Congratulations—you finally have a name for your company/product/organization. Take a bow, but don’t put away the thesaurus just yet.
After the name, the tagline—sometimes called the slogan* (or, if you’re in the UK, the strapline)—is the most visible language in your verbal brand. And yet taglines are too often lazily or hastily slapped together from tired formulas: A Passion for X, X Just Got Better, People Profit Performance (or Performance People Profit).
Worse, some marketing gurus have decreed that because most taglines are bad, no tagline is worth the trouble. That’s simply untrue, and “Just Do It” isn’t the only evidence.
Before I share some tips for building a better tagline—and by “better” I mean “better for your brand”—here’s a reminder of some of the ways in which a tagline can be worth the investment in time, money, and brainpower.
A tagline can:
- Clarify, amplify, or reinforce your brand name.
- Distill your brand story into a few memorable words.
- Reveal your organization’s voice and personality.
- Instill confidence and a sense of belonging.
- Tell your external audience—customers, members, donors—what to expect from you.
- Tell your internal audience—employees, board, executives—why their work matters.
- Be your most cost-effective advertisement.
That’s a lot of benefit from just a few words.
Like memorable names, memorable taglines don’t think alike, sound alike, or follow trends. Consider how effectively these slogans speak to their very different markets:
A diamond is forever. (De Beers – unchanged since 1947)
Screw it. Let’s ride. (Harley-Davidson )
We make it easy ... You make it amazing. (Wilton Brands)
Reach out and touch someone. (AT&T long-distance)
Always on. Slightly off. (Independent Film Channel)
Expect more. Pay less. (Target)
You deserve a break today. (McDonalds)
Love life again. (Viagra’s original slogan)
When it rains it pours. (Morton Salt)
Water wealth contentment health. (City of Modesto, California)
Do something creative every day. (Paper Source)
The thought that counts. (Changing the Present)
The best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup. (Folger’s Coffee)
Wheels when you want them. (Zipcar)
Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité. (France)
Paper Source tagline on store exterior, Berkeley.
What do these taglines have in common? Not length. Yes, some of the best taglines have just three or four words. But the inspirational Wilton’s tagline is eight words long. And the Folger’s tagline—which has a place of honor on many “best taglines in history” lists—is 11 words long. (Someone—it may have been copywriting guru Herschell Gordon Lewis, although I can’t find the citation—once declared that the Folger’s tagline was the number-one best tagline ever. Lewis’s own tagline, by the way, is “The godfather of direct marketing and gore,” which is pretty darned good, too.)
In fact, it’s impossible to generalize about effective taglines. The good ones draw on a variety of elements and techniques, including:
- Parallel contrast. In “We make it easy … you make it amazing,” each half of the tagline is a complete sentence, and both halves follow the same structure: pronoun + make it + adjective. The second half provides the contrast—and the payoff. Other examples of parallel contrast: “Always on. Slightly off” and “Expect more. Pay less.”
- Rhyme. When done well, rhyme, as in the famous Modesto slogan or the Folger’s tagline, or near rhyme (Paul Masson’s “We Will Sell No Wine Before Its Time”) aids memorability.
- Promise. “A diamond is forever” promises a lasting investment (and by extension lasting love). “Wheels when you want them” promises reliability.
- You. Directly or indirectly (through the use of imperative verbs), eight of these 15 taglines bring “you”—the customer—into the message. Much better than talking only about “us.”
- Positive ambiguity. Sometimes a double meaning is a singular distinction. Consider the double meanings of “on” and “off” in IFC’s tagline, or the two ways in which you can interpret “Love life again.” Caveat: When venturing into ambiguity, make sure all the potential meanings are positive and relevant.
- Encouragement. “Slogan” comes from a Gaelic expression meaning “war cry,” and that etymology still resonates: many effective brand slogans rally the troops. “Screw it. Let’s ride” not only issues a challenge, it’s also perfectly consistent with Harley-Davidson’s independent, outlaw-y image. “Do something creative every day” adds a time element to the imperative.
In Part 2 of “Building a Better Tagline,” I give some suggestions for creating or refining your own tagline. And for further exploration:
- “Your Slogan: It’s Not About You.”
- “Seven Dos and Don’ts for Strong Nonprofit Taglines.”
- For fun: Slogan quizzes from Sporcle: I, II, III, and IV.
* “Tagline” and “slogan” are often used interchangeably. Sometimes, though, “slogan” refers to a temporary motto used in an advertising campaign or a limited-time promotion.