Despite being one of the most confusing and maligned cities in the UK, Milton Keynes is managing to outpace London in terms of economic growth, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR).
With good transport links, a booming property market, and massive employers like Argos and Red Bull based there, on paper this makes sense. But, let’s be honest, on face value, this is surprising -nay, miraculous. Milton Keynes?
Cambridge’s growth makes sense. A city generally agreed to be lovely, full of clever students, nice architecture and all the rest, seems like the sort of place that should be booming. Images of punting, poets and push-bikes. Idyllic. But why do we feel that Milton Keynes is the one that’s so out of place here? Well, frankly, ‘MK’ has a brand problem.
‘Place branding’ has become something of a fashion in the last 10 years – the attempt the change the economic fortunes of a country or city by making it a unique and desirable place to live or visit. Its success has been mixed, with apparently 86 per cent of place branding projects failing within one year. Then again, look at New York. People love that brand so much they’ve even bought the T-shirt.
So will MK ever be NY? Well, put simply, no. Because it’s just nowhere near as good. And that’s why so many place branding projects fail – you can slap a fancy logo on anything, but unless it’s authentic to the actual product or experience no-one is going to buy it.
A quick visit to destinationmiltonkeynes.co.uk gives you an immediate sense of what’s so horribly wrong with their brand. Just look at the hero image they’ve used to sell it to you. I mean, I love a roundabout as much as the next woman, but seriously MK. Take a hard look at yourself.
What the site, and any other comms I’ve seen, fail to do is find any compelling insight or reason to encourage people to consider the city as a place to work or live.
If we look at the London model of gentrification and development, the first step on the path often seems to be when creative minds realise there’s somewhere cheap and interesting for them to live and work.
This was Notting Hill in the '80s and '90s, Hackney in the '00s and now Peckham in the 2010s. The rest – coffee shops, house price rises, Waitrose on the high street – follows suit.
Even Margate, the once run-down seaside town is now following the same trajectory. It might be criticised (yes, yes, damn the hipsters) but it is a model that works.
Come on Milton Keynes, you can do this. Remember the Skoda ads in the 90s? Embrace your concrete cows, your straight roads that are perfect for cycling – and be sure to drop in mention of those massive cheap houses.
There’s modern architecture there and it’s not all bad – in fact, the MK Gallery would give half the pop-ups in Shoreditch a run for their money. Milton Keynes could embrace all this and do something really subversive and exciting.
Great branding projects take strong insight, beautiful design execution and a solid dose of bravery. Look beyond the obvious to see what you have that no-one else can offer, understand why people should want you and, most importantly, how you can make them feel.
And try as hard as you can not to show them a photo of a roundabout. Just imagine what Milton Keynes could achieve if it were as loved emotionally as it is on paper.
I’d be the first to buy my ‘I heart MK T-shirt’, that’s for sure.