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The Secret to Writing Better: Brand Taglines

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MamboNo5
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Welcome to this dumb series of dumb writing tips. Whatever you need to write — for work or fun — follow these tips to think less and write more, or your money back! If you haven't already, catch up on this series with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4!

For all you brand marketers out there, do you ever wonder if taglines are dead? Or, maybe even what a tagline actually is? Maybe it’s not so much that they’re dead. Maybe it’s just that we’re not using them correctly.

It’s tough because there are so many variations and so much history and so much misuse of the idea of a tagline. It’s tough to stay up to date on whether your brand should even have a tagline these days.

Sure, in the old days, a tagline stuck in the ol’ brainbox better because TV made sure everyone saw it, knew it, and remembered it. It was the Golden Age of Taglines. But, with the digital era, it’s become more difficult to notice, recognize, or remember them — especially as we don’t rely on the simplicity of the TV commercial anymore.

After all, how do you properly fit a tagline into a social post? And even when you do, when does it go from ownable & memorable to just plain annoying & repetitive?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer, but what I do have are (dumb) classifications for various types of taglines, which are not only fun in a brainstorm, but also helpful in determining what kind of tagline you might want or need or should just avoid.

Let’s get into them!

Stupid/Fun Names for Tagline Types

The PUNisher

This style of tagline uses wordplay to bring a clever twist to the common brand phrasing. To accomplish it, you simply use the brand or product name or key words associated with them, in a clever way to call back to it. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be clever, it just has to use it. Legendary ad man George Lois considered this one of the best methods for making brand connections, utilizing it in a 1989 series for Time Magazine with the line, “Make Time for Time.”

Examples

Dollar Shave Club’s "Shave Time. Shave Money"
Kay Jewelers’ “Every kiss begins with Kay”
The perfect Red Lobster tagline “Seafood Differently”

The Universal

Ownability or, more important, believability, requires a tagline that actually means something to the brand or consumer, and this one doesn’t really do that. Instead, it’s a general, universal line that any brand could use. Plus, because it’s so vague, it’s generally a short distance away from reality.

Examples

Sears’ “Making Moments Matter”
Many brands’ use of “Better Together”

The Ol’ Switcheroo

A big trend in recent years, this tagline is when you take a part of speech, like a noun, and flip it to another, like a verb. To do this, you use a word associated with a brand’s product or service, and you slightly misuse it to emphasize it. By converting a word to a verb, it turns a simple noun into something more energized, like a fast food joint saying they’re the “Better Way to Burger.” It makes getting and eating a burger more exciting. It makes eating a burger a thing, which is way beyond a burger simply being a thing. This use of tagline, while sometimes meaningless, is actually a classic rhetorical technique called anthimeria, which involves using one part of speech as another part of speech, such as using a noun as if it were a verb.

Examples

Nutella’s “Spread the happy”
Most HR brands’ use of "A Better Way to HR"

The Rerun

An extremely popular trend these days for brand taglines, this one is a simple method that just tacks “re” onto the beginning of a word to appear new or changed.

Example

Capital One’s “Banking Reimagined”

The Break-Up

One sentence, two words, and a period between them, and BAM, you have multiple ideas happening at once. When done right, they’re imaginative and fun. When not done right, they’re sad and uninspired.

Example

Sony’s “Make.Believe.”

The One-Two Punch

A little something for everyone, these tags are a single line with a dual meaning, like JetBlue's "You Above All", which speaks to you being most important as well as the literal meaning of you flying above others. By offering more than one meaning, it allows you to further a campaign, cover more brand promises, and more quickly speak to consumers based on what they read into the tagline in that moment.

Example

Enterprise’s "We'll pick you up" (Speaking to their friendliness and fun nature and also a differentiator because they come to you.)

The Storyteller

These taglines are the ones you absolutely need a campaign to tell you about because there’s a story behind it — not just a clever line that reminds you of the brand. They’re often not actually taglines but instead a phrase, joke, or simple idea that’s grown with popularity or media spend. Without the greater story, they often make no sense or just aren’t all that compelling, like Capital One’s "What's in your wallet?" You ever wonder what it really means? Or why it’s still on every commercial? What’s it say about the brand? What do they want it to say? I have no idea, even though I worked on Capital One for years. I’m not even sure where it came from. I just knew to always save some seconds at the end of the commercial to button up the spot with "What's in your wallet?"

Examples

Wendy’s "Where's the Beef?"
Verizon’s "Can You Hear Me Now?”
Alka Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

The Fixer

The hard-working tagline, this one either solves for a brand/product problem, or cleverly makes you think about the competition's problem.

Example

M&M’s "Melts in Your Mouth, Not in Your Hands."

The Difference-Maker

While The Fixer looks to solve or recognize problems, The Difference-Maker simply looks to be different from competition — a powerful move, considering positioning and branding is all about creating separation and clarity of difference between your brand and the competition, thus creating a clear & simple idea of your brand in someone’s brain.

Examples

7 Up’s “The Un-cola”
HBO’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO”
Bernbach’s legendary “We try harder” for Avis
Or, the greatest modest differentiator of all time: Carlsberg’s “Probably the Best Beer in the World.” (Standing ovation even after all these decades)

The Rally Cry

Popular with sports brands and champion archetypes, the rally cry is one that incites emotion, belief, and possibility in one’s self. It gives you something to cheer for.

Examples

Adidas’ “Impossible is nothing”
Nike”s “Just do it”
Under Armour’s “I Will”

The Pink Elephant

With a name that stems from the idea that you can make someone think of a pink elephant merely by telling them not to, this tagline style uses music, patterns, or familiar phrases to make you think of something, even if you don’t intend to. From parts of famous quotes to music lyrics or just repetition, these taglines cause your brain to finish them, thus evoking thought, familiarity, feeling, or even a brand name itself.

Examples

A rare one that’s difficult to track. This is largely because it’s the most daring, so the history of The Pink Elephant is one of death within agency walls, far before any pitch. But, there are a few, like...
McDonald’s “I'm Lovin It” (A simple “doo doo doo doo dooo” and you finish the line. That’s cash in the bank for Mickey D’s!)
“Red Robin...Yummm!”
"The Quilted Quicker Picker Upper..." (If you didn't end with “Bounty” then you're a psychopath.)

The Brick-to-Forehead

Those “duh” plain-spoken taglines that are are just plain obvious and to the point. They weren’t fun to come up with, but they do their job...some of the time.

Examples

Walmart’s “Save Money. Live Better.”
3M’s “Innovation.”
Rocket Mortgage’s “Push button, get mortgage.”
And let’s never forget Geico’s “15 minutes can save you 15% on car insurance.”

The Read-Through

A truly rare beast, this is when the name brand connects to the tagline and reads as a complete sentence. To make this actually make sense, picture the tag or ending of a commercial where the name brand is said, followed by the tagline. Traditionally, the tagline stands alone from the brand, but if it’s a read-through, the two make one complete clause.

Example

Since this is a rare one, it’s difficult to find a good example, but if you slightly twist a legendary tagline for DeBeers diamonds, you’ll create one. Take “A Diamond is Forever” and slightly alter it to “Diamonds Are Forever” and you get a read-through tagline: “DeBeers...Diamonds Are Forever.” With it, you get your name brand, you get a unique tagline that celebrates your product, and you get differentiation, because only DeBeers diamonds are forever. Forget everyone else.

The Simpleton

Lastly, another sad trend, because it is overly simple to the point of doing or meaning nothing. It’s “anything, simplified.” — just tacking a single simple word after a service or offering, and now that I offer that, you’ll see it everywhere. I’m sorry.

Examples

None worth mentioning. Sorry.

Ok, so that was fun, but how about some…

Best Practices for “Taglines”

  • They should tell a story or be part of them, meaning, they need to relate to the stories a brand is telling, while also inspiring a sense of imagination in the reader.
  • They can, but don’t need to, incite action by the recipient, calling them to do something.
  • They should directly relate to what the brand is and what it’s doing, but does not need to be something so completely unique that no one else could possibly use it. It simply must speak to the things that help differentiate the brand. It’s not only about saying the single thing the competition can’t say, it’s also about saying the things they can say first, so you deflate their message and add to your positioning.
  • They need to stand alone (like on a package) while also working together with everything else the brand is doing (video or social, as examples). This means it should not be clunky or require explanation. If you end a video on it, will it inspire thought and make sense compared to what has been shown/said, or will it feel out of place and, therefore, distracting?
  • Being simple, but open to multiple meanings or interpretations makes a line more dynamic, allowing your brand to create more stories with it, yet, this openness to meaning should not lead to ambiguity or confusion.
  • Taglines should be used as part of a campaign. If they just exist without being part of something greater, they lack meaning. The true value of a tagline is helping to complete, wrap up, or make sense of a story or series of stories. A good tagline creates a greater world that the campaign lives in, connecting and unifying it under one brand umbrella. If it exists without connection or clarity along with the other marketing efforts, it can be a waste of mindshare (and money) for both the brand team and the consumer.
  • Oftentimes, brands use more than one tagline based on where they’re utilized (and the intended audience). Most of the time, this is not clear because we’re conditioned to recognize taglines only from TV or radio. However, brands may differentiate lines based on target & channel, whether it’s B2B vs. B2C, above the line vs below the line, functional vs emotional, digital vs traditional, etc. This is fine, but just make sure you don’t overwhelm your audience by crossing or mixing them. I’ve seen the brand agency’s tagline (above the line) in the same commercials as the social agency AND experiential agency. Each agency worked with a different subsection of the brand marketing team, and everyone got to toss their unique tagline into the commercial for a real confusing few seconds of the commercial — three lines of copy, none connected to the other. It made no sense to me, and I’m sure it made no sense to viewers.
  • A new tagline can’t already be trademarked by someone in our industry. That creates confusion and lawsuits. Trademark-search it, twice!

That’s it! Hope you learned something new about brand taglines. If you have your own tagline style, please let me know. With all the variations entering the zeitgeist and ether every day, there are sure to be more styles and variations popping up, ensuring that taglines are surely not dead after all.

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