Your Best Tagline: 3 Pitfalls to Avoid

Your Best Tagline_ImageLast week, I had the pleasure of joining some clients for a sort-of impromptu tagline brainstorming session. And it got me thinking about all such conversations I’ve been part of over the years—and all the things these conversations seem to have in common. Often an early step in positioning or messaging, tagline definition can be an exciting, highly creative, and often contentious process.

While a little healthy disagreement is good for any brainstorm, it’s an outright waste of time if the ideas you’re fighting over aren’t built on a strong foundation. So start by outlining a few simple ground rules—rules about what not to do—and you’ll end up with a far more powerful tagline in the end. As well as a friendlier team.

Here are 3 mistakes we often make while working on new taglines:

1. We want to say too much

Don’t we always? But there’s great power in brevity—and in clarity of messaging. So start by looking at your key messages. (If you don’t know what these are, back up and define your messaging before you create a tagline that doesn’t support your brand.)

If you’re a dry cleaner who has decided to appeal to neighborhood residents by touting your convenient location and personal service, write your 2 messages on the ol’ white board before moving forward: local, personal. (Go ahead and write them big.)

Now resist the temptation to include any other messages in your tagline. That’s right. Don’t talk about your on-site facility, your mending services, your 15-year history, or even how sparkly clean you can get my clothes. You chose your key messages. Now commit.

A word of warning: this will be very difficult, so you need to start with a short list and be stingy with words as you develop the concept. In the end, you’ll have a one-liner that seems so clear and simple that it must have come through divine inspiration, but arriving at clarity and simplicity usually takes a lot longer than settling for complexity and outright wordiness.

Great writers know this all too well. Take it from Blaise Pascal, who first described a sentiment that many have since shared: “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.”

If you, too, are short on leisure, find more time and get brief.

2. We want to be too clever

This is where you can do worse than simply missing the mark and failing to capitalize on a good branding opportunity; this is where you can annoy your customers and prospects or make yourself look ridiculous.

It’s tempting to provide a list of “clever” examples here, but that’s just too flat-out mean. So instead of humiliating innocent, poorly tagged companies by focusing on what a good tagline isn’t, let’s just clarify what the A-#1 goal of your good tagline is: reinforce your key message.

For that to happen, you need to be clear. And clarity is not a byproduct of puns, rhyming, and forced alliteration. It’s actually squelched by such distractions.

3. We want 

I know, I know. It’s your business. But unless you are the only customer you have and hope for, then the perfect tagline is not really about what you want at all. It’s about what your target audience wants.

And here’s a great time-saver: when it comes to taglines, I can already tell you what your audience wants, no matter what your business is or who your prospects are. They want to understand what product and/or service you provide and why that product and/or service is of value to them—and they want to understand this quickly.

So once you have a list of clear, not-cheesy potential taglines on your white board, take one step back and then one step into your customers’ shoes. Pretend you don’t know you. When you read that perfect description you and your team have worked all afternoon to craft, do you understand instantly what your company does and why it’s valuable?

Be brutally honest here. And if you can’t be brutally honest (which is highly likely, since you’re way too close to the situation), get strangers’ opinions. Spend a few days asking anyone—your doctor, your florist, that dry cleaner in your neighborhood who provides personal service in a convenient location. Then take the responses back to your team, take a deep breath, and begin round 2.

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