What's in a Phrase?

Companies spend billions searching for memorable slogans, but the payoff is elusive and other key aspects of business may be neglected

By Steve McKee

A few years ago, the editors of Advertising Age came up with a ranking of the top slogans of the 20th century. At the top of the list: "Diamonds are forever," for DeBeers. Others included Nike's (NKE ) "Just do it," Coca-Cola's (KO ) "The pause that refreshes," and Miller Lite's "Tastes great, less filling." These verbal icons are likely to be recognized by almost every American consumer.

Today, however, memorable slogans are the exception, not the rule. Emergence, a brand-strategy firm based in Atlanta, recently conducted their second annual slogan survey. They contacted over a thousand consumers across the country and asked them to identify the businesses affiliated with a variety of slogans. The results? Fewer than half of the slogans were known by more than 5% of respondents, and a fifth of them were recognized by 1% or fewer. Ouch.


  Take a brief test yourself. Coca-Cola may be "The real thing," but you probably aren't aware that its current slogan is simply "Real." How about GE (GE )? "We bring good things to life" is old news. Now it's "Imagination at work," although you probably didn't know that. Many of the worst performers in the study were some of America's best-known brands, including Wendy's (WEN ), Staples (SPLS ), Kmart (KMRT ), Miller, Chrysler (DCX ), and Sears (S ). And these are companies that spend billions -- billions -- on advertising.

The lesson is simple for businesses big and small: Slogans aren't magic, and in most cases consumers don't pay that much attention to them anyway. Companies that focus too much on slogans end up neglecting the truly important aspects of their businesses.

Take McDonald's (MCD ). Its current slogan, "I'm lovin' it," performed fairly well in the slogan survey -- recognized by 33% of consumers. But its previous tag line, "We love to see you smile," fell flat. The problem wasn't that it didn't roll of the tongue well enough, or was contrary to the Golden Arches core identity. The fast-food giant stumbled because its slogan's underlying message wasn't being translated down to the store level. McDonald's simply wasn't making people smile like it used to.


  Rule No. 1 in slogan-making is to not advertise your aspirations. Saying "We love to see you smile" or "Quality is Job One" challenges cynical consumers to prove you wrong, which they're all too happy to do. The very advantage small businesses often have over bigger competitors is customer service, so the last thing you want to do is put forth an empty slogan that doesn't deliver.

Rule No. 2 is to give your slogan time to develop. State Farm's "Like a good neighbor" came in at 70% in the survey, followed at 67% by Wal-Mart's (WMT ) "Always low prices." Both of these slogans have had time to be seeded into the consciousness of the marketplace. Companies that change their slogans too often never give them a chance to take root. You have to be patient.

Rule No. 3? Consider not using a slogan at all. After all, people may have a hard time remembering the tag lines for Starbucks (SBUX ), Lexus, or Sony (SNE ), but they still pay a premium for the brands. While a slogan can be an excellent ribbon to wrap around your brand identity, it's not the sum and substance of it. Slogans, and the ad campaigns that deliver them, come and go. But great brands are timeless.

So the key is to focus less on your slogan and more on your brand. Make sure your product or service is relevant to consumers and that your identity in the marketplace is consistent. If a good turn of phrase happens to capture the essence of that identity, use it. But don't expect a catchy expression to make up for a lack of value. Even the best motto in the world won't stop your customers from asking, "Where's the beef?"

McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Henderson, an ad agency specializing in working with fast-growth companies and businesses whose ad budgets are under $10 million

Edited by Rod Kurtz

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