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Tagline Takedown: Which Media Properties Deliver on Their Promises?

Media taglines feature the same mish-mash of the superb, the confusing, the pedantic, and the pathetically self-serving as other industries' taglines.
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Medical doctors abide by the rules of the Hippocratic Oath, whose first line reads, "First, do no harm."

That same oath should be applied to members of the Fourth Estate, and the marketers they choose to create their taglines and marketing messages.

While I'm not here to analyze the integrity, content or accuracy of print, radio, and broadcast outlets, I thought it might be fascinating to see if leading international, national, print, and broadcast media properties delivered on the promise contained in their taglines.

As has been the case with other industries I've researched, media taglines seem to feature the same mish-mash of the superb, the confusing, the pedantic, and the pathetically self-serving.

So, without further ado, let's go to the videotape.

WSJ vs NYT: "All the ads fit to print." (Guess who wins.)

I’d assumed the very best examples of delivering on a brand promise would be practiced by the very best, and most respected, media. In reviewing the websites, however, I found I was only half-right.

The Wall Street Journal's tagline reads, "The news you want. The insight you need." And a review of the publication's home page revealed just that. The site is chock-a-block with business and financial news, breaking stories, WSJ’s "Start-Up of the Year," and links to countless analysis pieces.

Importantly, there's a constant stock market "ticker," which not only reports market fluctuations, but which, critically, provides visitors with a one-click option to gather further perspective on why the Dow is up, down, or stagnant. The Journal delivers on its promise.

Sadly, the same can’t be said of the WSJ's arch-rival, The New York Times.

Boasting one of Madison Avenue's most storied taglines, "All the news that's fit to print," one would expect the website to be a rich panoply of hard and soft news, feature articles that surprise and delight, and editorial that, while decidedly liberal, nonetheless, provides cogent, reasoned explanations for a particular point of view. Well, think again.

Sure, I found news that was fit to print. But I was positively inundated with banner advertisements. I counted two ads for Top Chef, as well as others for British Airways, Columbia University, and a realtor, 35XV. It made me wonder if the Times is hoping to set a Guinness Record for the most visual distractions on a single home page.

I suggest the Old Gray Lady changes its tagline to read, “All the ads fit to print.”

Morning network television: "Welcome home" to what, Murrow and Cronkite?

Next I trolled the morning network infotainment programs, but was surprised to find that only CBS This Morning had a tagline: "Welcome home."

Let me begin by saying Charlie Rose, Gayle King, and Nora O'Donnell are far-and-away the very best morning team. Their rivals on The Today Show and Good Morning America have clearly lost their way, and now serve up a dog's breakfast of music, food, pop stars, and mind-numbing nonsense.

CBS This Morning provides far more news and analysis, especially in the critical first hour before "serious" viewers leave their homes for work. But "Welcome home" completely misses the mark in conveying a distinct competitive advantage and viewer benefit.

Here’s what I think "Welcome Home" means: CBS marketing types reasoned that because their morning show contained far more hard news that competitors, the Tiffany Network had returned to its roots, restored the glory days of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, et al, and were welcoming home viewers who had grown weary of Matt, Al, George, and Robin in the morning.

The tagline is a real problem. I'd suggest CBS bid adieu to "Welcome Home" and opt for something like this:

   "News with your bacon and eggs"

   "Starting your day with what will be important all day"

   "Don’t leave home without it"

Sure, they’d have to pay royalties, but that last one, the old American Express tagline, would really suit them.

Global showdown: "Nation shall speak peace unto nation" vs no comment, no noise.

Since I, for one, like to know what's going on beyond our borders, I routinely scan the BBC, The Financial Times and, yes Virginia, the recently launched U.S. version of Al Jazeera.

The BBC has broadcast everything from King Edward VIII's abdication and Winston Churchill's "finest moment" 1940 rally rouser to the Beatles’ earliest tunes and tear-jerking coverage of Princess Di's death.

One would expect a media property with such amazing credentials to sport a tagline that reflects pure gravitas mixed with immediacy. Instead, I found this: "Nation shall speak peace unto nation."

Well, that's nice. But it’s positively pastoral in its composition. 

The BBC continues to be one of the preeminent sources of news and insight on the carnival of carnage in today’s world, so why not say so to a first-time website visitor?

When I read the tagline, I thought I'd mistakenly landed on the Church of England's website. The BBC needs to tell it like it is. I’d suggest something like:

    "Global change. Constant analysis."

Tell me you've seen it all before, and can help me make sense out of a world gone mad as a hatter.

The Financial Times nails its raison d'etre with four simple words: "No FT. No comment."

That's brilliant. It tells me, as a reader, that if I haven't kept current with FT reportage and analysis, I really won't have an informed opinion on the news of the world (not to be confused with the late, no-so-great Murdoch newspaper of the same name).

A disgraced politician may be satisfied with a "No comment" remark, but I want to be armed and equipped for my next high-level cocktail conversation about Kim Jong-un, al-Assad, or Manchester United.

Thanks to the tagline, the FT has reassured me I’ll possess the quiet, understated British confidence to say, "Well, Buffy, having just read an essay in the FT, I can tell you you’re quite wrong. And, I’ll have a vodka martini. Shaken, not stirred."

Al Jazeera America’s tagline is "Know more news. No more noise."

I may be tried for treason, but I am totally impressed with the Al Jazeera website, its superb tagline, and its delivery on a unique brand promise. You won't find any Right or Left-Wing rants on Al Jazeera America. Nor will you find obvious propaganda manufactured by Hamas, Al Qaeda, or any other anti-American organization.

Al Jazeera also features an impressive array of highly credentialed, highly credible journalists to boot. Al Jazeera, which means The Island, is just that when it comes to delivering on a smart, memorable brand promise.

Beltway gridlock: FOX vs MSNBC both like tricking audiences.

Any discussion of media taglines would be incomplete without a review of Fox News and MSNBC.

I believe each could be described as the monkey wrench of Beltway gridlock.

Let's start by veering to the right:

Fox News  has invested lots of time and money in marketing its "Fair and Balanced" tagline. I suppose if one were a card-carrying member of the Tea Party, an Evangelical Christian, or a hater of all things Obama, the tagline (and website experience) would all ring true.

But for a mainstream America website visitor, foxnews.com is perhaps the most successful one-trick pony in cable history. Except that pony’s more like a hungry wolf with wounded prey in sight.

The Fox "news" is augmented with editorials that are, in turn, accompanied by video. All contain the same basic message: Obamacare is worse than the Black Plague, Hurricane Katrina, and the Johnstown Flood rolled into one. This headline says it all: "Shutdown? Not really. Turns out it’s more of a slim down."

I respect the cable channel's POV, but don't insult me with a tagline that’s only applicable to one segment of the viewing public.

Time to lean left:

MSNBC is Lex Luthor to Fox's Superman (or, vice versa, if you happen to live in a Blue State). The decidedly liberal cable channel's tagline is Lean Forward.

Lean Left would be a more accurate descriptor of the content one finds on www.tv.msnbc.com. That said, the site is temporarily disabled while a new, upgraded version is being created. MSNBC’s message to visitors? "It's what Progressives are waiting for." Fox fans would suggest the new site is what Socialists are waiting for. 

Be careful what you promise.

Taglines are a slippery slope for any person, place, or thing. Too many are ill-conceived and fail to take into account whether the promise made is in fact what we, the consumer, experience. When done poorly, taglines can really do harm to a brand.

It's both surprising and comforting to know some of the best representatives of the Fourth Estate (and Hollywood) make the same ham-handed mistakes as Corporate America.

My dad always told me, "Be careful what you wish for." Marketers, big or small, well-known or anonymous, need to be careful what they promise.

IMAGE: NS Newsflash/Flickr
Last updated: Oct 3, 2013

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

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



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