More than Just a Job

Sarah Klavas is moving full speed ahead on the state's new brand

Two weeks into her first position in Wisconsin’s tourism department, Sarah Klavas knew it wasn’t just a job, but a lifestyle choice. “It’s like a higher calling,” she says. “The tourism industry is so appreciative of the work we do at the state level that it makes us passionate about driving business to them.”

Klavas started with the tourism department fourteen years ago, directing the Wisconsin Welcome Centers, then became marketing director, and last September tourism secretary Kelli Trumble named her brand manager. “It’s a real privilege to serve Wisconsin’s taxpayers,” Klavas says. “It’s all about making good decisions with the dollars the Legislature allocates. I make decisions as if I were a business owner they’d impact.”

She’s currently leading the rollout of the Originality Rules brand strategy, which pays tribute to the people of Wisconsin as proud, passionate, loyal, imaginative and fun-loving. In preparation, Klavas earlier acted as project manager of a committee of public- and private-sector marketing experts charged with defining the strategy.

“We did extensive research in neighboring states’ tourism industries, and talked to tourism associations and other Wisconsin state agencies,” she explains. “We learned as much as we could in order to make recommendations.”

The group determined that in order for the brand to work, it needed to be a unified effort among all state government agencies. All need to speak the same language and send consistent messages, and that’s where Klavas comes in, guiding branding efforts at Tourism and advising other state agencies and partners on applying the brand in their specific areas to help grow Wisconsin’s overall economy.

“The wonderful thing about our brand strategy is that it’s a competitive business strategy,” she says. “It’s designed so everyone from the tourism industry to the university to big business can leverage it.”

Nearby states do similar things well, she notes, which lends a sense of urgency. “If we don’t define Wisconsin’s image, other states will do it for us,” Klavas warns. “Much of our competition has parity products—Minnesota has put its stake in the ground marketing lakes and fishing; Michigan markets its water and natural resources—if our marketing is just about outdoor recreation, we’re at parity with them.”

To create a unique competitive advantage, our state’s fall and winter ad campaigns featured “Wisconsin Originals,” people who embody the state’s spirit enjoying seasonal pursuits. Olympic gold medalist Bonnie Blair extolled winter as an inspiration for family fun. Ferne Caulker, founder of Milwaukee’s Ko-Thi Dance Company, celebrated the season as a haven for the arts. “We’re looking to make equally strong pieces for summer,” Klavas says.

Right now, the campaign is in a “very aggressive alignment—or information sharing—phase.” She and her team are talking with the tourism industry and other groups, and she’s scheduled to share the latest information at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism, scheduled for March 15–17 in La Crosse. “To have the campaign really work well, other agencies’ and entities’ efforts need to springboard from what we’re doing in Tourism.”

A key campaign effort is development of a logo and slogan. “It’s just one part of a brand, but it’s something people see and connect with, so it’s important to get it right,” Klavas says. “It’s one of our top priorities and it’ll come out when we hit that sweet spot and know it’s right.”

Her job, or calling, is all about collaboration, she emphasizes. “We’re all working together to grow Wisconsin, especially with today’s tight budgets. Our job is to look for efficiencies, working across agencies, so we can do our best job in marketing our state.”

Judy Dahl is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.

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