BRANDING

The New Rules of Writing a Memorable Slogan

Want to come up with the next "Got milk?" We've asked industry pros for their most creative tips for creating a sticky, meaningful tagline.

Geico's "15 minutes" tagline looks clunky and long at first glance, but the phrase worked. It got stuck in the national psyche.

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You could spend hours locked in a room with a team of writers trying to come up with a catchy slogan for your business and still not strike gold. But the folks who are the tops in the field say inspiration often comes in strange places—and often when you least expect it.  Sticking to the conventional wisdom about things like length doesn't always work either: Geico's "15 minutes" tagline looks clunky and long at first glance, but the phrase worked. It got stuck in the national psyche, and before long Conan O'Brien and other TV personalities were repeating it on the air.

Some pros in the industry offer these seven suggestions for writing your own sensational slogan:

1. Count on accidents

"The funny thing about [taglines] is they're usually accidental. They're rarely well planned. You always have something that you've written that you think is perfect, but you do something where you write a script, an actor says something, then just out of nowhere you have a line that catches on. There are so many variables, you don't know where it's going to come from. The hardest assignment we have is when someone says 'We need a tagline.' Never make it an assignment for a writer to do. Usually it has to be a bigger thing."
—Joe Alexander, group creative director at the Martin Agency, which has been behind famous slogans such as: Geico's "15 minutes will save 15 percent or more," and UPS's "What can brown do for you?"

2. Create an emotional response.

"I like it when a tagline takes you somewhere emotionally. Our biggest tag line, 'What happens here, stays here,' takes you to that place where you're on the road doing things you wouldn't normally do. A tag line kind of takes you there in your head, when you were on those road trips and had a little more freedom. [Mazda's] Zoom Zoom,' makes you feel like you were a kid. You can kind of go back in your head to a time when you were either young or happy or smart. You dial it down to the one communication thing you want to get across and then you try and come up with a line that sells that idea. Sometimes a line comes before your campaign."
—Arnie DiGeorge, executive creative director, R&R Partners, which created the famous Las Vegas campaign.

3. Strike the right balance

"Unlike a company's logo, a tagline can evolve more often to reflect changes in the marketplace, trends or product lines. The challenge is developing something that presents a clear, concise message to consumers. It's important to strike a balance between remaining relevant and fresh without causing confusion, or worse, distrust. Changing a tagline too frequently, or sending messages that can be misinterpreted or misunderstood can damage your brand identity as much as a 'bad' product or customer service mishap. The good news is that a well-developed brand can build an impenetrable bond between you and consumers."
—Jerry Matthews, account executive, Kilmer & Kilmer, which has worked with Target and Marshall Field's.

4. Don't be afraid of going long

"A lot of our start-up or re-branding clients ask if they can have a slogan like "Just do it" or "Got milk?" Short and snappy, they say. But as a guy who likes long copy, I'm reminded of industry immortal Phyllis K. Robinson, who died this past New Year's Eve. Her slogan in the '60s for a bread brand, 'You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Real Jewish Rye,' not only became a pop culture catchphrase, but its rhythm, syntax and tone encapsulated the brand's authentic persona. Along the same lines was the tag for kosher hot dog maker Hebrew National: 'We answer to a higher authority.' But not every long tagline has to be Jewish, like our agency's line for Esurance: 'Technology when you want it, people when you don't.'"
—Robert Duncan, partner and executive creative director at advertising agency Duncan/Channon.

5. Negative is not always a bad thing.

"Sometimes if there's a word like 'never' or 'no one' or 'don't' or any of those kinds of words, among my experience there's a hypersensitivity to anything that might slightly smack of negativity. But 'nobody doesn't like Sarah Lee' is an extremely positive statement. There are a million really positive taglines that clients or businesses find make their negative antenna switch, and they reject it out of hand. They don't take time to think about the line, which can be very positive. The sensitivity to negativity is nuts. I think it's just out of control. Take it case by case. Don't rule out negatives off hand, without even thinking about what it is actually saying."
—Jim Morris, aka Tagline Jim, a marketing consultant, writer and occasional columnist for AdWeek and BrandWeek.

6. Make a call to action

"Some great lines are a call to action, like 'Just do it.' It's like a rallying cry. Really great lines primarily come from having a very, very deep and thorough understanding of your audience. You have to understand what they're going to react to. What you do is try and figure out where they connect at the highest level. Your brand can allow them to do an aspirational thing.

Computers will never be able to do it. There's not really a formula. I'm not sure that you can really deconstruct it. I think that somebody who is smart and talented has an inspiration and that's where they come from. An awful lot of advertising communication that works the best is that kind of communication that breaks the rules."
—Chuck Porter, chairman, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, which worked on campaigns for Burger King, BMW Mini and anti-smoking campaign thetruth.com.

7. Stay away from buzz words

"'Innovation,' 'global,' 'insights,' 'power:' Consumers of all kinds are used to seeing this language plastered everywhere. It's so common that it's just noise. Instead, show how your brand lives up to these qualities or benefits in a compelling way.

It sounds like a no-brainer, but it's really easy to get bogged down in what you want to say about your brand and not what your target audiences need you to say. Step back and ask yourself, 'Am I adding something new to our brand communications?' and 'What will this mean to others?' The tagline is not for you. It's a way to make a connection.
—Jasmine Tanasy, director of naming and writing at the New York office of Landor, which has worked with Tide and Frito-Lay.

Last updated: Jan 31, 2011

TIM DONNELLY | Columnist | Inc.com Contributor

Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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