Here’s how to write a great tagline

David Heitman //March 23, 2010//

Here’s how to write a great tagline

David Heitman //March 23, 2010//


At one time or another, nearly every business contemplates the creation and use of a tagline. This simple statement aims to distill a company’s unique value proposition into a few memorable words. When successful, a tagline can be a powerful shorthand statement of a brand. But too often, it becomes a design-by-committee phrase intended to please everyone, but inspiring no one.

Writing a tagline is like writing haiku: it’s easy to write a lot of bad ones, and far more challenging to write one good one. But if you apply the necessary discipline and creativity to the process, your tagline can be a powerful tool for gaining mindshare with your prospects and customers.

How NOT to Write a Tagline

Here’s the secret recipe for a not-so-great tagline:

Gather a large number of people in the room…have everyone share as many ideas as possible…use one word from each person’s idea…try to make the tagline as long as possible so that it includes everything your company offers…take the three top choices and have everyone in the company, their spouses and their kids vote on it…pick the winner based on the most votes…repeat the process next year to come up with a new tagline.

OK, that’s a bit extreme, but it’s not too far from the way some organizations approach the process. Fortunately, there’s a better way.

Tagline 101

So how do you develop a truly compelling tagline? Here are a few principles for success:

1. Remember who your audience is. In most cases, your tagline is aimed at new prospects who don’t yet know you. The secondary audience is your existing customer base. The important thing is to write the tagline from an external perspective. A tagline is not a company mission statement (more on that below).

2. Determine what kind of tagline you need. Is it merely a descriptive phrase to clarify what you do? Is it meant to position your organization against competitors? Or maybe the goal is to pose a provocative question that gets your audience thinking.

3. Let the tagline grow out of your unique value proposition. A tagline’s goal is to differentiate you from your competition-to compel a prospect to put you on the short list of candidates. Too often taglines of competing companies are so similar that they are indistinguishable to potential customers looking for cues on which one to hire. Make sure your tagline distinguishes you from the competition based on your company’s greatest virtue or most unique offering. Put some distance between your organization and the rest of the pack.

4. Don’t confuse a mission statement with a tagline. A mission statement is, by its nature, focused inwardly. A tagline is addressed to outsiders. And here’s a quick thought on mission statements: perhaps a company should never share its mission statement with customers and prospects. The mission should be so deeply cherished by company leaders, adhered to with such great passion by employees, and so thoroughly evidenced in day-to-day operations that you would never actually need to say it to outsiders. They should be able to tell you what your mission is.

5. Avoid the words of tagline death. These are words that everybody claims, and when added to one another, produce a bland, verbal gruel that no one remembers. These are the buzz-killers that prevent your brand from getting traction with future customers. The top four words to avoid are:

1. Quality
2. Service
3. Commitment
4. Excellence

Smart, busy people like you just gloss over words like that, right? You hear them too many times from too many companies in too many industries. No doubt, your organization does something better than anyone else on the planet. What exactly is it? Start there, and then find the most concrete, visceral, creative words to describe it. (Tip: Let nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting in your new tagline, and avoid too many adjectives.)

Types of Taglines

Once committed to the tagline process, the first question to ask is which type of tagline is best for your organization. Tagline types can be categorized as follows:

Descriptive: The goal is simply to clarify what your organization does. This can be helpful for a new entrant into its market, or perhaps a company whose name or initials are not self-explanatory. Often these descriptive taglines are incorporated into the company logo.

Concept Ownership: A tagline-if well worded and frequently repeated-can enable your company to “own” a word in the customer’s mind. Go to Meeting’s tagline Online Meetings Made Easy is a good example of owning the word “easy.” Every online conference provider can deliver a meeting; but “easy” is a great concept to own, especially with so many non-technical people embracing teleconferencing for the first time. What’s the one word (or short phrase) your company can own?

Differentiating: A tagline that differentiates is one that sets you apart form competitors, promising one core virtue that you can credibly claim above all others. Citibank’s Citi Never Sleeps is a creative differentiator as it suggests that while other banks are asleep, Citibank is wide awake looking out for you. The play on words gives Citibank a sophisticated, metropolitan feel-like New York City, the city that never sleeps.

Anticipatory: The approach here is to paint a picture of the future-of what the customer’s life will be like with you as their vendor/partner/provider. Lending Tree’s When Banks Compete, You Win is a great example of this.

Aspirational: These taglines connect your company to the dreams and goals of your audience. The US Army’s Be All You Can Be is a classic example of this. Regis University’s Learners Becoming Leaders is another good example. It’s short, it uses alliteration, and has a compelling aspirational element: prospective students immediately identify the university as a place to achieve their dreams of making a difference in the world.

How to Create a Great Tagline

The tagline creation process is essentially one of reduction-of taking your company’s “elevator pitch” and reducing it down to one intriguing phrase that differentiates you from everyone else. As with all brand-building efforts, this usually means claiming one thing that you’ll defend at all costs, even if it means leaving some desirable turf to competitors. You simply can’t be everything to everybody. (By the way, this highly focused approach to branding dovetails perfectly, from a management perspective, with Jim Collins’ “hedgehog concept” in the landmark book, Good to Great.)

Generally speaking, the fewer words the better when writing a tagline. Sony’s new tagline Make.Believe gets the job done with just two. It uses a clever play on the word “make-believe” to communicate the company’s ability to deliver technology that enables people to make their own media and also to enjoy realistic, believable home entertainment in high definition.

At the risk of sounding like a grammar nerd, it might be helpful to point out that most taglines will end up in either the indicative, imperative or interrogatory form-a statement, a command or a question. It’s worth examining which form is best for your brand. Indicative statements are best for describing what you do. Imperative commands are a bit bolder-you’re actually telling your audience what to do. Questions like UPS’s What Can Brown Do for You? are for getting people to think, and reconsider their assumptions.

It helps to use words creatively-a play on words or dual meanings have a way of getting people to stop and think. Adidas’ Impossible is Nothing is a great example of a tagline that does both. The reverse of the expected word order is rather curious, creates new meaning and inspires the consumer-athlete to greatness.

When developing a tagline, it is important to differentiate it from a campaign slogan. A tagline usually has a longer shelf life than an advertising campaign. IBM’s Let’s Build a Smarter Planet campaign is very compelling, and addresses the need for superior technology to solve the world’s problems; but it’s not the ultimate statement or tagline for the technology giant.

The tagline development process can be an invigorating exercise for your executive team. It can be thought provoking as you are forced to answer the question: “What really makes us better/different than everybody else?” It is often useful to survey your employees and customers with questions that ask what the company means to them at a personal level.

It’s even good to hear what competitors and non-customers think. As Hulu CEO Jason Kilar once said, “Our brand is what people say about us when we’re not in the room.” In this inquiry into the roots of your brand, you’re not asking for suggestions for a tagline, but rather how in their own words people would describe the value, feelings and benefits they derive from their connection with your organization.

Very often they will phrase things in a way that cuts through the clutter with compelling simplicity. And from those comments, you just might discover the keys to a great tagline.