Caveat Superlative (How to Write a Good Tagline)

The best taglines convey a brand's essence, ring true with audiences, and don't make you a laughing stock later if something goes wrong.

New Jersey Transit’s tagline is: "Getting you there." If my railway system added just one word, the tagline would ring true. The word is: eventually.

When United Airlines was acquiring Continental, the carrier’s tagline proclaimed: "It’s not who’s merging that counts. It’s what about to emerge." If my airline had only added one word, I’d buy into their brand promise. The word is: chaos.

That’s why, when I supplement my day job by performing stand-up comedy, I always provide the audience with an authentic tagline: "Expect less." And, trust me, I deliver on my promise.

The very best taglines not only convey a brand’s essence and ring true with audiences; they also stand the test of time.

Compare Twitter to British Petroleum (BP).

So when Twitter promised: "Find out what’s happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about," the social media phenomenon not only nailed the brand essence, they also personalized their message and conveyed the immediacy of their game-changing service. Impressive, no?

Compare Twitter’s brilliance with BP’s now-infamous tagline: "Beyond Petroleum." Prior to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP’s tagline was intended to convey the organization’s diversified portfolio of products. Instead, in the aftermath of their horrific response to the environmental disaster, BP’s tagline became a bulls-eye for every comedian in the world. It was ridiculed with countless variations, including my personal favorite: "Beyond Pathetic."

What do you promise?

Interested in seeing if many organizations touted superlative products or service in their taglines, but delivered a very different end user experience, I examined people, places, and things to see how they stacked up.

I began with the personal men’s care category, and compared Gillette and Axe.

Gillette’s print advertisement for its Mach3 Sensitive razor depicts a typical Joe taking his morning shave. His girlfriend/wife is in the background (wearing a come hither look, and not much else). The headline reads: "Notice how much she wants to kiss you since you switched razors? You’re welcome." Gillette’s tagline: "The best a man can get."

Seriously? Gillette’s new razor will make me the best I can get? I guess I should forget about charitable contributions, helping young people find jobs, and just trying to be a decent human being. Phew, that’s a relief.

Axe, on the other hand, is running a brilliant, if overtly sexist, TV campaign depicting the "evolution" of women over the ages. Each successive photograph shows an increasingly more attractive and provocative female. The spot ends with a voice-over cooing: "Girls are getting hotter." That’s followed by the Axe tagline: "Keep your cool." It’s short, simple, and targeted to achieve maximum impact with a younger, male audience.

Some would argue that young women are expressing their sensuality and sexuality in new and more provocative ways. But Axe doesn’t tell young men they’ll be the best they can be. Rather, they confirm what many guys know they need: a product to help keep their cool the next time a femme fatale comes within range.

WALL STREET

Let’s move on to another bastion of male power, Wall Street. Here are current examples of good and just plain ugly taglines. We’ll begin with the latter:

The Goldman Sachs tagline promises, "Our clients’ interests always come first." Do tell.

Less than 18 months ago, erstwhile Goldman Sachs partner Greg Smith shocked the business world with an open letter of resignation in The New York Times.

In his very public op-ed piece, Smith cited one horrific insider story after another. He crucified a Goldman win-at-all-costs culture that put clients’ best interests at the very bottom of the list.

Goldman may have made some changes in the interim, but they cannot convince me such a toxic culture has changed overnight.

As a result, Goldman’s tagline is laugh-out-loud ludicrous. Compare Goldman’s tagline with that of JP Morgan Chase, which reads, "Global strength. Local impact." The corporation backs up their brand promise by noting they have invested some $1.3 trillion in global credit and capital in the past year while helping New Jersey rebuild after Hurricane Sandy and a Texas-based couple refinance their home mortgage.

I don’t have first-hand knowledge of either Goldman or JP Morgan Chase, but the former’s tagline is full of bluster and bravado while the latter’s provides facts and figures. With whom would you do business?

MANUFACTURING

Boeing’s tagline is: "Forever new frontiers."

Those are aspirational, if awkwardly phrased, words. But, as was the case with BP, Boeing’s tagline leaves the organization wide open for ridicule. When one factors in the seemingly endless rash of problems with the manufacturer’s 787 Dreamliner, the tagline should really be: "Forever fixing problems."

Boeing’s archenemy, Airbus, has a much smarter tagline: "Own the sky." I like "own the sky" because it’s outside-in, and customer facing. As Airbus explains on its website, "Own the sky" is intended to underscore how the new A380 Airbus can help airlines increase revenue, expand traffic routes, and attract more customers.

The bottom-line: Airbus is authentic. Boeing is boastful.

POLITICS

Any examination of taglines would be incomplete without a quick glimpse into the forever fascinating world of politics. Remember these taglines?

"Tippecanoe and Tyler too"

"Nixon’s the one"

"Mission: Accomplished

All three proved to be unintentionally ironic.

William Henry Harrison, aka Tippecanoe, died within a month after taking office. So, the nation ended up getting a whole lot more of Tyler too. Nixon did, indeed, turn out to be the one who was leading the cover-up of the break-in to Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. He also became the one president to resign. And, who could forget George W. Bush, standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in front of a banner that read: mission accomplished? W. proudly proclaimed that the War in Iraq had ended. Thousands of American deaths, and years of sectarian violence, sadly proved that tagline to be more than a tad premature.

Take the current New York mayoral election. (Please!)

There have been few, if any, contests in recent years that have been as high-profile or as controversial. So, how have some of the candidates used taglines to woo voters?

Anthony Weiner has been crusading as a "Middle Class Fighter." That may well be true, but Weiner simply cannot escape his sexting past (or present). In retrospect, Weiner should have opted for a more credible tagline such as: "Moving on."

"Moving on" could have served as a nice double entendre for a flawed candidate and a financially challenged city.

Weiner has multiple opponents in the mayoral election. It’s interesting to note that two, Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio, have adopted nearly identical taglines. Ms. Quinn’s reads: "A Progressive Leader" while Mr. de Blasio’s positions him as the "True Progressive." With the race as tight as it is, will voters remember which progressive is which when they cast their vote?

Originality is yet another key ingredient in the creation of a successful tagline.

Where should you begin?

If you’re thinking about creating a tagline for your enterprise, or overhauling the existing one, make sure you answer all of the obvious questions as well as some of the ones I’ve raised above. And, don’t make the same mistake as Quinn and de Blasio. Be different. But, be ready to back up that difference with a credible experience. And, enough already with the superlatives! In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe Gillette’s may be the worst a tagline can get.

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