Monday, May 12, 2008

Honor the humble tag-line

A friend of mine – author of ten books – greets me with a disdainful, “So, come up with any great slogans lately?” He was referring to writing tag-lines – a job scorned by pointy-headed intellectuals and brand strategists alike.

The top brand strategy firms don’t feel comfortable coming up with tag-lines. Just the phrase “coming up” with anything sounds like an activity handled on a coffee table while watching TV. Hey, let’s come up with a theme for this year’s prom.

To strategic consultants, making up tag-lines is the work of people hired for being “creative,” the guys in earrings who fidget during meetings. Compared with perfecting a brand strategy, developing tag-lines is cheap and gaudy… strictly Vegas.

One thing is clear: Clients love them and need them. Where would Nike be today without “Just do it”? Or Intel without the simple, preposterously self-referential “Intel Inside”? In client-ville, tag-lines rule. Like this one, just revived...

When I hit on a great line, I revel in it. I lie under the trees and picture the words floating across the sky. There was a software company that created a system for rationalizing all the documentation for import-export processing – all the bills of lading, freight statements and customs forms went online, saving global traders billions of dollars. My line for their promise: “Move goods. Not paper.”

Tag-lines appear out of nowhere. A not-for-profit client of mine was promoting a dance program for adults. The fiery marketing lady told me she had the urge to accost women in the street and demand, “Why aren’t you dancing?” I stared at her. My work was over. That was her tag-line.

Some of the best lines are left on the cutting room floor. A medical device company was skittish about adopting this gem: “The science of miracles”… Our clients thought it might be seen as promising divine intervention.

A great metropolitan library rejected this poetical and strategic masterpiece: “Free ideas for a free society.” Sounded like right-wing propaganda to focus-group participants. Are we really a free society when our government suppresses information? I know a screen-writer who hates focus groups. I can understand why.

How about this line for a Middle Eastern bank: “Global mind. Arab soul.” Shortly after submitting that line, our team was fired.

Tag-lines are no substitute for a solid brand strategy and excellent service. No matter how beautiful the fabric, a neck-tie alone can’t make a tasteless jerk come across as a well-dressed gentleman.

A tag-line is by nature light, ephemeral, evocative. Crafting one is like doing a watercolor, not an oil painting. Just kiss the paper with your brush and the color glistens… and then runs… and then gets absorbed. You may only have one shot at it.



Todd said...

Claude, I was similarly saddened when my specialty chemicals client (with a product equally suitable for both stretchable fabrics in clothing and incontinence products) failed to see the beauty in my "Freedom to Move" tagline.

Jay Livingston said...

"Free ideas for a free society" is very similar to the libertarian Reason magazine's "Free minds, free markets" (or something like that).

What narrow-minded clients to reject "Arab soul." Maybe for a bank based in Detroit -- lots of Arabs, lots of soul. Is there a a Motown Savings?

Jerry Kuyper said...

In my first job out of design school, I was given the assignment to design the tagline for Eljer, leader in toilet products.

On the Move

Within seconds my mind conjured up a bowel movement but I went back to my desk to begin. A week after the presentation I asked what had happened in the meeting and my design director said the campaign was dropped because of negative connotations.
I promised myself I wouldn't hold back next time.