Are taglines still relevant?

Taglines have become so common in modern advertising that most companies consider them essential. Are they important? Maybe a better question is, “do they even matter at all?”

A consumer survey not long ago found that taglines like Blockbuster Video’s “Go Home Happy,” the promise by American Express to “Do More” and United Airlines’ emphasis on “Rising” are failing to impress consumers. In fact, most people simply don’t recognize most taglines. Even if they recognize the phrases, they can’t connect it to the advertisers.

New York-based ad agency Partners & Shevack/Wolf said that only half of the people surveyed recognized most taglines, and that “a remarkably high number of consumers were unable to correctly identify which brand or product these taglines were touting.”

Here are some examples from the survey: Nine out of 10 people recognized the line “Like a Rock” from General Motors’ Chevrolet Trucks ads. But fewer than four in 10 could correctly say the line belonged to Chevy. Nissan had a bumpier ride, with only eight per cent recognizing it as the owner of the “Enjoy The Ride” slogan. I wouldn’t have known that one myself.

Even BMW’s “The Ultimate Driving Machine” (which has been in use for decades) was off the road for most people. Although 60 per cent of the respondents were familiar with the slogan, only 11 per cent could connect it with BMW. “I was shocked by BMW’s result, given that within the industry [it] is one of the most well-known theme lines,” said Brett Shevack, chief executive of the agency, which is a unit of Toronto-based Wolf Group. “We are forced to recognize that consumers do not work at agencies and are not as advertising-involved as we’d like them to be.”

There are two basic problems with taglines.

They’re predictable

The first problem is one common to all modern marketing messages. People are busy and inundated with commercial messages. They shut out most messages they see or hear, because you simply can’t function if you tried to retain everything. Only the most relevant stuff gets stored mentally in a place where it can be recalled. Everything else is just thrown away.

Too many taglines have nothing distinctive or valuable to say. Generic lines that are nothing more than vacant things anyone can say just don’t cut it. United Airlines used to have a great tagline, “Fly the friendly skies.” Yes, it required that their service live up to that promise, and that takes work. But it was specific and meaningful to travelers. That gave the brand power and relevance. The current one, “Rising” is just stupid. What airline isn’t “rising” every time an airplane rotates off the runway, even if they extorted their passengers with service fees that exceeded ticket prices?

To be effective, a tagline needs to be specific and unique to the brand. It also needs to relate to something that matters to the customer. Lines like “We bring good things to life” (GE) are too much about you and can’t resonate with customers. The same goes for taglines like “Going Places.” Who cares where you’re going? I’ve seen a number of variations on “Quality is Job one.” Yawn. Don’t talk about quality. Anyone can say that, so it’s useless. Prove it by making good products. Visa’s tagline, “It’s everywhere you want it to be” was identified with Visa by only 15% of survey respondents. I’m not surprised that it scored so low. It’s generic and meaningless to anyone but Visa’s marketing department.

Influence takes time

The second problem is that getting your tagline recognized doesn’t happen overnight. The longer a tagline stays in use, the more chance it has to be remembered. Coke has been “The Real Thing” since the 1930’s. As was mentioned earlier, even BMW has trouble with recognition, and they’ve been using their “Ultimate Driving Machine” tagline since the mid-70’s. Yet too many companies change their taglines every time a new marketing director or CEO gets hired. How can you expect a new tagline to be of any value to people, especially if it isn’t any better than the old one?

How do you create a good tagline?

There is still a place for taglines, because they can keep the marketing message focused and will provide a consistent bridge between all your messaging. But you need to put in some effort to create a good one.

First, make sure your tagline doesn’t break the rules described above. Ask yourself if the proposed tagline is likely to matter to prospective customers. Ask yourself if it will be relevant 10 years from now. If it doesn’t meet those tests, then chances are you shouldn’t be going down that road. The tagline should support your primary marketing messages and brand position.

See if you can modify your existing tagline to make it more meaningful, rather than just throwing out everything and starting over. Shevack said that when his agency pitched for the Dutch Boy Paints account a few years ago, the company’s ads were using “The Look That Lasts” tagline. “It was really nailing down the two most important things in the paint category, durability and beauty,” he said. “We found in research that those were the two benefits consumers were looking for. But they weren’t explicitly linked to the brand, so we suggested changing the line to ‘The Lasting Look Of Dutch Boy’ instead.”

Allstate Insurance’s tagline, “You’re In Good Hands With Allstate,” also includes the brand name as part of the tagline and registered a 97 per cent recognition rate in the survey. So there’s certainly something to be said for including the company name if it makes sense. But don’t put that so high on the priority list that you destroy something great just to force the company name in there. It’s about balance!

George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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