Creative on purpose Do you still need a tagline? By Brent Wilson

Oct 09, 2017

Taglines have been a part of marketing since before the New York Times launched “All the news that's fit to print” in 1896. Since then, taglines have become an integral part of marketing. But with so much change in the media landscape, are they still valuable? If so, what makes a great tagline now? When and how should they be used?

A quick history

Taglines were originally used to communicate a distinctive brand or product attribute or advantage. They were designed to serve as residual reminders of heavy-duty advertising campaigns.

  • Takes a licking and keeps on ticking
  • The quicker picker-upper
  • Tastes great, less filling

The 1990s saw taglines start to reflect consumers’ dreams, ambitions and desires, often through a premise or an imperative.

  • Think different
  • Just do it
  • What happens here, stays here

Fast-forward to today, when many of the most admired brands—Amazon, Google, Starbucks, Whole Foods, Nordstrom—don’t even have taglines. Some have dropped the taglines that helped propel them to greatness. For example, Apple hasn’t used “Think different” for years.

An Adweek article by Denise Lee Yohn started the conversation about taglines back in 2013. (And informed a lot of my thinking here.) She wrote, “The death of the tagline may be overstating the situation, but there’s a growing school of thought that considers taglines as bygone marketing relics.”

What’s the problem?

Taglines emerged in an era of top-down marketing, when brands spent more on traditional mass media campaigns. Today's modern media demands more flexibility.

Most communications are designed to be shared by the audience with each other. As Yohn also noted, a six-second pre-roll video or 140 character tweet requires that communications flatten and simplify. Taglines create problems for logos and clutter the message.

To add value in this new media environment, a tagline has to facilitate sharing. It needs to speak more to what the consumer values than about what the brand wants.

Speak to your purpose, not to your product

Taglines can still fulfill a very important role. They let audiences quickly and efficiently sum up what a company is all about. But to be effective nowadays they need to speak more to your purpose than to your product’s benefits. A tagline can serve as a valuable shortcut to creating a connection with customers.

  • Open happiness
  • Find yours
  • Belong anywhere
  • Occupy together

These taglines are far different from product differentiators. They embrace their audiences, encouraging unity, belonging and togetherness in the face of daunting change and uncertainty. Research shows that the majority of consumers now say buying from companies that share their personal values is important. The new, powerful role for taglines is to serve as an invitation to share our most closely held values.

Warning: An inauthentic tagline is worse that none at all

Before we all jump on the “modern tagline” bandwagon, a word of caution. An inauthentic tagline is worse than none at all. If a tagline is unbelievable or makes a claim the brand can’t back up, audiences lose the precious trust the brand was hoping to build.

One thing is certain: Marketing’s dramatic shift has made the clear and memorable communication of a company’s values incredibly important. A tagline that manages to do that is “fit to print.”

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