Go MK? I’d rather go to L.

Can cities become brands? It’s a question a colleague placed in my mind recently when she told me about the efforts of Milton Keynes to promote itself as a “thriving, cosmopolitan city”.

For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure, Milton Keynes is a British ‘new town’ created after the aerial bombardment of World War II. Uncharacteristically for the UK, its anonymous streets run in a grid pattern reminiscent of cities in the USA and the place is about as pedestrian-unfriendly as you can imagine. If you conducted a public poll on perceptions of the place, I guess that people would think of it as pretty boring and sterile. Which must be the thinking behind its recent reincarnation as “MK”. While Milton Keynes sounds 1940s and rather austere, MK is go-getting and oh-so-twenty-first-century. A logo and a website have been produced (see http://www.gomk.net/), along with an excruciating exhortation to local residents to champion the city’s further progress. The slogan “Go MK” is so trite and embarrassing that it’s only possible to imagine endorsement from earnest local government officials and primary school children. Or perhaps it’s a description of what happens to residents if they spend too long in the place? “He’d only been here five years and went completely MK.”

No doubt, some important folk feel that the abandonment of Milton Keynes is some highly original piece of rebranding, but I have to say I’m not entirely convinced. Has the local population really bought into the whole MK phenomenon? Because if it hasn’t, it’s very difficult for a few advertisements and web pages to make much of an impact in the outside world. It’s just the same when businesses rebrand. Unless the employees of the company understand and endorse the changes taking place, it’s difficult for customer perceptions to shift.

And as for originality, Milton Keynes isn’t the only town on the rebranding trail. Nottingham, according to news reports in early 2005, has junked Robin Hood as its symbol in favour of the letter ‘N’. A slanted ‘N’, to be precise, that cost £120,000. And this is where I think the marketers really are losing the plot. The brand ‘equity’ – to use a hideous piece of marketing jargon – of Robin Hood is rather stronger and longer-lasting than anything that’s likely to replace it. In fact, it’s been tried and tested for several hundred years. The notorious outlaw is not only well known in the UK, but he’s been robbing rich Americans of their tourist dollars for a while too. If the old boy’s bow and arrow ain’t broke, why fix it? The next step, of course, would be to change the name of the place entirely. Constantinople did, after all, become Istanbul. But I think that was after the fall of the Byzantine empire. The relegation of the local football club, Nottingham Forest, to what was once League Division Three isn’t quite on the same scale perhaps.

If cities need brand identities – and I suppose in this crazy, mixed-up, competitive world, they probably do – I think a lesson can be learned from the American states. Whilst some, such as Kansas, favour obscure Latin mottos (Ad astra per aspera), others like Indiana (The Crossroads of America) have gone for the compelling and self-explanatory. In common with any good advertising tagline, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

I’m off to work on a new campaign to promote London. It’s called Go to L.

© Phil Woodford, 2005. All rights reserved.

Phil Woodford is an advertising creative director and lecturer. www.philwoodford.com