The Anatomy of a Great Tagline

If cavemen had a tagline, it would probably be “Eat. Sleep. Grunt.” There’s no way of knowing whether cavemen invented the concept of taglines, but there’s also no way of knowing they didn’t. What I mean to say is, taglines are nothing new. It’s likely that people and businesses have been using some form of a tagline to complement their names since the beginning of time, and there’s a reason the idea is still relevant today: It works.

A tagline is a short sentence or phrase that accompanies your brand name to clarify what it is you actually do. Think of it as the shortest elevator pitch ever — you only have a limited number of words, usually less than 10 but ideally 5 or less, to encompass and tell consumers about everything you and your company stand for. Sounds easy, right? Not so much.

Companies have been known to spend hundreds, thousands, even millions of dollars developing the perfect tagline, only to realize it’s not so perfect when it flops in the market. This is the part you want to avoid by learning about what makes a great tagline before you start marketing your company as “Helping People Since 1995,” because that’s not helpful at all.

First, you need to understand what your company is about. When people ask, “What does your company do?” what do you say? For example, Cobalt employees could simply say we’re a marketing communications company, but what kind of marketing communications? For who? For what reason? This explanation leaves a lot of unanswered questions. How are consumers supposed to understand what you do if you can’t even describe it accurately?

Be Specific, Not Generic

When creating your tagline, think about your company’s mission, goals and values. Cobalt had a quasi-tagline for quite some time — Writing, Design, Strategy — but we realized that, while this phrase did define what we do, it also defined what every other communications company does, too. It wasn’t until summer 2016 that we really took the time to generate a tagline specific enough to set us apart from our competition. We went on a retreat, spent three days redefining our focus and services, and came back as Cobalt Communications: The Art and Science of Understanding.

Dissected, our new tagline reveals a lot more than Writing, Design, Strategy. We still do those things, but the new tagline reveals more of our emotional center and our differentiator — our ability to translate complex scientific information for lay audiences. It gives just enough information to pique our target audience’s interest so they think, “Hmm, this company seems to specialize in what I need,” which hopefully leads to contact. (Check out our Principles page to learn more about what we do and why we love it.)

Keep it Simple

As Mark Twain said, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” Use everyday words that consumers will immediately understand without a dictionary. If you use a word like “pulchritudinous” when you could just say beautiful, it might feel like you’re undermining your audience’s intelligence, and they’ll move on. Think about it — people probably wouldn’t buy as many Nike products if their tagline was “Just Effectuate It.”

Be Catchy, But Not Too Catchy

Your tagline should capture the personality of your business without going overboard. Make sure it’s appropriate and on-brand for your industry — it makes sense for a toy company to employ puns in their tagline, while a hospital should probably steer clear of all humor. Some companies do well being clever and quip-y, like Dollar Shave Club’s “Shave Time, Shave Money,” while others draw consumers in with a simple, powerful phrase, like BMW’s “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” Figure out which direction works best for your company and start brainstorming.

Take Your Time

Don’t rush and start marketing your company with the first mediocre phrase that comes to mind. Take the time to think about your target audience and construct a tagline that evokes exactly what you want them to feel. Word association can be a helpful exercise — hold a short meeting with key team members and write down every word that comes to mind about your company. Riff of each other and see what you come up with, then categorize your list and try different combinations. Play off your brand name and your logo, but most importantly, play off what your company truly stands for. Be honest, memorable, and build a strong connection with your consumers. The best brands do.

Cobalt-60 is the name of our blog, an online digest dedicated to the art and science of communications. (It’s also an isotope of the element cobalt.)

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