governmental body had weighed in on the matter. The council’s reasoning for need of a slogan was that the city’s image had become too one-dimensional. To too many outsiders, the common council lamented, Milwaukee was the city of beer and bowling and little else.

Business leaders were urged to use “Making Milwaukee Mighty” as a theme in their advertising. This example appeared in a 1921 magazine produced by 
the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce.


Despite the common council’s urgings, nothing much was done about the slogan matter until 1973, when Mayor Henry Maier launched the “Milwaukee: Talk it Up!” campaign. Unlike previous slogans, “Talk it Up” had an official endorsement by the city. Maier personally asked local businesses and media outlets to use the phrase, and it appeared on numerous city publications and was featured in print and TV ads. The roots of the slogan were also unlike any those of previous slogans. Maier said that the slogan was meant to be “an antitoxin against negativism and apathy,” a balm for a city that was not feeling very good about itself. Job losses, urban decay, deindustrialization, major problems with race and poverty… it was no secret that the city was dealing with a badly bruised ego.

This VERY 1970s graphic appeared on the cover of 1976 city-published report.

“Talk it Up” remained in use for most of the next decade but had faded in prominence by 1982 when the Milwaukee Brewers reignited a sense of civic pride by coming within one game of winning the World Series. Riding the coattails of Brewers-fever, the Milwaukee Advertising Club launched a “Milwaukee Builds Winners!” campaign, eager to harness the energy created by a winning ball club. But when the Brewers struggled in 1983, the slogan stalled and the Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau announced a contest to create a new official city slogan. Entries ranged from the cheeky (“The ‘Kee’ to the Good Life”), to the pompous (“Milwaukee: It’s Difficult Being a Legend in Your Own Time”), to the semi-philosophical (“Live your Next Life in Milwaukee”). The winning entry was “A Great Place by a Great Lake,” submitted by MIAD founder Jack White.

The “Milwaukee Builds Winners” campaign rode the coattails of the 1982 AL Champion Brewers. When the ’83 club finished in fifth place, the slogan was quickly forgotten.

Unlike the feel-good vibes sought by “Talk it Up” and “Builds Winners,” the new slogan was overtly aimed at tourists. “There is not on thing wrong with being the beer, brats, and bowling capital of the United States,” the marketing director of the Greater Milwaukee Committee said of the slogan and its intended impact on out-of-towners, “but there is so much more.”

Despite the best intentions of its backers and an intensive ad campaign to promote the new slogan, it never really took hold. Five years after being introduced, a survey by the Milwaukee Sentinel found that only 23% of city residents could identify the slogan and less than one percent of Chicago residents – a group heavily targeted by the campaign – knew what it was. The “Great Place” motto lingered until 1995, when the visitors’ bureau brought in an advertising firm to “rebrand” the city’s tourism efforts. Their goal was “to move beyond a beer and brats kind of thing.”

The “Great Place” slogan found its way on to the Milwaukee Bucks 
warm-up jerseys in the late 1980s.

The new slogan, “Milwaukee: Genuine American,” was met with a lukewarm response. The slogan and accompanying logo were rolled out with a national TV ad that featured Mayor John Norquist reading an “open letter” to characters from  Happy Days, making it very clear how badly the city wanted to change its image. Much like the “Great Lake” tag it replaced, however, it lingered more than it prospered and within a decade had mostly faded from use.

“Milwaukee: Genuine American” was supposed to signal a break with the beer/brats/Happy Days image of the city that has proven difficult to shake.

In 2005, a slogan-less logo, a stylized image of the art museum’s brise soleil was unveiled by Spirit of Milwaukee, a local non-profit organization. It promoted the logo as a new brand for the city, a move beyond the industrial past to show Milwaukee as an urbane and chic place. “It’s a cosmopolitan city,” one member said, “It’s not Laverne and Shirley.” The Convention and Visitors’ Bureau – now called Visit Milwaukee – initially stood by “Genuine American” but eventually dropped the slogan and adapted the Spirit of Milwaukee logo as its official emblem.

The present-day tourism logo for the now-sloganless city.

According to Kristin Settle of Visit Milwaukee, there is no drive today to introduce a new slogan. Settle said that her organization is more focused on “branding the city outside of the city.” The failings of slogans past, she says, have been taken to heart in present-day efforts at promoting Milwaukee. But even in this slogan-less city, there is something to be seen in the mottos of the past. They represented both what people loved about this place and what they hoped to change, but also the deepest insecurities people held about their hometown. And perhaps the root of their failures lies somewhere within the latter. After all, you could certainly do a lot worse than beers, brats, and bowling. 

Matthew J. Prigge’s newest book, Milwaukee Mayhem, is available now. Follow all the cruel things he says about the Fox Sports World Series broadcast team on Twitter @mjpmke


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