Thursday, December 8, 2011

Weighting in on the Great Mitten Debate

Image from Travel Wisconsin
Earlier this week Travel Wisconsin used an image of a mitten shaped like the state of Wisconsin on their website to promote winter tourism in the state. This created an uproar with people from across the lake, in Michigan, complaining that Wisconsin stole the concept of being a mitten. This is an interesting case and since I was born and raised in Wisconsin, lived in Michigan while working on my PhD and currently work in marketing, I have a different take on the whole debate.

I completely understand where the concept came from. When explaining the geography of Wisconsin, it is easy to hold up your left hand, fingers together and thumb close, and point to parts of the state.  It is a simple visual prop, and when dealing with people who aren’t even really sure where Wisconsin is, it works well. I didn’t even realize it could be controversial until the first time I used the gesture with my husband, who spent a number of years in Michigan growing up. I am not the only person who uses the hand explanation for the state.

Michigan is also a mitten, but only if you forget about the Upper Peninsula, which they seem to do when it is convenient. When you add the UP, Michigan does not look like a mitten, and the two mitten thing is a real stretch. The thing Michigan needs to remember is that you really need two mittens to even have a chance of having fun in the winter. 

Looking at this from a marketing and communications perspective, there are two things that this campaign really highlights. First is that you really need to get out of your head and your perspective. If you are from Wisconsin and have lived there your entire life, the mitten image totally makes sense, but to someone else it may not. Second, it shows the importance of doing research and testing things before implementing them in a campaign. It is likely that the mitten controversy would have showed up in the results if they had done a little research. This would have saved them some public relations and crisis communication money on the back end.

It will be interesting to see if this additional publicity will help or hurt winter tourism. I prefer winter travel to locations where outdoor activities don’t require mittens at all.