Developing a Brand Tagline: Five Tips for Success

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There’s a lot of advice out there regarding the development of a brand tagline, and some of it is crap.  (Example: “It needs to be short and memorable.” Wow, it sounds so easy when a professional explains it.)

In this post, my goal is to give you a set of considerations – some contrary to “conventional wisdom” – that will help you decide how to best proceed with the development of your brand tagline.

The first two tips deal with the “before” phase – what to consider before you move ahead with the development of a tagline:

1. You might not need a brand tagline.

Professional copywriters, before you inundate me with hate mail, hear me out.

Many of the world’s top brands don’t have a tagline.  It’s a situational choice, and we’ll discuss those situational considerations next.  But don’t buy the advice that “having a brand tagline can’t hurt.”  Sure it can.  If it’s the wrong tagline, it undermines and confuses the overall brand.  And developing the right tagline has attendant costs: The time to generate, evaluate and approve them; the money to hire a professional copywriter, which I absolutely recommend; and the attention to manage the process well.  While you are deploying those resources, the market is not waiting to buy.

Your mindset should be, “We need a tagline only if we are very confident that it will strengthen our brand and outweigh its costs.”  Actually, that should be your mindset for all kinds of brand decisions.

2. A brand tagline is part of a system.

More specifically, a tagline is part of two systems:

Your verbal identity system. These are all the words your brand uses to present itself to the market.  These can include, but are not limited to, campaign themes, key messaging, web copy, sales collateral copy and packaging copy.


Your overall marketing system. These are all the tools and tactics that form your go-to-market strategy.

Ask: In what environments will the brand tagline reside, and how will it be deployed?  For instance, if you’re a local retailer or services firm that primarily invests in billboard advertising – where the use of words should be economic – your campaign messages are probably more important than a new tagline.

Most of us know Geico’s tagline: “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance.”  It’s not particularly catchy – and we’ll talk about that too – but it registers because it’s been deployed effectively.  I don’t like much about Geico’s ads, but they’ve been consistent and focused in this regard. (They’re also spending nearly a billion dollars a year, which helps.)

You don’t have a billion-dollar ad budget. So consider how your tagline will actually see the light of day. Taglines live or die on consistency and repetition. If your marketing plan is unlikely to generate numerous near-term impressions of the tagline with your target audience, you can probably do without.


3. A brand tagline conveys one idea well.

Consider a few of my all-time favorite (and very successful) taglines:

“We try harder.” – Avis

“You are now free to move about the country.” – Southwest Airlines

“When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” – FedEx

Each is very different in tone and message.  But they each work because they convey a key aspect of the core brand idea – which is to say they work in concert with everything else the brand is about.  And they met strategic objectives for each brand at the time of their use.

Your brand tagline should effectively convey a single important idea.  But where do you find this core idea?  Consider the following five veins of exploration?

Target – Who you serve
Benefit(s) – What they get
Points of Difference – Why you’re different
Character – Your brand personality
The Brand Experience – How your brand is lived

On this note, I can’t stress strongly enough: Fear the committee.  When taglines are on the table, everyone from the mailroom to the boardroom has an opinion to share.  And the boardroom in particular has a tendency to want to shoehorn nine ideas into a single tagline.  So make it clear at the outset of the project that, as the brand leader, you’ll welcome opinions, but the final call is yours.

You must be choiceful.  A brand tagline can’t do everything.  At best, it can convey a single idea well.  On that note…

4. The right brand tagline is worth paying for.

Successful copywriting is a skill and an art.  Great copywriters traffic in clarity, economy, rhythm, metaphor, and a host of other tools at which they are adept.

Most of use mere mortals are not so adept.  I write all my blog posts, and I feel comfortable with my skills in this environment.  But I’m a strategist, not a copywriter.  If I decided that my company, Three Deuce Branding, needed a tagline, I would immediately turn to a copywriter I trust, and would compensate him or her fairly to get to the right result.

I’ve had the most success asking a copywriter to brainstorm a list of taglines within a few specific areas of exploration: “Here are three ideas we’d like to explore.  Drill deep on these.”

Once you get the results back, you have tangible ideas that can be compared and played off each other.  Don’t go for the catchiest – go for the most effective.  Get the idea right, then worry about the wordsmithing.  And expect a few rounds of revisions – even a strong copywriter is unlikely to nail it in the first round, and will benefit from fair and thoughtful feedback.

One of my clients recently adopted a new brand tagline.  To get there, we looked first at the overall marketing system.  Their tools tilted toward web and sales collateral, which were heavily focused on credibility and proof points, so we saw an opportunity for the tagline to convey our higher-order brand aspirations.  We were able to direct a professional copywriter to go deep in that area alone, which streamlined the process and got to the right answer, while saving time and money.

5. A good brand tagline meets certain criteria.

Only now do we come to evaluation and selection.

Let’s say you’ve followed all the steps: You’ve determined that a brand tagline will improve your verbal identity system, AND that you can successfully deploy it.  You’ve identified areas of opportunity and have engaged a copywriter to explore those.  And she has returned with a solid list of candidates, with 3 taglines in particular feeling most viable.  How do you choose?

Use the following three criteria – three O’s:

Ours Alone – Within your competitive set, a successful tagline only applies to you, and truthfully reflects a core aspect of your brand.

One Thing – You have one last chance to check for committee-creep, and this is it.  Given an extremely limited number of words, it’s crucial to do one thing well, not two things half-assed.

Operates Effectively – A successful tagline will fit with and elevate your verbal identity system.  Be clear, not clever.  Say something meaningful and important, and say it well.

A few additional reminders:

Simplicity is table-stakes. I’m assuming here that any brand tagline under consideration is crisp, simple and short.  Nine words is your maximum.  If your copywriter isn’t delivering this as a baseline, fire him.

But, Matthew, what about being memorable? Would I rather have a lively expression of an idea vs. a dull one?  Sure.  But that alone won’t make your tagline instantly memorable.  The tagline’s consistent use in your overall branding system is what will make it memorable.  Truth is memorable; B.S. is not.  Focus is memorable; “cleverness for the sake of cleverness” is not.  Consistency is memorable; erraticism is not.

I hope this post has given you guidance for those moments when you’re considering taglines.  As always, your feedback and your shares are greatly appreciated!


About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2014 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.