Would You Move to Wisconsin to Save Ten Minutes?


Next City pointed me at a new ad campaign the state of Wisconsin is running aimed at luring Chicago Millennials to move north.

The focus of the campaign is on Wisconsin’s lower cost of living and shorter commute times vs. Chicago. The state says:

"The messaging conveys the central idea that Wisconsin is “more you.” You can be more here, mean more, create more impact, and have more, making Wisconsin a better fit for you. To drive this point home, specific ads contrast life in Wisconsin with that in Chicago, highlighting the state’s shorter commute time, lower cost of living, lower taxes and numerous recreational, social and cultural opportunities."

I find this interesting because, other than potentially outdoor recreation, the campaign does not really attempt to convince you that Wisconsin is better than Chicago in any respect, merely that the costs of living there are lower. In terms of product, the campaign imagery portrays Wisconsin in two ways: as a place for outdoor recreation, and as a facsimile of urban Chicago.

Here are some clips from their pre-roll ads. First, an urban rooftop bar in what appears to be Madison:

Here’s a stylishly dressed couple heading to a swank restaurant.

The image at the top of the post shows outdoor recreation. Here’s another example.

One thing about a campaign like this is that attempting to lure residents to a state, as opposed to a specific locale, is an intrinsically difficult task. Wisconsin has multiple urban centers and diverse rural type areas as well. State agencies have to be fair to all areas of the state. But it’s impossible to represent all areas equally well in a campaign of this type. So they have a hard job.

I’d also give them kudos for the outdoor focus. Wisconsin is already known to Chicagoans as a place for outdoor recreation, weekend homes, etc. Chicago has the lake, but otherwise much of northern Illinois is flat. So it’s natural to highlight the easy availability of outdoor activities in selling the state. It’s interesting to see that the campaign appears to steer clear of hunting and fishing, two great Wisconsin pastimes.

Unfortunately, they are attempting to compete against Chicago where Chicago is actually pretty strong. The Windy City is more expensive than Wisconsin, but probably has America’s best “Quality-Price Ratio” of when it comes to truly big city urban environments. The reality is that someone with a professional income can live pretty well in Chicago. Also, you aren’t going to live in one of nicer urban precincts of a city like Milwaukee for the ridiculously cheap rent you might imagine, particularly if you want to live in one of the high quality apartments or homes showcased in the video.

As I always remind people, choosing a place to live is more like buying a house than buying laundry detergent. For Tide, all you care about is the price tag on the bottle. But I’m guessing very few of us live in the cheapest home we could find. It’s more likely the opposite, that we live in the most expensive one we can afford, in the best neighborhood, with the best schools, the nicest amenities, etc. Price is a factor, but not the only one. Also, if cheap is what you are looking for, America, and even the Midwest, is replete with low cost communities.

Another of their focus areas is commute time. They claim that, ““Chicagoans have the longest commute times in the country.” I thought this was curious, but perhaps it came from this survey. By contrast, they note that Wisconsin’s average commute time is 22 minutes. It’s not fair to compare a city against a state in commute time. But even so, per that survey that says Chicago has the worst commute, the average commute time there is only 32 minutes. Are people really going to move to another state to save ten minutes?

Some people in Chicago undoubtedly have long commutes. But some do in Wisconsin as well. I never had an L commute of anywhere near an hour, not even when I lived in Evanston. So I don’t think the hour commute they talk about in at least one of their ads will even resonate with most Chicagoans. Also, their shots of the L make the principal negative feature boredom. But otherwise it actually looks quite pleasant, with no crowding at all – maybe even better than reality.

The best Wisconsin appeal based on a cost-quality-commute type of evaluation is probably suburb to suburb. The nicer suburbs of places like Indianapolis and Columbus compare very favorably with most Chicago suburbs. I would assume the same is true for Madison and Milwaukee. Of course, in Chicagoland the suburbs are actually seeing declines in college-degreed Millennials, so the pond to be fished there may be limited. Then again, maybe Wisconsin’s best appeal isn’t to Millennials, but to Generation Xers in the 35-55 bracket.

When I think of Wisconsin I think of cheese, beer, Packer nation, pristine lakes and forests of the northern part of the state, the Dells, and Madison’s (deserved) reputation as one of the best (if not they best) examples of a lefty college town. Some of the Wisconsin images, such as beer and brats, also apply to Chicago, making them hard to use as a marketing hook. But many of the traditional ideas about the state are missing from this campaign. Chicagoans, who know those images well, will probably be wondering what’s up. Maybe cheese curds aren’t cool. But then again, either was Pabst Blue Ribbon until some marketing folks made it so.

Marketing to Chicago, and potentially next to Minneapolis and Detroit, makes sense at one level. People tend to move shorter rather than longer distances. People moving to Wisconsin are also likely to have some historic connection to the state, and Chicago is a good place to look for them.

But it’s also an example of the Midwest’s beggar thy neighbor style of economic development. The fight is against the city next door, with the rest of America (to say nothing of the world), not part of the picture. Is there a better market for Wisconsin to try to attract from?

Based on its target geographies and appeals based on cost, this campaign doesn’t appear to becoming from a place of perceived strength.

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian, Forbes.com, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.