Three Tagline Traps You’ll Want to Avoid

It’s really easy to create – or approve – an incredulous, self-serving platitude as a tagline.

It’s done every day, even by people who should “no” better.

I’m not going to be naming names in this post, but even without my help you’ll conjure up examples from your own experiences; examples from companies big and small whose advertising and promotion you are exposed to on a daily basis.

If you’re like most of us, you’ve learned to filter them out of your consciousness after a while because you realize they’re meaningless.

Lots of taglines are adopted as part of the branding process because folks think they’re critical to their marketing efforts. Certainly a tagline can crystallize a brand promise and make it memorable, but just as often you get an incredulous, self-serving platitude. In those situations, the tagline distracts and detracts from the brand’s promise and image.

Anyway, here are three questions I raise whenever I need to evaluate a tagline.

Is the tagline creditable?

Quite often taglines make sweeping claims that are not, or cannot be, substantiated. They sound good on the surface, but are too far from reality to be believed. Okay, I couldn’t resist naming this name: Dunkin’ Donut’s “American Runs on Dunkin’ Donuts”. Really? And all this time I thought it was gasoline. The point is that the statement just isn’t creditable. It’s an ad slogan straight from the ad agency’s “creative” department. (As an aside, someday I’ll share what I think are the distinctions and functions of taglines vs slogans vs headlines. That may take several blog posts, in fact.) Now I do expect a tagline to have a little zest to it. And some humor or even a double entandre will help make the tagline memorable. But claims to be first when it’s patently not true, declarations of superiority when your brand is number three or four, statements of capability that no one possesses: these are tagline traps that need to be avoided if credibility is to be prized.

Is the tagline self-serving?

This type of tagline was probably written for a fast approval by an egocentric executive. Well, maybe not all of them, but I’m pretty sure a great number of the self-serving lines were third or fourth attempts to get an approval from in-bred managers. So the creators, in desperation, serve back what management would like to think the brand represents when “the market” knows better. These taglines will usually begin with “We”, and then go on to claim whatever this year’s “hot button” (is it still “being green”?) happens to be – or at least what management has spent the most money developing most recently. The question is: “Where does the consumer fit in?” Quite often what management considers important is of no relevance to the consumer and this is reflected in a lot of self-serving taglines.

Is the tagline a platitude?

According to my copy of The American Heritage Dictionary, a platitude is “a trite remark or statement”. And “trite” is defined as “overused and commonplace; lacking interest or originality”. Platitudes do not make good taglines. Yet you’ll find a lot of taglines in this category. The folks from Y2 Marketing had a sure-fire way of identifying platitudes. They said if upon hearing or reading a tagline your reaction was, “Well, I should hope so!”, you’re experiencing a platitude. We run into these kinds of taglines all the time: “We care about our customers”, “Quality is what we strive for”, “Our people know ______”.

Two more ways to evaluate taglines

Here are a couple more criteria you can use in judging taglines. First, does it differentiate our business from our competitors? If not, back to the drawing board – no explanation required. Second, does it reflect and summarize the one idea our brand wants to communicate? This second question goes back to the branding process and has to do with having all the branding elements integrated in lock-step. There should be no disconnects

So, these are the negative points to keep in mind whether you’re creating or approving a tagline. Now you know what I suggest you not do. Next post I’ll attempt to provide some positive approaches to writing taglines.

6 thoughts on “Three Tagline Traps You’ll Want to Avoid

  1. When come to tag line, it is always a big challenge to most of the advertisers and companies. the most important thing is the companies should consider what is the message to be delivered, when everyone looks at the tag line ,it is clear and understandable..eg: FedEx…”we live to deliver” it is clear n precise..

  2. I gotta say the Dunkin’ Donuts slog/line (did I just invent a new word?) without a doubt strengthened the brand for me and frankly (and unfortunately) has gotten me to visit them more often than I used to. As an old-school ad guy I understand and agree with everything you say above as a method for writing taglines – except for the effect of their ultimate result. And the only important result is how a brand makes you feel. This tagline, regardless of breaking the rules you outline, made me like the brand that can poke fun at itself – subconsciuosly. I hadn’t really thought about my feelings for Dunkin’ until after reading your blog. Clearly America doesn’t “run on Dunkin'”, but I believe that’s the whole point. It’s quirky and fun and is in line with their post-“time to make the donuts” strategy that, for me, started with their ad campaign jingle “Doin’ things is what I like to do…..” Pretty funny stuff.
    Does it “say” much about their brand? Not sure. Has it made drop in a few more times this year? Yes.

  3. Peter: do you really think Dunkin Donuts adopted a tagline for the “fun of it”? I’m not so sure. I guess they are aspiring to a position at the top of their category and this was their clever but incredulous attempt at making that claim. But I see no benefit, no differentiation, no reason to believe. Personally, I’ve never entered a Dunkin Donut establishment since they adopted the tag. Martin

  4. But Felex, isn’t “we live to deliver” pretty insular? Self-serving? Where’s the benefit in terms a customer can have empathy with? I know it’s quite a challenge, and that’s why so many companies have bad taglines. The key is to begin with your brand platform – identify your key differentiator. And make sure then that customers can’t substitute your competitors’ names in place of yours when the tagline is presented. If they can, your tagline doesn’t reflect your uniqueness, the one thing that makes you different and special. Martin

  5. I guess that’s my point. The benefit or differentiating point doesn’t have to be on-paper-obvious any more. Long gone are the days when a few giants with enough money to advertise were the only ones competing for your attention and dollars. These days it’s almost more important for a company to be emotionally open and accessible. And that’s what becomes your “benefit” or brand platform. The combination of younger generations being more skeptical of large corporations coupled with their access to infinite amounts of information and a million more choices makes this new take on differentiation a necessity in my opinion. However, I agree that you still need to sell you product and a tagline that doesn’t is a waste of ink. So, that said – the underlying strategy of “America runs on Dunkin'” is really about their coffee. Some time in the last few years they became known as having the best coffee. I don’t know if it came out of some random taste test or what but they rode the tide and started using coffee as a differentiator and gained millions of new customers. The tagline “American runs on Dunkin'” is simply a play on caffeine being the real fuel that drives America with Dunkin’ Donuts being its service station.

  6. There are so many people who destory their image by using taglines that do not stand the test of time or simply destroy their professionalism. I see this frequently in small businesses who want to capture the catch phrase of the day with taglines like “The PR Divas” or “The Retail Recession-istas.”

    Some of the best taglines have been used for decades and have no need to change. Many businesses would be better off saving the trendy vernacular for an advertising or social media campaign, and choosing a tagline that suggests their their offering is enduring, not just the flavor of the month.

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