Advertising taglines that don’t, er, quite work

I spent many years as an advertising copywriter and still do turn my hand to writing this type of material from time to time. One of my favourite elements of ad copy is the tagline, or slogan as it’s sometimes called. They are a lot of fun to write and when well-crafted, do a fine job for the client’s business.

The following taglines from the USA, however, don’t quite hit the target. (Original authors unknown.)

On the van of a plumbing company: “Don’t sleep with a drip. Call us.

In the front yard of a funeral home: “Drive carefully. We’ll wait.[Read more…]

Couldn’t write a good tagline? Oh, yes, you can!

People argue about taglines although they have been around for years. They even argue about what they’re called. We’ve seen a variety of names starting with the delightfully old-fashioned “slogan,” through to more modern terms like “strapline,” “baseline,” “endline,” etc. Personally I quite like tagline.

However what matters is not what they’re called, but what they are. People argue about that, too. My own view is that a tagline is a short phrase that supports a name or brand … bringing attention to what the name or brand does for the reader.

In some ways a tagline acts as a microscopic mission statement. Another way of putting it is to call it the opening line of your “value proposition.”

Yes, it’s quite an important little phrase. Particularly with a new project/product/service, it lays the foundation for how that will be perceived.

Developing taglines for major brands and branding exercises is a skilled job and probably not one that should be tackled by the uninitiated. Many different criteria creep into big brand stories and even the experts will spend a lot of money testing taglines, logos, etc. before issuing them.

However using taglines is not restricted to the Kelloggs and Coca-Colas of this world. They are also useful for a variety of other, less global purposes. You may well find them useful to include as subtitles to the name of a project, proposal, report or other business document, by supporting the main title and adding gravitas to it.

So how do we approach creating a tagline?


Many people tell you that the best way to set about creating a tagline is to brainstorm your way through a large selection of words and phrases that you randomly associate with your project. (By project I mean project/product/service, but I’m keeping it down to one word for the sake of brevity.)

They tell you to note down every word that comes into your mind which can be associated with your project. They tell you to look up as much as you can in the dictionary and the thesaurus. Write it all down. Have a word feast and sooner or later the bones of a good tagline will fall out.

Well, I agree with that up to a point. It can be useful. But to my way of thinking there is a shortcut you can take, and that amounts to a reality check. As I suggested earlier, what really makes a good tagline is how it encapsulates what the project achieves for the intended audience.

So, when I’m attempting to create a tagline, that’s what I look at first.

I say to myself, OK. What does this project really achieve – or intend to achieve – for its recipients? In other words, does it offer a key benefit?

Then I start writing down ideas that encapsulate that. Not what the project means to me, or to the client, or to the Board of Directors. What it means to the recipient of the project. What it will do for him/her. What its key benefit is. (I know, I keep harping on about focusing on benefits and “what’s in it for them.” But in business, what else is there to keep the wheels turning?)

And if you keep those thoughts firmly in your mind, suddenly you’ll find you’re writing tagline ideas that are much crisper, more focused, and more relevant.

How to handle too many benefits

A few years ago I was called in by a chain of estate agents (realtors) in the UK to help them develop their marketing message. I arrived to find half a dozen sweaty, harassed team members all working away on long lists of genuine benefits that their company offered customers. Many of those benefits were unique to the company, and their service offering truly was excellent.

However that was part of the problem; there were too many benefits. Despite hours of brainstorming they hadn’t yet been able to see the wood for the trees. It was time for me to speak up.

“OK,” I said. “Let’s group all those benefits together for a moment. What do they achieve collectively for the customer? What is one of the biggest negatives about buying and selling your home? And how do we overcome that?”

Gradually, I saw some light bulbs switching on over people’s heads. “Yes,” I said as they all started smiling. “We take the stress out of it.” Not only did that get developed into a tagline – it also formed the basis of their value proposition over the ensuing months and was very successful.

The takeout point here, is stand back and look at the tagline from different angles. Brainstorm your benefits, then ask yourselves what those benefits achieve collectively. I know this is an awful cliché, but “think outside the box.”

How it works in practice

Let’s look at a couple of examples now. First, the self-indulgent, zero-benefit variety that sadly you still see today;

“We’re no 1”

“The finest pizzas in town”

“First for XXX software”

As we’ve seen, a tagline needs to be developed on the basis of what is achieved for the recipient by the name or brand the tagline supports. To do this it needs not only to say what you want recipients to believe, but also why they should believe it.

So how about “we’re no 1 because we work harder for you” … ? If you must say you’re no 1 at anything, don’t expect anyone to believe it unless there’s some sort of justification.

How about “pizzas that turn on your tastebuds” … ? If you say “the finest” it’s tempting to reply, “so what do they taste like?” This version, then, makes it clear.

And how about “first for XXX software that grows your business – not your costs” … ? Once again, an upfront benefit that justifies and qualifies your “first” status.

Finally, there’s the issue of sound and rhythm in a tagline. Even if it isn’t destined to be spoken or sung in a TV commercial, a tagline that “sounds” attractive will be more easily remembered than one which uses awkward words and construction, no matter how accurate.

By all means use the literary tricks of alliteration and assonance, even rhymes if the topic is fairly light-hearted. Use “active voice,” not passive voice. Use short words rather than long ones, and keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum.

How to write taglines and much  more:

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“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

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Slogans: the good, the bad and the ugly

I thought you might like to share a few classic slogans that have worked, and some that – for me – haven’t, and why. And then, please comment and share the ones that have worked – or not – for you!

Slam in the lamb. This was put out by the official body that represents British lamb a few years ago and frankly, was enough to put me off eating lamb for the rest of my life despite some cute ads some of which featured the wonderful Geoffrey Palmer. Any talk of slamming and I think doors / teenagers / temper tantrums and that’s the last connotation I want to associate in a slogan about beautifully tender, slow-roasted leg or shoulder of lamb with some hints of rosemary, lemon and garlic. How the advertising wallahs could have thought that this rather feeble rhyme, or assonance, could be worth “butchering” their product for … I really don’t know.

Nothing sucks like Electrolux. There are many, many jokes around on the internet about slogans that have misfired for various reasons, and some of them are figments of someone’s imagination. However I am assured by various sources that this awful slogan actually did see the light of day back in the 1960s. Electrolux, being of Swedish origins, sadly were not aware of the US slang use of the word “sucks.” Although their vacuum cleaners are perfectly good, their choice of advertising advice isn’t.

Finger lickin’ good. I know that lickin’ your fingers is accepted as useful if they’re dripping with chicken grease, BBQ sauce, ketchup and various other things, but believe me if you – like I – have a strong association with horses, dogs and children not necessarily in that order, the last thing you want to do immediately post-drivethru is lick your fingers, unless you want to introduce a myriad bacteria and viruses into your body. This must have worked for Kentucky Fried Chicken in the USA where people are less fussy about hand washing, maybe, but the thought of that slogan still makes me heave to this day. It’s interesting to note, according to Wikipedia urban legends, that  ”an advertising campaign in China attempting to translate the slogan Finger lickin’ good! into Chinese failed miserably, proclaiming Eat your fingers off.” No points scored in China either, then.

Fly United. Simple, to the point, no fooling around. Damned good slogan for an airline. Until, that is, someone translated it into a sexual message using a very explicit cartoon illustration of two ducks (or geese? Have never been sure which) flying “united,” to resounding guffaws throughout the English-speaking world. Considering that  United are still a successful airline I imagine that their top table saw the joke and worked through it. And it WAS wonderful publicity, at least for passengers with a sense of humour.

Don’t be vague – ask for Haig. An old slogan that has that ring about it to suggest  that the CEO dreamed it up in the shower one morning and thought it was so clever insisted the company use it for the next 20 years.  This despite the fact that it is faintly insulting to consumers – i.e. that if you don’t choose Haig Whisky (now owned by Diageo) you’re a bit of a jerk. According to Wikipedia, however, The extremely successful slogan “don’t be vague ask for Haig” originated from Thomas Henry Egan who received GBP £25 (about USD $40) and a case of whisky from Haig. A small remuneration considering the years Haig used the slogan. What a shame he didn’t get a good lawyer on the “case”…

The appliance of science. This was a popular slogan in the early 1980s for the rather swish Italian domestic appliance manufacturer, Zanussi, later bought out by the Swedish company Electrolux (as in “nothing sucks like Electrolux” fame.) What I like about this Zanussi slogan is that it creates at a double-entendre hinting that the word “appliance” is being used as an alternative to “application” … while still making perfect sense. I’m reliably informed that the slogan was written by a certain Adrian Press here in the UK – so a gold star to you, Adrian. Wish I had written it! Zanussi-Electrolux revived the slogan back in the early 00s, too. It had become iconic.

Go to work on an egg. Another iconic slogan from British advertising which has been around for 50 years or more, and is fondly remembered. The double meaning here is particularly effective, I think – promoting the idea of having an egg for breakfast, but also of smashing the shell of your boiled egg! For some years I suspect the egg marketing people in the UK and elsewhere had their work cut out for them when medical wallahs warned that more than one or two eggs a week could raise your levels of bad cholesterol. However that theory has now been disputed by newer research. Good – so we can go to work on an egg again, every day…

Washing machines live longer with Calgon. This has got to be the hardest working slogan I’ve ever seen in ads on British TV. How do you get a message across in a 30 second commercial that this product is a water softener which stops limescale from building up in the innards of your washing machine so prolonging the machine’s lifespan? And make people remember it? It’s not as if it’s the most sexy product in the supermarket after all. But Calgon’s advertising people did it, not only with the slogan that’s still going strong today, but also with a little jingle that I can still remember, and was translated, according to Wikipedia, into more than 20 languages for the European market alone. Bravo.

Which slogans have appealed to you most in recent years? Which have you absolutely hated? Please share your views here!

Now: some super slogans for you!:

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“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand