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One Big Idea: Do We Need a Tagline?

September 9, 2016

| Bill Gullan |

In this week’s episode, Bill examines the factors that are critical to deciding whether or not a tagline is appropriate for a brand. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and this is One Big Idea. We’ve heard a lot recently in our own work and just, scanning the inter webs and other media sources, about taglines, for whatever reason. A question we get a lot, and it’s a good one, is do we need a tagline during a re-branding process or, just in general, when folks are approaching their marketing efforts and their identity?

There’s a couple of different dimensions to this. First of all, I think the general, overarching principle is that taglines do seem to be less important today. A lot of the famous best taglines that you hear are, frankly, old. These existed in the times when brands communicated in print or via major TV spot moments where they was a lot of copy and a lot of script, and really, a tagline was used to encapsulate the whole idea. Some of the famous taglines of old came to life that way.

Many of the taglines that today are regarded as among the best and in some ways it’s because of their longevity. They’ve become inseparable from the brands to which they’re attached. There aren’t that many of those. There’s a lot of ones that when you read top hundred list or whatever it’s the same ones over and over again.

A couple other reasons I think that taglines seem to be less important. One is that, as noted, as we’ve moved away from these big anthem level brand campaigns being the center of folk’s marketing budget, we’re dealing with small screens.

You’re dealing with a hundred and forty character limits. You’re dealing with different methods of delivering messages, social media, etc, that maybe aren’t as conducive or don’t require the delivery of a tagline alongside the core messages of an idea. In some cases, if it’s a banner ad for example, it’s just too crowded. You don’t need to stick another line of copy on there. The name’s enough. People are able to experience it in context.

The second piece is that, often, brand communications are found in a commercial context that encapsulates what a company does and is trying to communicate. If you are searching on Google for x, y or z, it is the algorithm that will get you there, not some fancy tagline that is designed to express clearly what the name of the company and what the brand of the company is trying to accomplish. The addition of context particularly in the digital realm and particularly on mobile, provides a release valve where you may not need a tagline to get your message across.

The third thing that we see is reducing the necessity or the frequency of tagline development is, brands today are about values, about personalities, maybe more than product differences and core feature identifiers. Some of the greatest taglines in history, and we’ll go through them in a minute, where really built upon one feature based point of interest. ‘Great taste, less filling.’Where’s the beef.’ These are classic taglines that were really used as positioning ladders to get across a core differentiable element. The fact that brands are communicating at a level more of values and lifestyle, larger thematic approaches makes at least that type of tagline a little bit less appropriate and related.

Lastly, and before we move into answering that question of should we or should we not, brand has gotten more flexible. Consistency still matters a lot obviously when it comes to message and color and personality and tone, but there’s also a strong emphasis on brands not trying too hard, not delivering an imperative to their audience, not top down.

The fact that social media and other elements have made the brand conversations more of a dialogue than a dictation or an imperative has made it so that taglines often come across as being a little bit too eager. You don’t see fashion brands that are designed to have this mystique, ever really taglines. It’s fashion brand x, ‘providing the best shirts,’ you don’t see that. it just doesn’t work.

The brand nature of the dialogue today and the way strong brands are built and constructed are with flexibility as well as with authenticity. Taglines, may to a degree, rob that, if not well executed.

These are reasons why taglines seem to be less important, but now to the fundamental question and the topic and the title of this One Big Idea, which is do we need a tagline? The answer of course is situational and it depends. I think there are four primary reasons to think about. In terms of a checklist, if the answer to these questions or one of them is yes, then maybe you should consider developing and using a tagline as part of your identity – either locked up with it or in a prominent place alongside of it.

The first is does the name of the brand require some degree of modification in context that advances a position? One example, and there’s a ton of them, that’s close to home here is Finch Brands. We have a tagline that’s ‘Building brands for the real world.’

What we wanted to do and accomplish through that and the reason we developed a tagline was that the name Finch Brands doesn’t necessarily say exactly what we do nor does it define, by itself, what is distinctive and memorable about us, what makes us different. The use of a tagline is that next level of positioning detail alongside a name that isn’t as directly descriptive, was an important and is an important part of our brand expression at Finch.

I think you can think of a lot of different companies. Some have proper names. Others may have names that are more general, where a tagline is used to deliver a more specific and descriptive message, while also advancing a core argument of the brand. If the name needs additional description and modification and it exists in a context that doesn’t automatically have that built in, a tagline is worthy of consideration.

The second thing to think about are taglines that evoke a feeling. One of the most famous is ‘Just Do It.’ Nike is the Greek goddess of victory. The name in and of itself didn’t mean anything. Then again, Nike starting in track and with marathon runners, did have a context surrounding what it was doing, but Nike wanted to advance a system of belief and a feeling, a personality and Just Do It was a way of expressing that.

One category that does this, I think, very well actually is the insurance category. Some of the best known and best regarded taglines come from insurance. ‘Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is There.’ ‘You’re in Good Hands with Allstate.’ ‘Nationwide is on Your Side.’ These are enduring taglines that, yeah, they lean into the category of service or product that’s being offered but they’re designed to evoke a feeling that is central to brand differentiation and identification. The second reason to consider a tagline is if you really find it to be competitively relevant to evoke a distinctive feeling or personality. A tagline may be a good way to do that.

Third, and I think very importantly, is a tagline has the ability to herald a shift in brand strategy. Two examples from our recent past. Fathead, known for vinyl wall graphics of various types, started originally, at least was the core of their advertising approach was, life-sized NFL wall decals. When we were working with the brand it became clear both from our research as well as what they were doing, that Fathead was a lot more than life-sized NFL wall decals.

First of all it wasn’t just NFL. It was across the sports world, across the entertainment continuum with a fully integrated custom offering so you could have your daughter’s soccer team or anything else. Certainly the licenses were extending into Disney princesses and other characters. The brand was a lot more than the context in which consumers held it, that was largely of Fathead’s own making.

Their original tagline was, ‘Real Big.’ When we began to work with them and as a brand strategy and communication strategy shifted more in the direction of promoting the full diversity of the line of offerings that fathead could bring to market, in addition to just different characters and different images, Fathead had a ton of different sizes. The Real Big product was the one with which it was most intimately associated, but Fathead was a lot more than that.

In fact to drive the business forward it was important that the marketplace understand that Fathead was more than about life-size wall graphics, because how many places can you really put one in a house? Maybe you have a so called man cave where you can put three or four that’s dedicated to watching sports or whatever but most people don’t have that. It was important that the marketplace understood that Fathead wasn’t just about this, really high intensity but exclusive product application.

The tagline had been Real Big, as noted, but then as the brand strategy shifted, and as we helped Fathead shift the brand strategy, the tagline shifted into ‘For Real.’ It was Fathead, For Real. The idea there being not about size but about the vivid nature of the graphics and how they were represented and delivered across entertainment and athletic franchises and across product sizes and formulations.

A small shift in tagline from Real Big to For Real, heralded a shift in brand strategy and in communications emphasis. It was a very good use not only of a tagline but an example of how a tagline can help shift brand strategy. The company name wasn’t changing, the brand equity was a tremendous asset for Fathead, but they just needed to contemporize it and shape it in a way that helped the business grow. A tagline was indispensable to that.

Another example, is, we’ve talking about it on this podcast before, ThinkGeek, ecommerce purveyor of licensed and home grown merchandise for the geek in all of us, was really undergoing a major shift at the brand strategy level. Again, not changing name but at the brand strategy level it was shifting from this out of date perspective of a geek as a pejorative term of a socially awkward, inwardly focused person living in a parent’s basement and communicating with a small group of folks over a game of dungeons and dragons.

That was the old version of geek. The new version of geek was embracing this moment of sharing and community and Comic-Con and all these things that had made ‘geeking out’ the verb of choice to describe going deep with your passions regardless of whether they were traditionally geeky or not. In addition to the rebranding at the visual identity level and everything that came along with it, we shifted the tagline.

The original tagline had been ‘Stuff for Smart Masses.’ Emphasizing that old school version of geek as being smarter than everybody else and snarky. It was a play on smart asses, smart masses, but the new tagline which was designed to really usher in this era of geek as a verb, geek as a high social currency, very active community driven reality, became ‘Join in. Geek out.’

It was a subversive nod to Timothy Leary for those who got it, although I’m sure most in the target market didn’t, but Join in. Geek Out. was welcoming. It was about sharing. It was about geeking out and going deep with the things that you love. That was another example from Finch’s recent past of using a tagline to cement a meaningful shift in brand strategy.

Then the last checklist item of should we have a tagline or not, is do you have a core benefit that you need to underline that is essential and fundamental to what the brand stands for and the basis on which folks in the marketplace may want to choose it over its competition?

Some examples from history of this, although some still exist, is ‘Burger King, Have it Your Way.’ Customization of the whopper and the entire menu at Burger King was a major competitive benefit, worthy of underlining and representative of differentiation. ‘McDonald’s, Billions and Billions Served.’ The same old thing, Burger King, Have it Your Way, was a tagline that was helpful not only to again underline something fundamental about the brand choice but also as a way to send vibes about the personality and the welcoming nature of what the brand sought to embody.

Another one again, at the product level is ‘Bounty, It’s the Quicker Picker Upper.’ It does it faster, a core benefit within the product proposition was solidified, extended, and made ever more memorable and accessible through the use of a tagline.

Another one, interesting historically, that also maybe heralded a brand shift was Verizon. ‘Can you Hear Me Now,’ ultimately became the tagline for Verizon mobile and if you recall, Verizon was formed out of the merger in I guess, the mid probably late nineties of GTE and Bell Atlantic. These were two old line phone hardline long distance phone companies dealing primarily with long distance calls from landline phones within houses. The markets were changing. The companies merged. They took the bold step of creating a new brand, Verizon, to identify this new organization, in part because the marketplace was moving in a direction of mobile and they saw that, and neither of those brands really stood effectively for mobile. Or for technology for that matter.

They were basically public utilities was the way the marketplace perceived them and once Verizon was rebranded as such and it became clear that mobile was a dominant present and future nature of what the company was seeking to accomplish, Can You Hear Me Now became of way of underlining the strength and supremacy of their mobile network.

Can You Hear Me Now, was taken directly from many of the early and continued frustrating conversations that one would have with their mobile device as they reach the level of roaming or when the tower was a little bit too far away. As a memorable and potent and functionally important tagline, Verizon Wireless’s Can You Hear Me Now, of course backed up by a lot of dollars and a campaign and everything else, was a really effective way to underline a core benefit of their offering. We’ll leave it there.

Suffice it to say as noted that taglines may be less in favor and in fashion in our industry than they used to be for a variety of valid reasons but at the same time brands can benefit extensively and meaningfully from the adoption alongside their identity of a very effective tagline and again, those four things to think about are:

1. Do you need a tagline to modify and describe what your company does for a name that maybe doesn’t do that alone?

2. Do you need your tagline to evoke a feeling or a strong brand personality as in the case of just do it or State Farm is there or you’re in good hands with Allstate, etc?

3. Can a tagline be a helpful part of the arsenal to herald a shift in band strategy? Like Fathead going from Real Big to For Real or ThinkGeek going to Join In. Geek Out?

4. Or is there still a core benefit that really animates the brand and crystallizes the choice that you want to emphasize? Can You Hear Me Now, the Quicker Picker Upper, Have It Your Way, etc?

With that, thinking around taglines we’d love to hear your feedback as always on this and everything that we do. We’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.

About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

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