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Slogans That Are the Real Thing

What makes a good tagline? The best ones are short, powerful summations that companies use alongside their logos to drive brand message home to consumers. Think "Just do it" and "We try harder." Those are among the taglines that scored highest in a recent survey conducted by Eric Swartz, a marketing and branding expert with the Byline Group in San Mateo, Calif.

Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein recently spoke with Swartz about the survey results and how small companies can craft taglines every bit as effective as those of the big guys. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Q: You've just completed a survey of 100 marketing, branding, and advertising professionals, asking them to rate their Top 10 taglines and Top 3 jingles since 1948. What did you find out?

A: A group of colleagues and I nominated 400 taglines and jingles and asked the professionals to vote on the ones they thought best endured the test of time and built significant brand equity.

Top 10 Taglines

1. "Got milk?" (1993, California Milk Processor Board)

2. "Don't leave home without it" (1975, American Express, AXP)

3. "Just do it" (1988, Nike, NKE)

4. "Where's the beef?" (1984, Wendy's)

5. "You're in good hands with Allstate" (1956, Allstate Insurance, ALL)

6. "Think different" (1998, Apple Computer, AAPL)

7. "We try harder" (1962, Avis)

8. "Tastes great, less filling" (1974, Miller Light)

9. "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands" (1954, M&M Candies)

10. "Takes a licking and keeps on ticking" (1956, Timex)

Top 3 Jingles

1. "My bologna has a first name, it's O-S-C-A-R." (1960s, Oscar Mayer)

2. "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is" (1970s, Alka-Seltzer)

3. "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there" (1971, State Farm Insurance)

Q: Were taglines from certain eras more popular than others?

A: Well, about half of the taglines in our Top 100 were created in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were many large ad agencies churning out great taglines for the "new" medium of television. That was an incredibly creative period. Of the rest, about 20% were from the 1980s, 19% were from the 1990s, 11% were from 1948 to 1959, and 1% from after 2000.

Q: So what trends did you uncover from the survey results?

A: From around the mid-1990s and on, there's an emphasis on community in great taglines. I think this is primarily because the Internet has made us more aware that we are globally interdependent. It's a small world, and we're all in it together. So the popular modern slogans were things like: "Solutions for a small planet" from IBM (IBM), "The world's online marketplace" from eBay (EBAY), and "Share a moment, share a life" from Kodak (EK).

Q: Taglines are all well and good for large corporations with big ad budgets, but how do they apply to small businesses?

A: Even a small business needs to extend its brand, make it more relevant and more valuable. A good tagline can do that.

And a tagline doesn't have to be just for the company as a whole, it can serve as branding for a division or a product line. You can use a tagline internally, to get employees excited about a new program or product. Anytime a business needs to differentiate itself from its competitors, a tagline can go a long way toward doing that.

Q: What separates a good tagline from a bad one?

A: A good tagline is not just a motto or a proverb or a saying or a long-winded mission statement. It's got to be fairly succinct -- usually seven or fewer words.

And it should reflect how your company is positioning itself vs. your competitors. It's taking the brand that you know really well and communicating its value to the world. A great tagline is like the exclamation point at the end of a 30-second elevator pitch.

Q: How would an entrepreneur go about developing a tagline?

A: We first recommend that you sit down and ask yourself some core questions about your company: Who are you? What are your values? Your vision? Your corporate culture? What nouns and adjectives would you use to convey your brand's promise and its solution? What words might your customers use to describe your company? Are there any misconceptions about your company that need to be cleared up?

Also, you'll want to analyze what your competitors are doing. For instance, there may be about five positions that toothpaste companies can stake out: tastes good, fights cavities, whitens teeth, freshens breath, etc. When Tom's of Maine entered the market very late, they had to pitch something different -- the environmental benefits of their brand. Otherwise, they would have just encroached on what their competitors were doing and diluted their entry into the marketplace.

Q: So you determine what makes your company different and valuable, and then list words that convey those concepts?

A: Yes, and then what I do for clients is develop a brief that summarizes all that information and use it as a platform for developing 75 or 100 potential taglines that the clients scrutinize and evaluate and eventually narrow down to the one they want.

Q: Does a tagline have to be a clever play on words or a pun?

A: Not necessarily. In fact, a tagline that calls attention to itself unnecessarily, like "Look at me, I'm a clever tagline!" isn't good. Being clever for clever's sake will get you into trouble with a tagline.

Q: Your Web site includes a tagline Hall of Shame. What happens when a tagline goes wrong?

A: Bad taglines miss the mark or backfire. They typically try to say something important, but it comes across as pompous, nonsensical, meaningless, or confusing.

For instance, there was the auto manufacturer that actually used the tagline, "We put people in front of cars." Then there was "Excellence through total quality." What does that even mean? Doesn't it cancel itself out? Mobil Oil used, "We want you to live." There's something underwhelming about that.

Sometimes, a tagline has an unintended double meaning or is offensive. Playtex (PYX) used, "Is that a Playtex under there?" which came across as kind of voyeuristic or nervy.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

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