How to write a tagline that transforms a business

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The formula for creating a business that will succeed in today’s post-advertising marketing is pretty simple. Firstly establish a coherent purpose for your business (and contrary to popular wisdom this doesn’t have to be anything particularly worthy, it just needs to be reasonably exciting and unique). Secondly take that purpose and use it to develop your business in interesting ways that live up to it. Whatever you say you’re all about, be all about it, the way that Patagonia “cause no unnecessary harm” by fixing all the clothes they sell for free, or the way that Airbnb help people “belong anywhere” not only by allowing the public to offer beds to travellers, but meals and tours too. When you have a clear reason to exist like these guys do, and then you go overboard in an imaginative way to fulfil it, your business becomes its own advertising, and people won’t be able to help communicating your message every time they talk about you.

The thing is though, this kind of clarity and focus is easier said that done. The fact is that most businesses aren’t really particularly clear what exactly they’re here for, and every person they employ works for a different company in their own mind. Sound familiar? With this kind of confusion no innovation can grow – and if your own employees can’t align around a central point then the wider public have no chance. What they need is a central thought, a thought so clear and usable like the examples mentioned above that it essentially acts a “creative brief” to every person in the business, allowing them all to do their day job in a slightly differentiated way – which combined together will add up to a remarkable and inspiring business.

Now many brands do have a central thought like this – it’s their tagline. Whilst often denigrated as a piece of marketing fluff, a tagline (when you think about it), is actually the central existential statement of a business. “This is what we’re about”. “This is what we’re here for”. So given that your tagline “is” you, you’d think that it would be a pretty important thing to get right, right? The problem is most businesses get it deeply wrong. Rather than being the nucleus of a business from which everything else flows, helping guide every decision and radiating through every pore, it simply becomes a platitude – something that’s more likely to deliver eye rolls than solutions to the employees that sit under it.

If this sounds like you then you have no hope of ever becoming a business that catches the 21st century public’s imagination, because without this guiding star you’ll never be aligned enough to innovate and have people understand you and thus, talk about you.

But it is fixable.

There are some simple rules you can apply to a tag line – perhaps even the tag line that you have now – that can turn it from fluff into a business driver. That can transform scorn into inspiration. Let’s take a look using Red Bull and McDonald’s as our examples…

Rule 1 – It must be ownable, not generic

OK, this one isn’t really anything new, but it is important. Quite simply you need to offer something reasonably unique to you, because if you don’t, then why would anyone be motivated to pick you, and how can you transform into something that attracts attention? If we look at Red Bull and their line “giving wings to people and ideas”, we can see that this is something they’ve resolutely made their own. No other brand would dare touch the “giving wings” / “throwing people up into the air” space, and the more they double down on it the truer it becomes. If we look at McDonald’s on the other hand, what do we see? “I’m lovin’ it”. Let’s translate that. Essentially beneath the nice copy, it means “it is good”. This is not only unownable in their category, I’d say it’s unownable in business full stop. What business couldn’t employ this line? “Nike: I’m lovin’ it”. Yeah, sort of works right? This lack of uniqueness already means you’re going to struggle to create something different, before we’ve even got down to the real problems…

Rule 2 – It must be practical, not attitudinal

Right, the meat of the matter. The key attribute of “giving wings to people and ideas” is that it’s practical, not attitudinal. What I mean by that is that it actually describes “doing” something, it doesn’t just describe a feeling, or an emotion. The reason this is important is because if your purpose describes an action then it’s easy for your employees and your business as a whole to extend simply by taking that action in lots of little ways. Go into a pub and ask a guy “give me an idea for giving people wings like Red Bull do” and he’ll give you ten, because it’s so easy as a creative brief. But what about “I’m loving it”? Give the same guy the brief “come up with an idea that delivers ‘I’m lovin’ it’”, and he’ll be at a loss. It merely describes a feeling, not an action, and as such is impossible to replicate with action.

Rule 3 – It must be objective, not subjective

One thing you’ll notice about “giving wings”, is that it doesn’t take a stance on whether the giving of wings is a good or a bad thing. It’s simply something they do. By the same token when Patagonia say they “cause no unnecessary harm”, whilst we can clearly see that this is a good thing, they don’t spell that out for us, they simply deliver the purpose in a very matter-of-fact kind of way. For most brands however, their tag line is little more than a brag, a way of saying “we are good”. “I’m lovin’ it” would be a typical such example, and it’s something that businesses tend to default to when they have nothing interesting to say. You offer no useful information if you say we’re the “best” this, or the “tastiest” that – it may be true, but it’s in the eye of the beholder. If you have a truly useful purpose you will be able to say it without using superlatives of value judgements. If you can’t, then chances are you have nothing at all.

Rule 4 – It must be holistic, not external

Typically brands actually don’t have one tag line, they have two. They have the consumer-facing one, the one we traditionally recognise as a tag line, and they have an internally facing one, generally with a different name like “mission statement” or “corporate values”. The weird thing is that these things tend to be different. The consumer one is fun, imaginative, and seeks to really describe the business. The internal one tends to be resolutely generic, something more along the lines of “we endeavour to serve our customers better and better every day”. My question is, why would these things be any different? I can tell you that for Red Bull, for Patagonia, for Airbnb they are not. They all exist to deliver one thing, and naturally they make it clear to their employees that that’s what they’re there to do. Only when your creative purpose is applied internally can the business become something creative. Brands like McDonalds who separate the internal and external ensure that the reality of the business will never match the advertising fantasy. It’s a weird logic, and one that needs to be remedied asap to make a better brand.

Rule 5 – It must be permanent, not transient

Finally, I leave you with the question: why would it ever change? Once you’ve figured out the core value that your business provides, so long as it’s not something that is tied to temporary piece of technology like “we repair pagers”, then why would that ever change? Sure, the way you deliver this value might change but the core value should be timeless. Red Bull have never changed their commitment to give wings, and doubtless never will. There will never be a moment where that’s not relevant. McDonald’s on the other hand – and indeed the vast majority of brands – change tag lines like changing shirts. The only conclusion that the public (and employees) can be left with is this: they can’t possibly mean any of them. The shaping of your business by its existential purpose is going to be something gradual, and deeply entrenched in its fabric. You aren’t going to want to go ripping up that purpose – and thus the business itself – every few years are you?

So there you have it. Perhaps the difference between great businesses isn’t really product, talent, effort, or intention. Perhaps it’s just grammar. Seems like a pretty easy thing to change at any rate, so why not put it to the test?