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Brand Taglines Part II: What’s Closest to Your (Corporate) Heart?

Drew Letendre

This post is part of a series on brandline development. Read the prior post in this series, Brandlines Part I: What Does “For Life” Really Elicit?.

We all know what brand taglines are. Or, at least, we have no problem pointing to familiar examples (apple’s Think different; Accenture’s Performance Delivered; or Nike’s Just do it). But it’s a far trickier matter to come up with a precise or comprehensive definition, let alone to create a typology. To such ends, I recently reviewed 24 brandlines (including the four featured in Brandlines Part 1). The set represented companies in B2B, B2C, and B2B2C; companies of global and national scale; and companies that cover a wide span of business categories including financial services, high tech, consumer electronics, apparel, and petroleum to name a few. But, no clear, simplified picture emerged.

For instance, looking for a definition rooted in a purpose or communications objective common to all such statements, I found no less than eight different brand tagline communications functions represented:

1) Exhortation to act (e.g., Just do it—NIKE)*
2) Invitation to partnership (e.g., Let’s Build a Smarter Planet—IBM)*
3) Description of a business (e.g., The Chemical Company—BASF)
4) Proclamation of a commitment (e.g., Engineered for Life—ITT)
5) Identification of a motivating passion (e.g., We Love Logistics—UPS)
6) Boast of a superior ability, capability, or quality (e.g., Quietly Brilliant—HCT)
7) Promise a benefit/Set an expectation (e.g., Expect More. Pay Less—Target)

I found four brandlines that use — albeit differently — the exact same phrase (“for life”) and two that use the word “human”; five that use (or abuse) punctuation; eight that identify business category; nine that directly address the customer/prospect/reader; and again at least four apparently undeterred from using language virtually identical to that in use by other famous brands (even if the latter were clear non-competitors)**.
So, on the supposition that the data from this admittedly small survey can be validly generalized, what can we conclude — and recommend — about those familiar, but kind of mysterious creations we call brandlines?

(1) Don’t plagiarize (duh!)
Do not openly replicate existing brandlines or elements thereof. Recycling familiar materials is an easy, effective, but flawed way to win immediate, enthusiastic acceptance for a brandline. But the price of this quick embrace is a dangerous ‘me-too-ism’ that can undermine perceptions of authenticity and distinction (and even trigger trademark litigation). The examples of ITT, Volvo, Safeway, and Panasonic should not embolden us to replicate their duplications.

(2) Say anything, so long as you really mean it (and it really matters to your customers)
It very well could be that there simply is no one, universally acknowledged function that brandlines serve in all times and places. That, of course, may actually be a good thing — we’re not hemmed in by any acknowledged professional standard, precedent, or requirement.

(3) Lock it up
It would seem that the only clear, sure standard that distinguishes a tagline from any other kind of promotional statement is purely formal and literally spatial. It doesn’t depend on the words themselves, their form or some dedicated, pre-assigned function. For a statement to count as a brandline, it must be located closely adjacent to a company’s corporate logotype/name. That is, it must reside in the clear space zone — an area of occupancy which is forbidden to any other message or visual item. In a word, tagline status is a matter of location.

(4) Keep it short
Verbal length must not exceed four words and should aim, ideally, at two to three words — discounting connective grammatical elements, such as prepositions or articles. The majority of the brandlines I reviewed were two or three words long. Four words was rare and the very upper limit. This would suggest a de facto threshold and a widely, if quietly observed best practice.

Conclusions 1, 3, and 4 are together certainly helpful, even if only in a very technical sort of way. But, conclusion 2, despite being liberating, may yet make us feel a bit adrift and wanting for a more decisive definition or direction. All kidding aside, perhaps we can give the void (left by #2) some form (with #3) with this thought: If a corporate name or logotype is the heart of a company’s identity, then a brandline may simply and frankly be defined as: the sentiment that is — or should be — literally and figuratively, closest to its heart.

*These are not mutually exclusive. Note, for example, that a tag that falls under #1 could also fall under #2, and vice versa.

** I make an issue of fame here in reference to the legal issue of dilution, which stipulates that, even where no risk of consumer confusion exists, identity with or even similarity to a mark (e.g., name, symbol, marketing slogan) deemed to be famous constitutes an infringement of the primary holder’s trademark rights.

If you are looking for help when it comes to brandline development, look to BrandingBusiness.