Tagline Tutorial Part I: What is a Tagline and Do I Even Need One?

Tagline Tutorial Part I pen to ZenA tagline is a line that tags a brand name. It can be a slogan that changes over time, like You deserve a break today or I’m lovin’ it for MacDonald’s. Or it can be a permanent fixture attached like a label to a company, product or service, like 99 and 44/100% Pure for Ivory Soap.

Like a tag on shirt, it gives us a bit more information than what we see at first glance. Especially when the name alone leaves us thirsty for understanding or interest.

Originally, taglines lived in the world of advertising. One of the most famous advertisers of all time, David Ogilvy, had something important to say about them: he wasn’t a fan.

Yet, the rest of us are. We tag like crazy. How can this be? In case you don’t know, Ogilvy, often called “the Father of Advertising” was basically, the man. He was a master researcher and creative genius. Why do we ignore his taglining opinions? Based on his years at Gallup Research and his own agency expertise, he felt taglines were overrated because consumers forget them more often than not, and they mix up which ones belong to which brands.

He thought it was better to focus on a good headline. A big idea. A solid campaign that sells, in honest, smart (but not pretentious) language.

I worship most of what Ogilvy ever said. So, here’s why I think we all use taglines anyway:

There are a lot more messages.

And they appear in a lot more media. This has been increasingly true since Ogilvy’s reign. Not only does the world of big advertising belong to more than a few giants like Ogilvy these days (there are plenty of high-powered little boutique shops, niche media channels, etc.), there are also a billion individual marketers to consider. We’re starting small businesses online, making apps and writing eBooks…we’re all boating at night in a vast sea of self-promotion and we want taglines dammit. Like flares.

People need to know more about us.

Never has direct marketing been so pervasively instantaneous. We need to be personal with our messaging but still reach the masses via social networking, email auto-responders and webinars. Offering a super quiet ride in the front seat of our Rolls Royce just isn’t cutting it for us. We don’t have those budgets or that reach, like the advertisers Ogilvy worked with did. So we have to explain, distinguish, something, even more.

It can be a sin of omission not to have one.

Even David Ogilvy ended up “giving in” and doing whatever worked for his clients. In fact, one of his most famous copywriters (not at the time, but since) turned out to be one of my favorite authors, Salman Rushdie. The legend goes that Rushdie was writing his award-winning novel Midnight’s Children at the time, while advertising copy was paying the bills. Salman was also writing taglines, or slogans, for U.K. clients like Nestle and its Aero Bar (featuring the word “irresistibubble,”still in use today) and for Fresh Cream Cakes (Naughty but Nice).

Are you getting the idea that taglines can be a lot of things, or can be nothing at all, and still be legit? I hope so. See, with a great name, or a beautiful big idea for your brand, you don’t NEED a tagline if you do the basics really well. But the truth is, it’s not always easy, or even possible, to get the basics right.

  • What if you inherited a name or have had it for a while—like, what if your business name is your name, and no one knows who you are in your new market? A tagline then is certainly in order.
  • What if your business is appropriately named but it doesn’t quite pack a punch—say, an insurance product or medical device that needs a little something extra. A tagline can be that.
  • What if you are in a highly creative business or a very crowded space and you really want to stand out? A stellar name is best, but the oomph that a tagline offers may put you over the top.

On the other hand…

What if you can’t do any better than what you have, as far as you know? Maybe your name says it all. AMC Highland Park 14- Screen Cinema covers it, right? No need to add “The Best Theater Experience in the North Suburbs” to this; it’s kind of a moot point.

Actually, it’s kind of an Ogilvy point. Your audience isn’t going to remember that tagline, and they aren’t going to pick you out by it tagline, either. The reason he didn’t believe in them must have been that so many of them were not very good.

Seriously. How about the Mobile (oil) tagline that reads, “We want you to live.” Well, thank you, giant petroleum company, for that endorsement.

However, if you’re the theater and you have something like, “$1 Large Popcorn to go with the drinks you’re sneaking in,” you might have something there. As in, a big idea–a solid campaign, that sells.

Tutorial #1 Takeaway: A tagline is a smart choice if it adds something important or explanatory, if it distinguishes your business, or helps people enjoy and/or remember it. But most of all, if it helps you sell it. 

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