Taglines communicate, in the blink of an eye, the mission, points of differentiation, and value proposition of a company or service. They also answer the "why" question: Why does an organization exist?

Business and political history are replete with superb taglines, ranging from Hebrew National Hot Dog's, "We answer to a higher authority" and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch's, "How am I doing?" to MasterCard’s "Priceless" and Dwight D. Eisenhower's "I like Ike."

Sadly, the marketing landscape is also littered with the detritus of such ill-conceived, clunky and downright disingenuous lines as:

  • United's "Fly the friendly skies" (Based on customer satisfaction surveys, "Fly the meanest skies" would be more apt.)
  • The American Express motto: "Don't leave home without it." (Ever try using an AmEx card to pay a restaurant bill in, say, Normandy, France? Don't. Because of AmEx's excessive commercial rates, few, if any, global retailers honor the card outside the U.S.)

If you're an entrepreneur in search of a smart, memorable tagline, here are a few tips to get you started, with one quick caveat: Creating a truly memorable tagline is as challenging for a business executive as it is for a fictional bartender fixing a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) that would please the palate (and steel the nerves) of James Bond, Agent 007 himself. It's not easy.

Take the tagline test.

Here are the questions you need to answer if you ever hope to develop a great tagline. For the purposes of this exercise, let's pretend we're creating a tagline for CodyAir, a new, low-cost, no frills airline serving the Midwest:

  1. Who are you? ("CodyAir is a regional airline that offers the lowest costs in the Mississippi Valley.")
  2. What do you do? ("We help thousands of passengers get to, and from, their destinations daily.")
  3. What one thing sets you apart from your competitors? ("By charging the lowest prices and offering the safest service, CodyAir enables passengers to spend their savings on the more important things in life.")
  4. What would customers say of your product, service, or organization? ("I can deal with the extra tight seats, lack of leg room, and no in-flight snacks or beverages because the airline gets me where I want to go and saves me money.")
  5. What's your vision? ("In tough economic times, CodyAir aspires to become THE go-to choice for cost-conscious Americans everywhere.")

Locate your North Star.

In order to answer the questions above, assemble the senior decision-makers in your organization. Designate a marketing assistant, or external consultant, to conduct the interviews. Make sure the interview subjects know that their comments will be keep OFF-THE-RECORD. You want the bald-faced, gut-wrenching truth that only anonymity can assure. Anonymous answers are your North Star. They'll assure you arrive at an authentic tagline that rings true with every constituent audience.

When interviewing customers, prospects, or former customers, do so one-on-one. Focus groups are a complete waste of time and money, because the alpha male or female in attendance will dominate the conversation--and influence others' opinions.

Now, compare and contrast the answers. If there's a gap between what you and your customers say are your strengths and points of uniqueness, do not proceed with the tagline development. Instead, invest some additional time. Determine why the discrepancies exist and, if possible, make corrections to close the gap. Taglines must ring true with customers.

Finally, if there's dissension within your organization about weaknesses, vision, etc., the founder, or CEO, should play the same role that a vice president does when the U.S. House of Representatives is deadlocked. He, or she, casts the deciding vote to settle the issue once and for all.

The Landscape: What do good, bad and ugly taglines look like?

To provide some further guidance, I've scanned the business world to share what I believe are some  outstanding taglines, as well as a few clunkers that should never have seen the light of day:

    1. Brilliant. I love SAP's tagline: "The Best-Run Businesses Run SAP." They substantiate the claim by enlisting customer organizations as proof points in their ads. I saw one SAP print advertisement of a rock guitarist entitled, "Fender runs SAP." The guitar visual was completely unexpected and, since the brief case study is told from a customer POV, the tagline is 100 percent authentic.
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    3. Bland. Indiana University: "Inspired. For the rest of your life." College graduates want jobs, not inspiration. Show me a college or university with proof that they deliver real-world jobs with terrific growth potential, and I’ll write you a breakthrough tagline. As it now stands, the UI tagline could be borrowed by hundreds, if not thousands, of other U.S. colleges and universities that promise the world but deliver little more than student debt.
    4. Bogus. The Indianapolis, Indiana law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP has a tagline that is more confusing than an I.R.S. tax form. It reads: "Solving tomorrow's problems since 1885." Really? So, the original Mr. Taft was helping solve Syria's use of chemical weapons, Miley Cyrus's twerking and its effect on pre-teen girls, and explains why Joe Biden always says the wrong thing at the wrong time? Talk about, um, visionary. The founder qualifies as the Nostradamus of law.

Values.com ran a very close second to the tea-leaves-reading legal eagles at Taft. I spied a Values.com ad that featured the late Mr. Rogers, and which carried the headline: "Won't you be my neighbor?" Their tagline: "The foundation for a better life," left me guessing as to whether they poured concrete, rebuilt inner-city neighborhoods, or represented deceased television stars.



Make your tagline make people listen.

Be sure your tagline answers the five questions mentioned above, is credible from a reader, viewer, or listener standpoint and is memorable.

I wouldn't suggest my firm's tagline is best-in-class but, coming from a marketing communications firm, "Listen. Engage. Repeat." would qualify as watchwords for any good campaign. They're also a rallying cry for our organization and, when tested with external audiences, elicit such responses as: "That's what we should be doing ourselves. We need a firm who can help us live those words."

In the wacky and wild world of taglines, that's akin to winning the Super Bowl, World Series, and the Indianapolis 500.

Published on: Sep 16, 2013
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.