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What’s in a Tagline?

How do you pack in a brand’s storyline, its mission, vision, culture, background and unique selling proposition into a handful of characters? Welcome to the world of tagline development, the art and science of communicating a rich storyline in a handful of words.

Brands go through lengthy exercises to develop a tagline that will properly communicate what the brand is all about. It is much shorter than an elevator pitch and needs to say a lot more. Yet it can’t get hung up on details or explaining any “how-to’s.” It needs to be simple, short, succinct, memorable, and at its best inspirational and/or aspirational. It needs to resonate internally with employees and stakeholders as well as externally with distributors and consumers. It should be culturally relevant and resonate with all parties. And most importantly, it has to be honest, genuine, authentic and credible. 

While the above seems like a relatively simple list of requirements, brands often fail to get it right. Too often founders, C-suite executives or marketing folks get hung up on their larger-than-life dreams and overlook the boundaries of reality. Sure it’s nice to say something like “our brand will change your life,” for instance. But how many brands, if any, can really change your life? Does a Ferrari change your life? Does an Armani suit, a Cartier rock or a week in Fiji change your life? I hardly think so. Perhaps the pharma companies are the only ones poised to potentially change your life if they change your condition from life threatening to healthy, in which case, yes, it will change your life. But short of that, most brands would benefit from finding an attainable sweet spot in which their brand can communicate a tangible, meaningful, relevant benefit that no other brand can. And more importantly, a benefit that the brand is able to deliver on impeccably.

Rather than lecture, I thought I’d illustrate with some examples of brands that got it spot-on right and others that, in my humble opinion, fell short.

Below are some examples of great taglines…

Nike – Just do it. Inspiring with credibility, a call to action to sports enthusiasts to just reach into their courage, strength and motivation and try their best. It does not over promise anything, nor does it claim it will make you a champion. It just inspires you to be your own best at what you do in sports and beyond. And a product that will accompany you in that journey.

Apple – Think different. The message is as powerful as it is simple, with the added beauty of being grammatically incorrect, which further drives the point home – think in a different way! Inspiring internally for employees to push the innovation envelope and it also resonates with consumers as Apple continues to think differently about everything they put out in the market, never underdelivering and always surprising customers with must-have tech gadgets.

Red Bull – Gives you wings. The energy drink that puts caffeine to shame has built a strong brand around a concept it delivers on. Its relentless sponsorship of every extreme sport under the sun plus a stellar Formula 1 racing team, give the brand the chops and credibility to make this claim and communicate its entire attitude behind it. If you need a jolt of energy, the little mighty can will make you feel you’re getting the boost you need.

Airbnb – Belong anywhere. What is the difference between a hotel and an Airbnb? A hotel is for tourists, Airbnb is for explorers who want to belong to the place they visit. You can stay at a Champs Elysées hotel in downtown Paris surrounded by tourist traps, or you can rent an Airbnb at Le Marais neighborhood, next to the local boulangerie that only the locals know. In this case, it allows you to be Parisian for a weekend.

Dollar Shave Club – Shave time. Shave money. Enough said. The brand is all about saving and shaving. Smart shaving without overpaying for unnecessary gimmicks. A brilliant play on words that resonates strongly with the company’s no-nonsense culture and consumers alike.

Las Vegas – What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Perhaps the best destination tagline ever written. Needs no decoding and encompasses all the misbehaving of living vicariously through sin city. The tagline was so successful that for a while it backfired as spouses told their significant others “you ain’t going there.” Interestingly, this resulted in many companies sending both spouses to corporate retreats or trade events in Vegas, which further raised tourism and income for the city.

California Milk Processor Board – Got milk? There are a few things a household cannot be without. One of them is milk, especially after a succulent chocolate chip cookie. The message is humorous, crystal clear, and innovative in that it comes as a question, highly unusual for taglines. Something as simple as a reminder of what’s in your fridge, encourages you to make sure you never spend a morning without some milk on your morning cup of Joe.

And below are some examples of taglines that fell short…

L’Oreal – Because you’re worth it. Even though it’s not the intent, it seems to me like a cosmetic “upgrade” justifies your worth – hardly a message of substance. A favorite of many a marketer, it has come under consumer scrutiny several times and it seems to be losing more steam with younger generations. They’re recently experimenting with removing the “Because” and leaving just “You’re worth it,” which to me seems like an upgrade. But let’s call a spade a spade, this is cosmetics we’re talking about, is that all you’re worth?

Capital One – What’s in your wallet? What’s in my wallet, a $20 bill, my driver’s license, my health insurance card and three debit/credit cards, none of which are Capital One. So…? This generic and largely meaningless message falls even flatter as the brand heavily promotes its mobile app, insisting with “what’s in your wallet?” Perhaps time to change it to “what’s in your smartphone?”

Gillette – The best a man can get. Really? I thought a JD from Harvard Law School might beat the razor brand. Sorry, I don’t buy it. If a razor blade is the best a man can get, we have a lot of learning to do as a gender. Great example of over promising above and beyond the limits of credibility. Almost seems condescending. Little wonder Dollar Shave Club (above) ran away with so much market share.

McDonald’s – I’m lovin’ it. The last time I had a Big Mac was in college. That’s how much I’m lovin’ it these days! Generic as it gets, does not provide any differentiation or motivation whatsoever. Also, who truly loves McDonald’s food other than children? I see college students these days getting excited about a road trip to Jimmy John’s, but McD’s doesn’t quite bring that out even in teenagers. Sorry, I’m not feeling the love.

Nicorette – Makes quitting suck less. Seems kind of smart, but too much focus on the negative. And from talking to users, it somewhat helps curb the need for a nicotine fix, but doesn’t quite make the process less painful. Falls short on actual delivery.

Nokia – Connecting people. Another extremely generic and undifferentiated statement. How many brands could make this claim even outside the telco world? Countless. It seems the has-been brand failed to maintain the connection long enough, losing its once dominant 50%+ market share to today’s under 15%.

State Farm – Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. While one would appreciate the sentiment, the line falls flat on the customer experience. A key to a successful tagline is the ability to deliver, which gives it meaning and credibility. If you’ve ever been a State Farm customer, which I have, you’ll know they’re just as penny pinching and (un)trustworthy as the next insurance company. If they want to care like a good neighbour, they need to tweak their business model and/or practices. They’re not any less caring than others, but not any more either, and that’s why it feels naive at best, dishonest at worst.

On a final note, let’s not forget a third alternative, one that has worked wonders for many of the world’s best brands: no tagline. Many thought leading brands excel at communicating their brands and associated benefits through product, actions and experiences, with no need to use words. Think of Ferrari, Fender guitars, Amazon, Google, Starbucks… No tagline, no problem. Like Ghandi said, “speak only if it improves upon the silence.”

About the Author:

Carlos is Founder & CEO of brand consultancy THE MACHINE. With over 20 years of omni-channel marketing experience both client-side and agency side, he has helped define, position and grow blue chip brands like Giorgio Armani, Ferrari, Walt Disney, Jameson or WebMD, as well as tech startups like GiftCards.com or Compass.

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