Help Taglines Regain Lost Glory

Why Creating Strong Slogans Is a Marketer's Most Important Job

By Published on .

What's MIA in today's marketing messages? Powerful taglines, or what I call "powerlines" -- those words that are well-chosen and have the power to awe, inspire, motivate, alienate, subjugate and, in a marketing context, change the buying habits of consumers.
Only Vegas

Viva great taglines: Practically every adult in America knows this tagline and can instantly repeat it if asked: "Las Vegas: What happens here stays here."

Taglines today are a forgotten part of marketing planning. When they are employed, they generally mean nothing or are relegated to small, unreadable type. Moreover, companies change taglines every year or two and sometimes within a given year. Nothing could be more harmful to your brand and your business.

Below are questions I am frequently asked about why creating powerful taglines is so essential and how to do it --as well as my answers.

Are there easy-to-remember general guidelines that can increase the chance of my company creating a compelling tagline that will stand the test of time?
Yes -- four, to be exact. 1.) You are different; say so. Don't use common words. 2.) Have real attitude; bypass wishy-washy phrases. 3.) Be everywhere, or you are nowhere. For a line to make a lasting impression, it must appear at all customer touch points and ideally be the headline of every marketing promotion. 4.) Yes, it's an art. The best taglines come from individual flashes of inspiration.

Why are our brains so receptive to taglines, slogans and mottos?
The brain is wired to seek the unusual phrase that describes something it should be aware of. It ignores phrases that seem ordinary and unimportant. Sound and repetition of distinctive sound play a huge role in remembering a political or commercial slogan. Inflection, tempo and rhyme are the three major elements of sound that make the brain pay attention. The power of sound over sight never diminishes; if anything, it increases.
Steve Cone's Top 10 Taglines of All Time
  1. "A Diamond is Forever"
    De Beers

  2. "Come to Marlboro Country"
    Philip Morris

  3. "The Pause That Refreshes"

  4. "Think Small"

  5. "Just Do It"

  6. "You Deserve a Break Today"

  7. "When It Absolutely, Positively Has to Be There Overnight"
    Federal Express

  8. "When It Rains It Pours"
    Morton Salt

  9. "M&M's: Melts in Your Mouth, Not in Your Hands"

  10. "You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy's Rye Bread"
    Levy's Baking

There is no shortage of marketing and advertising talent out there. So why do you think writing powerlines is a lost art?
There is a lot of raw talent, but the basic principles of effective marketing are not taught as thoroughly as they were in the '50s through the '80s. That is partly because ad agencies are being run by financial stars, not creative ones. All the great campaigns of yesteryear for cars, household products, cigarettes, soda, food items and financial services began with taglines that served as the epicenter for all promotional executions. The incredible power of a defining tagline for a product or service is undeniable, yet most senior marketing executives don't insist on it. This is a huge mistake and the reason why so many campaigns fall flat and are not recognized, remembered or cared about.

We are bombarded by advertising on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines, and online. How can a powerline do the heavy lifting and break through all the sensory overload?
The simple answer is that it must have personality and attitude. And it must be the central theme of every element of a marketing campaign. A good example is the tagline created a few years ago for Las Vegas. Practically every adult in America knows this tagline and can instantly repeat it if asked: "Las Vegas: What happens here stays here." Folks might recite the line as "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," but they remember the thought and the essence of the message.

Does the presidential candidate with the best slogan really win the race?
Every time. I have analyzed every election since 1840, and the best slogan has always carried the day. And when neither candidate has a strong slogan, nine times out of 10, it is a close election.

Why is it that Hollywood produces such great movie taglines?
Movies cost tens of millions to make, and they succeed or fail based on their popularity on opening weekend. To build anticipation and create pent-up demand for launch weekend, moviemakers have a huge stake in getting the public to see or hear a few words that define why they should drop everything and go see the newly released movie. That is why Hollywood executives seriously study and then approve the combination of words to use, and once selected, they make the tagline as big and bold as possible -- just the opposite of what most other marketers do today.

Explain the critical importance of sound vs. the other four senses in creating a high-impact powerline.
Sound trumps sight by a wide margin in forcing the brain to remember something. Animals evolved by relying on sounds to learn from and be alarmed by. Taste and touch also are keen senses but are not factors in most advertising. When you think about it, all animals share a keen sense of hearing, taste and touch. But only humans write and read, and this "secondary" capability came a good million years after we first appeared as a species.

Why do you think a line delivered by a person or a character, such as Ronald McDonald or the Fandango Puppets, is so effective? Humans respond best to other humans they recognize or to characters who are entertaining. You can't build a relationship or relate to someone you don't know or care about who is just a visual generality. Key word: attitude. We want to interact with others who have it -- be they made-up or real people who identify who they are or play a character, such as Mr. Whipple or Dunkin' Donuts' Fred.

You're a fan of jingles. Why? Are they right for all brands? Short musical tunes with a unique signature are impossible to ignore. You can't turn off hearing, but you can ignore what's shown or spoken on TV if it's just words being read. Even radio ads become merely background noise unless a special sound sequence is used. Musical sounds have motivated us to listen since the dawn of mankind and always will.

You say, "The more things change, the more taglines should not." Don't marketers need to keep their taglines fresh and relevant?
No. Their taglines should never change if they are a special promise or claim that a competitor cannot easily duplicate. What should be refreshed are the promotions done year after year that the taglines are headlining. That is the secret to effective marketing.

The internet and other media now allow for microtargeted advertising. Should advertisers still try to be all things to all people with a pithy catchphrase?
A tagline should, best case, be the advertiser's unique selling proposition -- the core benefit that comes from using the product or service. Every product or service has a target audience; that is the group you want to remember what you stand for and not what the 50 other competitors are trying to convey.

What are non-powerlines, and how do marketers avoid them?
About 98% of all taglines today have no power. They have no personality, attitude or unique claim or promise. Many are created by committee -- always a dead-wrong approach. Some are crafted through extensive focus-group testing -- also dead wrong. Powerful taglines are inspired phrases created by great copywriters who see clear and compelling brand promises and make them come to life to inspire, entertain and enlighten the rest of us.
Steve Cone is chief marketing officer of Epsilon, a provider of datadriven marketing technologies. He has more than 35 years of experience, and has led campaigns for companies including Apple, Citigroup and American Express.
In this article:
Most Popular