PURE GOLD: Use Effective Taglines

By Michael Graber & Jocelyn Atkinson

While many tools and technologies of marketing change at the speed of innovation, some fundamental elements retain their value. A few essential elements increase in value as more clutter finds new ways to compete for our increasingly valuable attention. Nothing has as much perennial value as an effective tagline.

Taglines provide emotional shorthand for buyers, giving permission to feel comfortable at the moment they lay their money down. These charged, packed little phrases must accomplish so much in such a short space, including the following actions:

Build a bridge

There is a wide gulf between business goals and buyer desires. A smart tagline bridges this gulf, translating how the company, product or service adds value. Such bridges connect the dots for their audience in a way that is miraculously emotional and logical at the same time. This bridge building connotes trust and familiarity. Consider this famous example from 1956: Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking.

Make the end promise explicit

Taglines work for business-to-business as well in business-to-consumer markets, and they work by employing a simple principle. They distill the offer down to essence. They ask specifically: “What are we really selling?” Then, they think past the features, through the benefits, and work hard at arriving at a hard-boiled epiphany. In its former glory days, IBM did their homework. They knew that they were not merely peddling hardware, wires and computers. They sold assurance. They built a bridge straight into the fearful skulls of their corporate audience. The timid “company man” quaked about being accountable for any major project or purchasing decision, fearing his job was on the line. Therefore, No One Ever Got Fired for Buying IBM provided a reward in advance, assuaging paranoia surrounding the purchasing decision.

Focus on the audience

Your mama is right. It is not all about you. In business, audience is everything. The tagline should focus on them, not you. What does your product or service do for them? Does it matter that FedEx has planes and trucks or that they do business for the U.S. Post Office? No, not to their audience.

The only thing that matters is that the package arrives on time. The only thing that matters is “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

Apply Gem Theory

Taglines are poetry in popular voice, crystallized gems. Prosaic positioning statements can always be defeated when the fortunes of a business wane and cause it to lose a leadership position, cut price or shift focus. Some things stay true, if good branding makes them so. Great taglines find the right thought and then find the right expression of that thought. Remember, “A diamond is forever.”

Be dramatic

Fear being timid in your tagline. Your company has to define itself or its competitors will define it. Coming up with some empty platitudes that are generic enough to be used in almost any industry and expressed with the personality of lobotomy patient will get your company nowhere. Advice from HP: “Invent.” Or from Apple’s cheeky use of poor grammar: “Think different.”

Choose wisely

Many clients fear choosing a tagline. They should. Deciding on a single phrase to encapsulate and encode their business requires courage, focus and insight.

Recently, our firm crafted many taglines for a particular client. Several were on the mark, meeting the criteria listed above. Yet, this client wanted to play it safe. Unconsciously, they wanted their tagline to do the work of a company mission or value statement. At each turn, they rejected our recommendations and wanted to go with their own creation, “Excellence with Integrity.” Fortunately, they came to realize that this statement was more about them than their audience. They relented, went back to the original list, and chose a winner that is now helping them win market share.

Taglines may appear frivolous, but they are pure brand quicksilver. Taglines motivate, persuade, inspire and create loyalty. If you invest in an effective tagline now and honor it for years to come, you may find your company quoted about in a similar article a decade or two from now. Then, as Burger King has promised for years, you can “have it your way.” Go ahead, Just Do It.

Jocelyn Atkinson and Michael Graber run the Southern Growth Studio, a strategic growth firm based in Memphis. Visit www.southerngrowthstudio.com to learn more.