By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – It’s no secret that Wisconsin is a secret when it comes to most things other than cheese, farms and the Green Bay Packers.

That branding dilemma was confirmed for me two years ago when my organization worked on a “Wisconsin Perception Survey” that asked about 2,000 people what they thought of the state and its job opportunities.

The answer was basically the same for respondents inside and outside the state: Job diversity means choosing between careers in curds, Colby or Cheddar.

While the reality of job options in Wisconsin is far different than what so many people think, decades of perception are hard to change. Fortunately, a timely chance to color Wisconsin’s monochromatic branding slate has arrived.

The combination of a looming worker deficit and the impending arrival of high-tech manufacturers such as Foxconn Technology Group has created a moment in which Wisconsin must finally get serious about attracting more people and selling itself as a well-rounded place to live, work and play.

That was the idea behind Gov. Scott Walker’s announcement of a $6.8 million marketing and advertising campaign aimed at Midwest millennials, returning military veterans and alumni of the state’s public and private colleges. Walker did so Nov. 29 at the “Future Wisconsin Summit,” produced by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, where the Wisconsin Perception Survey was unveiled two years ago.

Pending legislative approval, the campaign would promote the state’s industry mix, recreation, education, arts, health care and:

  • Reach out to Millennials in Chicago and nearby on the theory they’re reaching an age in which starting a family and leading a more balanced life is better than living in a tiny apartment and fighting rush-hour traffic. For example, multi-media ads would pose illustrated choices such as “An hour in traffic … or an hour with friends?”, “One hour commute … or one-hour bike ride?” and “Shoebox on the third floor … or loft in the Third Ward?”
  • Entice military veterans who are returning from deployments and transitioning into civilian life. Whether they’re from Wisconsin or elsewhere, those veterans often seek the same things: Housing, jobs, benefits and a place to raise a family. Wisconsin offers a state property tax credit for veterans who own homes; jobs that align with technical training received in the military; and some of the most comprehensive veteran benefits in the United States. Rockwell Automation and Manpower are already gearing up to train more veterans for specific tech jobs, as I noted in a recent column.
  • Welcome back alums. Wisconsin graduates about 75,000 students per year from its public and private colleges and universities, but loses many to other states. Some don’t know about job openings and choices … others just want to return home. There are many others, however, who left for jobs from coast to coast and who could be tempted to return for the right opportunity.

One of the best elements of the plan is that it’s targeted to specific groups that can be reasonably reached. Lawmakers who might question the price tag should consider how costly it is to reach people in a world where mediums are diffused and audiences are fragmented.

A point yet to be addressed is how to overcome a belief, which surfaced in the 2015 perception survey, that Wisconsin isn’t very tolerant. Part of persuading people to relocate is assuring them they won’t become strangers in a new land.

Skeptics will note Wisconsin has flirted with marketing efforts in the past, only to get it wrong or to fail to spend what it takes. Perhaps history will repeat itself – or maybe this time the state will recognize it must cut a big block of cheese if it hopes to attract and retain tomorrow’s workers.