Growing at Your Own Pace
Despite having a near 600k population and the impressive amenities of a large city – a vibrant food scene, famous breweries, a world-class art museum, professional sports teams, multiple universities - Milwaukee has the distinct feeling of a small-town community.
The locals have a few names for this: “Smallwaukee", “the Midwest's best kept secret" and "Chicago's cooler younger sister." Terms, while negative to some, represent a strong dedication to a locally-driven community:
We attended a public benefit concert for Mexico and Puerto Rico and it seemed like one big reunion – people hugging, catching up, watching after each other's kids. And heard from Kim, who's lived in the Washington Park neighborhood for about 10 years, lovingly describe the strength of her neighborhood association. Their e-mail chain (which includes local police officers) was even able to stop a pair of criminals who'd been going around the city.
Over and over, we heard words like "comfortable" "manageable" and "navigable" used to describe the city, and saw a commitment to maintaining Milwaukee’s small-big city vibe. This feeling perhaps came through most strongly in the value in local and personal business:
We heard about the "unspoken rule" of supporting mom and pop shops over chains in communities like Bay View and from a consultant that told us that he strictly does business face-to-face: “I don’t need to advertise. I’ve built my business through referrals. Every customer refers 3 more. I could’ve grown more if I’d advertised, but it’s just how ambitious you are. I’ve been rich. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make you happy. Not really.”
Coming from NY, where every startup and business is looking to strike gold, it was surprising to hear that not only do personal relationships with customers trump growth, but there are unspoken rules and behaviors in the community that reinforce these structures, and maintain the feeling of Smallwaukee.
Perhaps this is why Milwaukee's population has stayed relatively steady while places like Austin, Denver and Nashville have grown at breakneck speeds; Milwaukee is able to maintain this delicate balance of growth and stagnancy because it's just under-the-radar enough. And residents want to keep it that way.
Brands should be aware of this tension when approaching cities with a similar big-small feel. Especially retail chains. Know that if you're a big-name chain, you're going to have to extra hard to overcome distrust and become ingrained in the community.