The Psychology of Slogans

What They Are & How They Work

“Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” Tasting chocolatey goodness on your tongue?

“Just do it.” Feeling like you should lace up those shoes and hit the streets?

“Don’t leave home without it.” Picturing yourself laying down a card to pay for a meal at a bistro in Rome?

You are the target consumer of each of these slogans, and you’ve been successfully conditioned.

These slogans are so effective that they have become ingrained in popular culture, and that didn’t happen by accident. Major brands spent millions of dollars and hundreds of person hours in brainstorming sessions creating and marketing each one of them.

What are Slogans and Why Do They Matter?

A slogan is a short, easily remembered phrase used to advertise an idea or a product. It concisely conveys important, easily digestible messaging about a product or brand. It often highlights the qualities or benefits of a product, service, or brand and serves to generate positive associations in consumers.

Along with a brand’s name and logo, its slogan rounds out the trifecta of brand identity. Like a name and logo, a slogan attracts attention and helps differentiate a brand. As such, slogans play an important role in brand positioning. (Learn more about brand positioning, and try out our easy-to-use worksheet to help you do just that.)

But slogans go beyond brand positioning; they also facilitate brand recognition since they stick in peoples’ minds. Effective slogans speak to consumers, investors, employees, and other key stakeholders, creating a feeling of familiarity and comfort around a brand.

The Science of Slogans

The way our brains work allows slogans to work. Their effectiveness is due to the largely subconscious process of “priming,” which influences our thoughts or actions and increases their speed. Effective slogans positively predispose us toward a brand. Most importantly, priming typically occurs without a consumer’s awareness.

Priming goes wrong once consumers realize that they are being manipulated by a slogan. They will then automatically react adversely in an attempt to reverse the bias being forced upon them, something called “reverse priming.” Then the slogan results in a consumer’s negative brand experience.

Humorous slogans work well because they entertain us: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” (Alka Seltzer). Humans feel compelled to reciprocate in some way, returning the favor for that dopamine hit. So they support the brand by choosing the product or service associated with the slogan that made them smile.

Slogans can appeal to our innate human motivation to meet basic psychological needs. Slogans that suggest the potential for more self-actualization, social interaction, sexual arousal, and excitement get our attention and are more effective. We all know that “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.”

A good slogan uses more content words (nouns, verbs and adjectives) and fewer function words (prepositions, pronouns and conjunctions). A well-constructed slogan helps our brains cluster information. It facilitates our storing of similar, related pieces of information about a brand for easier future recall.

Digging Deeper into Slogan Effectiveness

Many studies on slogans agree that a series of factors have some influence. Read on for a breakdown on what qualities make the best slogans.

Clean and Clear
A study in the Journal of Business Research reported that the most liked slogans are 4.9 words long, and the most recalled slogans are 3.9 words long. Another study found that effective tourism-related slogans came in at 3.64 words. When a slogan is too long, it cognitively overloads those hearing it and tends to not be as effectively and favorably received. Message clarity and brevity make for an effective, memorable slogan.

Use the Music of Poetry
Many slogans are marketed in association with a particular melody that’s instantaneously recognizable when hummed or sung. You can make use of music or poetry to enhance your slogan’s impact: rhyming or rhythm, alliteration, creativity, and repetition are all proven to be effective in slogan creation.

Make Customers Feel Something
Emotional appeal can go a long way in reaching your audience. You can construct your slogan around a particular curiosity or appetite, which makes for high relatability. You could also focus on making your slogan a challenge, which can motivate consumers.

Work with the Brain
Knowing how the brain works and constructing slogans for maximum comprehension will work in your favor. Ease of comprehension, memorability, and mentioning a benefit are all surefire ways to increase your slogan’s impact. Additionally, a Journal of Business Research study cites that older adults do cognitive processing more slowly so are less likely to like and be affected by slogans, especially complex ones. So knowing your audience and how their brains work is important.

Speak to your Audience

Hearing an effective slogan feels like you’re being spoken to directly, even though slogans are engineered for mass appeal.

Including the brand name in a slogan generally does not work; it feels too “sales-y.” The presence of the brand name alerts our brains to the potential manipulation. Of course, not all brands follow this rule. I’m sure you can complete each of these slogans with the brand name:

“Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s…”

“There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s…”

“Like a good neighbor, … is there.”

To Change or Not to Change: That is the Question

Some slogans endure over decades, while others ride off into the sunset, linguistic souvenirs from a particular time period. Major brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s frequently change their slogans to reflect their evolving brands or consumer trends.

Slogans take time to catch on, but once established, they are hard to change. There are plenty of major brands that have failed to swap slogans. Sometimes, the slogans are just so entrenched that nothing else will do. When a new slogan falls short, the brand has no choice but to revert back to its original, more popular slogan.

But if your brand is undergoing significant repositioning, you may be well served in changing your slogan. Recognize the need to be patient with the new slogan adoption and wait for consumers’ brains to catch up. There may be a significant price tag attached to publicizing your new slogan in order to facilitate consumer adoption.

A Long-term Investment

Once established, effective slogans last for years and even decades. Do it once, do it right, and you’ll have consumers conjuring your brand’s name in their mind without even a single conscious thought process.

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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