Taglines and How They Work: Catching Lightning in a Bottle

By Alan Brew
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Good taglines are elusive creatures. Great ones are rare.

How is it that one sequence of four or five words can live in the memory forever while another lands with a leaden thump and is quickly forgotten?

First, let’s define our terms – what exactly is a tagline? As with many things in branding, there is no universally accepted definition of tagline as a term. One person’s tagline can be another person’s business descriptor or value proposition. So, for the purposes of consistency, here is a guide through the thicket of terminological inexactitude to help distinguish between the different types, and when, where and how to best employ them.

Broadly, there are three types of taglines:

  • Corporate Brandlines (Brand Essence)
  • Campaign Slogans
  • Competency Statements

There are several characteristics good ones all have in common:

  • They are pithy, intriguing, memorable and focused on a single idea
  • They have a clear communication objective – reinforcing a strategic positioning, express a particular product attribute or service benefit, or own a business domain
  • They are addressed to a defined audience which has specific and understood needs
  • They have a pre-determined “shelf life” – some are designed to last longer than others
  • Their role and application in specific communications media is clear and understood

From here, there are distinct differences.

Corporate Brandline (Brand Essence)

Examples:

Elsevier: Empowering Knowledge
ZS: Impact Where It Matters
Vituity: At the Heart of Better Care

In the interests of full disclosure, these brandlines were developed by BrandingBusiness. The key objective of each is to capture the one “big idea” that communicates the higher purpose of the organization in a compelling, memorable way. At BrandingBusiness they are often referred to as a “Brand Essence” in that they are a distillation of a brand positioning and developed as part of an overall brand strategy program.

For example, Empowering Knowledge was developed for Elsevier, the global publisher of scientific literature, as part of a brand repositioning strategy to help change perceptions of the organization from that of a publisher to a provider of digital information and data. Elsevier is knowledge company. Empowering Knowledge serves a double purpose – to establish Elsevier as the “empowerer” or provider of scientific knowledge enhanced by technology, and to communicate the value and empowering nature of the knowledge they provide to scientists for their work. In the world of Elsevier, the meaning and relevance of Empowering Knowledge immediately resonated.

 

Brand Essence Example

Being strategic in nature, brandlines have an indefinite shelf life. They last for as long as they accurately underwrite the business direction and long-term strategy of the organization. For example, GE’s celebrated “We Bring Good Things to Life” lasted 23 years and was changed to “Imagination At Work” when the company exited the consumer goods business to refocus on industrial market segments and technology.

Campaign Slogans

Examples

Nike: Just Do It
Apple: Think Different
Coke: Taste the Feeling

The essence of a campaign slogan is to “sell the sizzle, not the steak” and appeal to emotions, whether they be security, social acceptance, self-esteem, or inclusion.

Campaign slogans generally live in the consumer world, although not exclusively, and serve as a thematic headline supported and sustained by a major advertising campaign. Such campaigns are expensive and designed to revive a brand or keep it fresh and relevant in the consumer’s mind. While not quite disposable, they are created as brief attention-getting phrases connecting contemporary trends and sensibilities. Inevitably, they are changed frequently. Coke’s latest slogan “Taste the Feeling,” launched in 2016, is the 47th in the company’s 134-year history. On the other hand, Nike’s “Just Do It” has lasted more than 30 years and has become one of the most popular campaign slogans in the history of advertising. Its staying power is attributed to the fact that Nike virtually pioneered the category of sports apparel as fashion and leisure wear. “Just Do It” became synonymous with the brand as a timeless invocation to participate.

In the B2B world, IBM and Cisco are exemplars of the campaign slogan strategy as a strategic device to align key audience perceptions with the evolving direction of the business.

Campaign Slogan Example

Cisco’s “Welcome to The Human Network” focused on highlighting how the network is transforming the way we live using collaborative technologies. IBM’s “Welcome to The Cognitive Era” promotes security, cloud connectivity, intelligence, and the next big step in day-to-day business operations.

Competency Statement

Examples:
LexisNexis: Solutions for professionals who shape the world
The New York Times: All the news that’s fit to print
MailChimp: Send Better Email

Competency statements are modest in ambition, but serve a valuable purpose. Properly conceived, they add an explanatory dimension to a company name or orient it in a business domain. Amazon launched itself on the world with the tagline “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” – just to make it clear what Amazon was at the time and how to think of it. As the company diversified beyond books, the tagline was jettisoned. Competency Statements are frequently employed by newly-merged companies to indicate the new scope of the combined organization. For example, on the merger with Dow, DuPont adopted the tagline “Transforming industries and improving everyday life” to indicate a larger purpose beyond chemicals.

Such statements stay in place until it is determined that the new entity has sufficient equity and recognition as a business to stand on its own.

Amazon's Original Homepage

Creating a great tagline

Sorry to disappoint but there is no handy formula to pass along. There is an art and craft to it. It takes an ear for the consonance and rhythm of words and how they work in the mind. It takes the wisdom to know a tomato is a fruit and the common sense not to put it in a fruit salad.

Taglines – or brandlines, slogans or whatever – are based on a compelling truth and function as a promise of something uniquely relevant delivered through an experience or consumption of a product. But don’t expect a tagline to do all the work. They are the tip of a very large iceberg and need a lot of investment and brand support.

Think about it – what would “Just Do It” mean to you without the Nike brand narrative giving it life and meaning? So, don’t expect too much from a few words struggling for attention in a storm of communications noise. They need support.