Tagline Treatise

Andy's Tagline Treatise


Andy Stern is a successful freelance copywriter based in Los Angeles.  He has penned tag lines such as “Because freedom can’t protect itself” for the ACLU, and “Sanity makes a comeback” for Farmers Insurance.

First, some examples of memorable tag lines:

Bounty. The Quicker Picker-Upper.
UPS. We run the tightest ship in the shipping business.
Club Med. The antidote to civilization.
Milk Board. Got Milk?
Carl’s Jr. If it doesn’t get all over the place, it doesn’t
belong in your face.
Saturn. A different kind of car. A different kind of company.
Unocal 76. We get it.
Polaroid. See what develops.
United. We love to fly and it shows.
Milk. It does a body good.
Army. Be all that you can be.
Timex. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
Snapple. Made from the best stuff on earth.
BMW. The ultimate driving machine.
Brim. Fill it to the rim with Brim.
KFC. We do chicken right.
Nike. Just do it.
Twix. Two for me. None for you.
IBM. Solutions for a small planet.
Duracell. No battery looks like it. Or lasts like it.
Sure deodorant. Raise your hand if you’re Sure.
Volvo. Drive safely.
Nynex. If it’s out there, it’s in here.
Nikon. We take the world’s greatest pictures.
New York Lotto. Hey, you never know.
California Lotto. Who’s next?

The Nature of Tag Lines:

As you can see, a tag line can be short (Drive safely) or long (If it doesn’t get all over the place, it doesn’t belong in your face.)  It can be cutesy (The Quicker Picker-Upper), elegant (The antidote to civilization), leadership-oriented (We take the world’s greatest pictures), or any number of other tones, thus setting the mood for the company/product being advertised.  It can be a question (Got Milk?), a command (Just do it), or  a statement (We love to fly and it shows).  As with ads, there really are no rules for tag lines.  Except, of course, for these four:

Rules for Tag Lines

Like an ad, a tag line should be:
1) MEMORABLE - Look at the list of tag lines above.  These are all the tag lines I could remember in ten minutes of thinking.  How many more can you remember, from as far back as your childhood?  A good tag line has that certain something that makes it stick out in your mind.  Of course, it helps when it’s part of a huge, long-running campaign that drums it into your head (called frequency by media-types).  Sometimes it’s set to music, which also helps (We do chicken right, Be all that you can be, I’m lovin’ it, etc.)  But mainly, a good tag line is simply well-written.  It has some sort of “twist” that keeps it from being boring, and often a double meaning.  It rolls off the tongue.

2) ORIGINAL - While Heinz could do a very memorable campaign under the tag line “Got Ketchup?” would they really want to?  Nobody likes a copycat.  Similarly, anyone who makes any kind of “machine” could rip off BMW’s “The ultimate driving machine” (e.g., The ultimate adding machine, The ultimate flying machine, The ultimate blending machine, etc.)  But BMW has already done it.  And if it’s not original, it’s not good.

3) “SENSICAL” - That is, the opposite of nonsensical.  Simply put, the tag line has to make logical sense.  A tag line like “When your flibbety-gibbet goes ribbit” would be both memorable and original, but can you think of any product whatsoever that it would make sense for?  A tag line must bear some relation to the positioning or strategy of the company.  Thus, BMW’s tag line says something about a great driving experience, Volvo’s says something about safety, and Saturn’s says that there’s something different going on here.

4) PURPOSEFUL - Don’t just stick a tag line on a campaign or a single ad because it looks good or because your competitors have tag lines.  You must do it for a reason.  Which leads to:

The Reasons for Tag Lines

Tag lines basically have two purposes:  (from Bovee and Arens, Contemporary Advertising)

Think of Nike’s long-running campaign without “Just do it.”  Somehow, everything wouldn’t hang together as well without those three little words.  The ads would seem to be a bit more “all over the place.”  But the tag line provides continuity.  It helps direct people to think the same about a print ad with someone running in the rain as they do about a TV commercial with tennis players setting up a court in the middle of a NYC street.  It’s all aspirational.  It’s all something you would do yourself—nay! should do yourself—if you weren’t so lazy.  Also, along with the Nike swoosh, the tag line helps to make any ad they come up with immediately recognizable as a Nike ad, whatever the layout or design.  And that’s continuity.

“Milk.  It does a body good.”  That kind of says it all, don’t you think?  Whatever the advertising communicates to reinforce this notion of milk being good for your body, you need only look at the tag line to get that main idea.  And this example goes a long way toward defining exactly what a tag line is:

Tag Lines:  A Definition

A tag line is the encapsulation of a strategy or positioning.  It’s the crystallization of what, without the intervention of a talented writer, could be a much longer and more mundane statement about the company/product.  It’s the main idea that every ad in the campaign, taken together, is trying to prove, demonstrate, or get you to believe.  It’s a guide for the advertising to follow.

An illustrative example…Goodby and the Milk Board hit on the basic truth that there are many situations where milk is crucial, where you’d be really upset if there were no milk.  (A great way to get people to stock up on milk!)  They were able to crystallize this complex thought into two words and a question mark…Got Milk?  They then used this tag line in combination with their ads to get their point across.  A man thinks he’s in heaven when he sees unlimited chocolate chip cookies, then realizes he’s in hell when all the milk cartons are empty.  Got Milk?  A history buff can’t answer a trivia question and win a huge prize because he’s just taken a huge bite of a peanut butter sandwich and has nothing to wash it down with.  Got Milk?

How Do You Write a Tag Line?

Ay…there’s the rub, as they say.  Well, the example of “Got Milk?” should have provided a little insight.  You decide on a clear positioning or strategy, which you describe in normal words (e.g., “Milk is really handy sometimes.”)  Then you take that statement and boil it down to a few memorable, original, non-boring words.  Easy, right?  Sometimes, but not usually.  Here are a couple more examples:

“Club Med.  The Antidote to Civilization.”

How did Ammirati come up with this?  Let’s conjecture for a moment.  It starts with someone asking, “O.K.  So what is Club Med all about as a company?”  Now, a vacation destination could position itself in many different ways.  You could be the exotic destination, the destination “like no other.”  You could be the place where you go to learn all about native cultures.  You could be the place where you go to meet people.  And each of these positionings would lead to a different tag line.  But Club Med decided that what Club Med was all about was “a place where you go to get away from it all.”

A place where you go to get away from it all.  That would be the positioning.  But how do you get from there to the tag line?  You start studying the statement, looking for ways to use interesting words in place of ordinary ones, or to use a familiar phrase in a different way.  Free associating, really.  A place where you go to get away from it all.  What is “it all?”  Traffic…newspapers…TV…work…the hassles of everyday life…car problems…the refrigerator breaking down…office politics…noisy neighbors…society in general, really…yeah, society…society…what’s another word for society?...the world…people…civilization…that’s it!...civilization!  People are going to get away from civilization.  Let’s see now…get away from…go the other way…the other direction…the opposite direction…the opposite of civilization…the antonym of civilization…360 degrees from civilization…the answer to civilization…the cure for civilization…cure, hmm…solution…serum…vaccine…antidote!  That’s it!  Club Med.  The antidote to civilization.  It’s memorable.  It’s original.  It makes sense for our positioning.  It serves our purpose.  It’s brilliant.  We can all take a vacation now.

A personal example

When I was still a student, I was looking to do another campaign for my book.  I decided a temp agency would be a good service to do a cool campaign for.  I had done a lot of temp work and thought I had some insights.  So my first job was to come up with a unique positioning that I thought would lend itself to good, smart ads.

I won’t belabor you with the whole process, but one of my insights was that in my experience, good temps got offered full-time jobs all the time by the companies they were temping for.  So that became my positioning:  Our temps are talented enough so that you’ll want to hire them.  (I got the name of the agency, Encore Temps, out of a phone book.  Remember, this was a spec campaign, not a real one.)

So then I started thinking about a tag line.  Since “Temps” was in the name of the company, I would probably use the full term “Temporaries” both to distinguish my company (the full term is not often used!) and to avoid being repetitive.  So now I’m at this point:  “Encore Temps.  Temporaries __________________.”  How to fill in the blank?  Temporaries you want to hire full-time.  Temporaries talented enough to hire full-time.  Hmmm…says exactly what I want to say, but it’s still not rolling off the tongue.  What’s another word for full-time?  On staff…on board…welcome aboard…with the company…permanent…40 hours a week…hey, wait a second!  Permanent.  Temporaries…Permanent.  Temporaries talented enough to be permanent.  Almost there, but still a little complex.  Temporaries good enough to be permanent.  Yes!  And that’s what I ended up with:

“Encore Temps.  Temporaries good enough to be permanent.”

Parting Words

As an exercise, try deconstructing some of the other tag lines on the list, or ones that you remember yourself.  Try going through the process of how somebody came up with “Be all that you can be” or “Drive safely.”  Start with figuring out the positioning, then try to imagine the thought process that led to those few powerfully communicative words.  You’ll get some real insight into how to write your own tag lines.

Good luck.  Now just do it, and be all that you can be.  Hey, you never know.