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Brand Lines: Tagging Along No More

By Drew Letendre

I’ve written several times in this space on the topic of ‘tag lines’: those short, pithy statements that often appear at the tail end of a corporate signature. I’m not sure what the etymology of the expression ‘tag line’ is, but I assume that it has to do with this idea of attaching to or attending upon, as in the phrase ‘tagging along’. If that is right, it seems like a rather menial description for what is really a high-profile piece of strategic communication.

For what else is a tag line than the distilled essence — in words — of a brand? At least, that is what it should be. Why else would it be allowed entrance into the hallowed real estate — the ‘clear space zone,’ as designers refer to it — adjacent to corporate names (signatures) or master brand logos? One would think that its proper function — far from merely ‘tagging along’ — is to serve as a leading thought, an ‘establishing statement,’ a strategic conviction around which myriad—real—business activities and goals are organized.

If THAT is right, then the lowly tag line — or rather, the not-so-lowly tag line — surely deserves a more respectable (and accurate) moniker. Though it is hardly an exalted title, I suggest that these propositions be referred to generally (as we refer to them at Branding Business) as ‘brand lines’. And, it is not only that I think that they should be referred to this way, but that they be (designed) this way: a brand line is your brand (‘distilled’) into a single line. It is akin to the Holy Grail of the Elevator Speech — the ability to say in a single sentence what you do, what your business is, ‘in essence.’ Given that, ‘brand lines’ become especially useful in relationship to a specific kind of corporate name, namely, the acronym: for example, the words behind the initials GE (General Electric) or IBM (Int’l Business Machines) no longer capture accurately the businesses these companies are in. They’ve moved beyond their categories of origin. Brand lines provide context and meaning where its become lost or obsolete.

One of the blurry things about tag lines — as I’ve been describing them — is how (or even if) they differ from ‘slogans’ or, to put a finer point on it, ‘campaign slogans’. To my mind, it’s that word, the modifier ‘campaign’ that is the peg on which the distinction hangs — if there is one. Slogans are attached to campaigns and campaigns do not equal or exhaust brands. They are merely tactical executions under the imprimatur of a brand. Still, this can get pretty murky. Is ‘High Performance Delivered’ accenture’s tag line or a campaign slogan? What of Nike’s ‘Just Do It,’ apple’s ‘Think Different’, or even BASF’s anodyne ‘The Chemical Company’?

Artifacts that begin as tag lines, neatly tucked under the chin of one’s corporate signature, sometimes roam free over time, wandering into advertising and other media, even if they never completely break free of real estate anchored by a corporate logo or master brand identity. The line — no pun intended — between tag lines and slogans has been blurred largely because advertising is a communication delivery channel for brands. I think a rule of thumb can be found perhaps in this and in a difference between B2B/B2C brands.

As a general rule of thumb, many (perhaps most) B2B companies don’t do big, expensive ‘splashy’ advertising (especially television or big print…IBM is one obvious exception to the rule, as is GE). Put another way: they are less likely than their B2C counterparts to do it. B2B businesses are more likely to ‘park’ their brand line neatly and tightly up underneath or next to their corporate signatures or logos. Why? Simply because it is the most visible and repeated brand communications element they have. The companies, whether B2B or B2C, that can afford big, multi-million dollar, multi-media promotion, can also afford to let their brand lines go on a long leash, without sacrificing the mental link they wish to forge in the public mind between their name and their brand essence. All this being the case, one of the nice things about ‘brand line’ as the ‘term of art’ is that it reduces or obviates the need for this distinction of dubious value.

To my mind, the greatest brand line ever fashioned is the work of a friend and colleague, Dave Hurlbert: FedEx’s ‘The World On Time’. It expresses a breathtaking business ambition — and customer benefit — of literally global scale: getting your parcel, anywhere on earth, exactly when you need it to be there. A Breathtaking value statement, made with breathtaking economy of language. At the end of the day, this is what the FedEx brand stands for: a guarantee — or, at any rate, a promise — of absolute global punctuality in critical delivery. This is the brand line par excellence and it has been adorning FedEx branded communications — planes, trucks, envelopes, boxes, ads, and apparel — for over a decade running. Its longevity, its strategic import, and its disciplined proximity to the FedEx mark, all qualify it for not only the brand line description, but the title of brand line par excellence.

While we’d like to think its in the same general ballpark as ‘The World, On Time,’ ABM’s brand line, ‘Building Value’ is a strong example of a statement crafted in the way I’ve been promoting. ABM — American Building Maintenance — while it is vastly expanding the range, reach, and sophistication of its product and service set, at its core, it’s a building and facility maintenance business. They ‘build’ (metaphorical verb) value by preserving and augmenting the (literal) value of their clients’ (literal noun) buildings. It is the financial and functional value of buildings that ABM protects and increases — which is a much ‘bigger,’ more strategic idea than maintaining buildings or perforce, janitorial services.

So, let’s stop saying that brand lines just tag along.