Does every business need a tagline?
Does every business need a tagline? Gary Slack shares his thoughts on why so many company's taglines often fall short of the mark
Taglines, or slogans (as they used to be called) are everywhere. You hardly hear a radio or TV commercial without some three-to-five-word, breathlessly spoken statement at the end.
And they’re almost always hiding underneath company names in corporate websites and digital ads, at the end of print and magazine ads and on billboards. They’re in our LinkedIn profiles, and we even put them on our business cards, those of us who still use cards.
Why taglines? What do they achieve? Are we marketers all lemmings, using them because everyone else in the world seems to be doing so?
And by everyone, I mean everybody. Car dealers; plumbers and HVAC people (right on their trucks… some are not bad); dog groomers and walkers – always puns and corny, but sometimes clever; pool cleaners, landscapers – the list goes on.
We seem to be genetically inclined to sum ourselves up in three to five words. Some people even have personal taglines on LinkedIn: My favorite: “Strategic visionary. Visionary strategist.”
What do business taglines actually do?
I often wonder about the true value of taglines. For example, does anybody really ever remember them? 'Just do it', yes – although, Nike’s tagline these days seems to be its swoosh. Some 99% of the rest, probably not.
But they do serve a purpose—and might influence people at the time of consideration even if the taglines fade quickly from our advertising-cluttered minds.
Here are three reasons:
- A tagline can help explain what an unknown or poorly named company does. That would've helped in the early days of Amazon. Just think, 'World domination' these days.
- It can help a company communicate its purpose, difference and value. In a parity world that often is a sea of sameness, any extra hooks can help.
- It can build internal esprit de corps. For workforces, taglines can be miniature pep talks, reminding employees of why their company is special.
It's number three that I think is often the driving force – providing a rallying cry and a source of pride for employees. Just like advertising in places like The Wall Street Journal is as much for a company's workforce as it is for its current and future customers, taglines fall into the same bucket.
Businesses that have taglines, some that don’t
Probably my favorite tagline is 'Predict the unpredictable', from software company SmartSignal (now part of GE). Based on technology developed at Argonne National Laboratories, SmartSignal created software that could detect impending failures in all kinds of turbine power systems much sooner than any other technologies. The tagline really nailed what the company did and delivered to its customers.
Think about GE's current tagline: 'Imagination at work', adopted in 2003 after the company jettisoned the classic 'We bring good things to life', a tagline that went all the way back to 1979. It communicates a benefit of working with GE, but, as good as it is, it's probably far more remembered and thought about by GE's 300,000 or so employees, rather than by outside audiences.
Not all companies use or need taglines. Think Google (no, 'Do no evil' is not a tagline), Facebook, Amazon, Apple ('Think Different' in the past was more of a campaign theme than a tagline), eBay, Twitter, Uber and so on.
So, why don't these companies employ a tagline? People have so much familiarity with these brands, they'd just be cluttering their crisp identities by adding words. Think Jodie Foster in the movie Contact not needing the superfluous chair the human engineers thought she would need in the wormhole-traveling alien sphere. Just clutter.
In addition, for companies that have very explicit, very benefit-oriented names, taglines also may be unnecessary. Though the company is struggling, Zenefits has one of the best b2b company names I have encountered in many years. It’s almost a name and a tagline in one. A CEO’s nirvana, theoretically.
Although the mighty and inventive 3M used 'Innovation' as its tagline in earlier years, until recently it had gone without a tagline for some time. In fact, the company had come to be so strongly associated with innovation that, a bit like Nike and 'Just do it', it stopped using a tagline or even needing to use it. Just thinking, saying or hearing of 3M brought the word innovation to mind. 3M didn’t even need to say the word, in much the way GE does with 'Imagination at work'.
But, after resting on its laurels for way too long, 3M added a tagline two years ago based on research that said the brains of 20-, 30- and even 40-somethings in business-buying roles didn't possess that same strong association.
So, the company ended up bolting the words 'Science. Applied to Life' to its name and logo. Could the company have worked harder to make the 3M name itself mean more to younger business buyers? Yes, but that would have been much more expensive than inexpensively adding a bulky tagline and calling it a day.
Some reasons why many business taglines underwhelm
So many company taglines are pure corporate speak or 'happy words' – developed in an undisciplined manner (too often by sales or product people or even senior leaders) and sanitized and weakened by the sales prevention (er … legal) department or by risk-averse corporate communications people.
One of the blandest happy word taglines I’ve ever seen is 'We’re here to help', which BMO Harris Bank has been using in Chicago. It’s under their name on their website, but when you do a search on Google, another tagline-like phrase comes up right after their name: 'Banking with a human touch'. A bit unclear, Harris. Does the latter line really resonate? Don’t you want to get caught in the act of being human versus promising a human touch in everything you do? Also, who wants to be touched in a 'human way' by their bank? Creepy. Also, with regard to what appears to still be the main tagline, what advertiser doesn’t want to help? Maybe they should merge the two taglines into 'We’re here to touch you'.
Then there are trade associations and professional societies that have very descriptive and basic names – and maybe are in most need of catchy taglines. Here’s a tagline I love, 'Feeding the minds that feed the world' from the Institute of Food Technologists, a global professional society of some 22,000 food scientists.
Even states and cities use taglines, mainly with travelers and tourists in mind. In the 1970s and 1980s, with Michigan on its heels, the state rolled out 'Say yes to Michigan', which became a battle cry for all Michiganders. It endured for years. More recently, Rhode Island replaced its boring 'Discover beautiful Rhode Island' tourism slogan with 'Cooler & warmer', which ended up being mocked on social and national media.
Be careful about replacing iconic, time-tested taglines
Maybe worse than adopting a tagline when one's not really needed or adopting one that is terribly pedestrian, is to jettison one that's worked brilliantly for years and still arguably defines the brand, inspires the workforce and resonates with customers.
In my opinion, some 'brand damagers' with the actual job title of brand manager did this to Avis a few years ago by throwing away 'We try harder'. The replacement: the unarguably forgettable 'It's your space' – huh?
For some reason, insurance companies, in particular, are on a seemingly mad dash to replace previously iconic taglines remembered or recalled and even revered by many.
Apparently, in a bid to target younger consumer buyers, Allstate adjusted its classic 'You're in good hands' tagline to 'It's good to be in good hands'. OK, so goodness is good?
Stare Farm, 135 miles to the south in Illinois, also recently scrapped its multi-decades-old tagline 'Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there', with the much less neighborly 'Here to help life go right'. There was actually an interim tagline shelved fairly quickly titled 'Get to a better State' – I guess neighbors aren’t entirely what they used to be. And we know you're selling more than car insurance these days, State Farm, but good luck with that clunker.
One tagline that brand damager after brand damager tried to kill with only minimal success is United Airlines' 'Fly the friendly skies', created years ago. It's endured, even after the airline briefly replaced it with 'It’s time to fly' in 2004, and then briefly with 'Let’s fly together' after the United-Continental merger in 2010.
Think twice about ordering up a tagline in the first place. Depending on the company name, the firm’s longevity and the company’s reputation, one may not be needed. But if you go for it, make it great and stick with it as long as you can. For consistency’s sake, think thrice about replacing a great tagline with something more pedestrian, which seems to be in fashion these days.