We are a small Midwestern town that is predominantly working and middle class. Our city will prosper when we embrace Wausau’s heritage and essence instead of trying to erase it.
Hardly a week goes by when we do not hear about local government subsidizing another luxury residential development and how it is going to attract millennials.
Taxpayer dollars are increasingly spent on projects that have more sizzle than steak, and which lack a clear market need they are addressing. Giving our tax dollars to wealthy out-of-town developers – or even just out-of-town developers that pretend to be wealthy – has become a habit, instead of making our local businesses and residents the focus.
The attitude at City Hall seems to be that if we build more condos with granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances, while steadily demolishing our working and middle class neighborhoods that surround the downtown, this will result in a healthy economy. It will not.
As evidenced by a declining local population and lower median household income over the years, this strategy has proven ineffective. But from what we know of Wausau’s history, this is not a surprise.
So do we have a local case study on a strategy that has proven to be more effective? Yes.
Employers Mutuals of Wausau once thought that being based out of the small town of Wausau would be a liability if it wanted to compete with industry players located in much larger cities. It was wrong. And once the advertising firm JWT gave Wausau Insurance a good tutorial on branding, that is when big things started to happen. You see, when authentic strengths are identified and communicated, that is when a brand does well. It was when Wausau Insurance finally highlighted its “perceived weakness” – that it was based in the small Midwestern town of – spell it – W.A.U.S.A.U – that its success skyrocketed. It had really differentiated itself, generated awareness, and modified perceptions and attitudes in an authentic way that inspired fondness.
What did not work well then before JWT’s recommended changes will likely not work well today. That is because aspirational branding is risky and often fails because trying to be something that you are not is, well, trying to be something that you are not.
Our strengths are clear, even though they may not always be sexy: our people, our work ethic, our diversity, our natural resources, our entrepreneurs, and the list goes on. Wausau residents realize how special our town was and is, but some at City Hall appear to have developed a near discomfort or resentment of their own people and some of our less fancy strengths and neighborhoods.
Being authentic is successful. An economy built on authenticity is profitable. And preserving and supporting our community not only makes strategic and financial sense, it is the right thing to do. That does not mean that we cannot continue to improve and progress as a city, but erasing the mark of everyday citizens from its past and present is neither improvement nor progress.
There are not enough granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances out there to make Wausau into something that it is not. In the end, being true to ourselves is Wausau’s greatest insurance policy.