Authentically Wisconsin Signs

January 17, 2017 | by Joshua P. Ferguson

As advertisers and designers, we often encounter the word “authenticity.” It’s definitely a branding buzzword these days. It makes sense. Like never before, consumers demand straight talk and transparency when they’re making purchase decisions. I found myself thinking about this in the most unlikely of places over the holiday break: about 45 minutes outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin, on the way to Door County. Here, with little more than barns, grain silos and open fields stretching out endlessly in every direction, I gained a new-found appreciation for the unabashed authenticity of Wisconsin signs.

If you’ve never been to Wisconsin, it’s not a state that puts on airs. Therein lies its charm. Pretty much the whole state has a home-cooked goodness to it, and its tourism industry has been capturing this goodness perfectly for decades. It’s most notable in vacation hotspots like the Wisconsin Dells and Door County, and along the highways that connect these destinations to the State’s major cities. Here, Wisconsin’s timeless design style comes to life through its old-school billboards and business signs.

Paul Bunyan Wisconsin Signs

Ok, so admittedly in a lot of instances, the reason Wisconsin signs come off as so authentic is because they’re old. Many look like they were put up around 1952 when Tommy Bartlett’s Thrill Show rolled into town and have maybe been given a paint job once between then and now.

door county supper club wisconsin signs

But how cool is that? The Dells and Door County have been booming for more than half a century and the powers that be in both locales have chosen to maintain their quaint feel with zero rush to modernize. As an undergraduate at the UW Madison, I commuted to visit my parents in Minneapolis at least three times a year starting in 1998. Driving through the Dells this past December, along that same route I took for the first time 19 years earlier, I barely registered any updates.

Tommy Bartlett Wisconsin signs

Sure, some of the bigger water parks have upgraded to LED signage, but spots like Mount Olympus, Noah’s Ark and, of course, the Tommy Bartlett Show & Exploratory feel gloriously stuck in time. No doubt, their fans prefer it this way. I know I do. If I want to go to Six Flags Great America, I can. But if I want to go to the Waterpark Capital of the U.S., I want the Dells in all its retro glory. Same goes for the rustic charm of Door County.

door county wisconsin signs

For the marketing mind, there are couple of great take-aways here. Designers and branding experts know, if it doesn’t need to be updated, don’t touch it. The unnecessary change can lead to seriously unnecessary backlash. Just ask the Gap—or as of this past weekend, The Chargers. The Dells and Door County have a reputation—and they also have minimal competition—so they keep it rustic because that’s what keeps people coming back.


Wisconsin as a brand isn’t flashy. It doesn’t take a big city agency to let the businesses that make up the tourist industry in Packer Country know that their vintage charm is on brand—which is very cool. This is branding and marketing 101. Sometimes we take for granted the simplicity of it, the authenticity of it. It just feels genuine, and today that’s a hot commodity.

Wisconsin signs

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