Quick question: What is Starbucks' slogan?

It's a trick question: Starbucks doesn't have a formal slogan. It has a mission statement: "To inspire and nurture the human spirit--one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time."

But that is not exactly a slogan, which my dictionary defines as "a brief attention-getting phrase used in advertising or promotion." 

Another quick question: What is Dunkin' Donuts' slogan? 

This you might know. It's "America Runs on Dunkin'." 

This simple comparison illustrates two larger points: 

1. A slogan is not a necessity for national retailers. 

2. Whether you prefer Starbucks to Dunkin' or vice versa, it probably has nothing to do with the slogan. 

Why, then, is Burger King getting so much attention for its recent decision to change its slogan to "Be Your Way," after using "Have It Your Way" for 40 years?

Is it actually possible that consumers, previously on the fence about whether to eat at Burger King, will now comfortably step inside, confident they're dining in a place that embraces them for who they really are? 


The Case for a New Slogan

Imagine what it's like to be obese. You're arguably in the only group (perhaps aside from smokers) that politicians and corporations are still allowed to publicly criticize. Everywhere you go, you're told that you're a heart attack waiting to happen. That you need to make better choices. 

Now imagine there's a restaurant where you don't feel demonized.

In the message of "Be Your Way," there's utter acceptance. For that reason, it's easy to see why Burger King would choose it. "Fast food companies have taken such a big hit, getting criticized for their contribution to the obesity problem," observes Jerome Williams, a professor at Rutgers University who has studied consumer behavior and marketing, in Bloomberg Businessweek.

"'Be Your Way' is suggesting that it's an individual choice to eat [at Burger King] and people can make their own choices." 

The Challenge for Burger King

The annals of business history are littered with companies who attribute their success, in part, to their simplistic slogans. Michael Ahn, who led a turnaround at LG Electroncs North America, has credited that company's "Be Good" motto; Kevin Plank, the ballyhooed founder of Under Armour, emphasizes two of the company's slogans: "We Will" and "We Must Protect This House." 

Here's the challenge: Burger King, as a company, will now have to live up to the slogan. Will every Burger King employee feel as if the company lets him or her "Be Your Way?" If not, then the slogan arguably becomes a hollow message, intended only to pander to prospective consumers.

Ideally, a slogan should resonate with all shareholders--not just potential customers. In 2005, when Vineet Nayar became president of HCL Technologies, the company was a "second-tier" player in India's highly competitive IT services sector, notes the MIT Sloan Management Review. But Nayar, behind the slogan "Employees First, Customers Second," led a cultural transformation. Turnover rates dropped and growth rates became industry-leading.

Likewise, 11 years ago, when GE changed its slogan from "We Bring Good Things To Life" to "Imagination at Work," it was not only reflecting a brand-broadening beyond consumer products. It was emphasizing the technical prowess of its employees. 

These two examples illustrate why sloganeering can be important to organizations. If it's done right, it will not only inspire a customer base, it will properly reflect the priorities of the entire organization.

The Big Picture

Peter Golder, a professor of marketing at Dartmouth's Tuck School, wrote a compelling essay about Burger King's brand overhaul three years ago, when the company introduced new healthy menu items, bolstered by an advertising campaign featuring Jay Leno, David Beckham, and Mary J. Blige.

Golder criticized Burger King's campaign for having more flash than substance: "Long-term equity is built around food, or the dining experience. That's the great thing McDonald's has built," he wrote. "Burger King is more built around, 'Look at me as I flap my arms around and get attention.'"

Burger King's recent change in slogan ultimately comes down to the same thing. Today, tomorrow, and this entire week, Burger King will be flapping its arms around, and getting lots of attention.

But winning the long-term battle must be more than a mere matter of phrasing.