Why Taglines Are Keepers

As advertising continues to explore and integrate new ways of engaging customers, the tagline seems to be taking a major hit. According to my own unscientific survey, a look at print ads in Forbes magazine in 2005 shows only one-seventh of full-page ads carried no taglines.

By 2009, that percentage had grown to one-third. And in the April 2010 edition of Fast Company, fully half the ads were tagless. While there have been tagline detractors for decades, from David Ogilvy to Luke Sullivan, tags have only recently started waning. The reasons are simple and obvious, but seldom acknowledged.
1. Ignorance: The advertising industry is currently populated by a generation and a half of people who don’t have a clue about taglines — what they accomplish or how to write a good one — because no one ever told them. There are precious few copywriters left capable of teaching the discipline and, besides, no one’s asking them to. As a result, taglines are losing their central role in developing ideas and defining brands. The more brands that opt to go without a tagline, the more it will become the norm.
2. Sloth: A good tagline is hard to write. The more meaning that has to be jammed into fewer words, the bigger the challenge. The process of creating a compelling tagline can be time-consuming, painstaking — and painful. To the relief of many copywriters, tagline assignments are dwindling, as is the quality of effort devoted to them. The result: even more superficial, obvious, inane taglines than ever. As the quality of the taglines clients are exposed to is degraded, demand is further eroded.
3. Fickle foolishness: The industry has shifted its gaze, taking its eye off the brand ball as it tracks the latest shiny objects. Now it’s all about interactively engaging with customers using lots of words or, worse, no words — just pictures transmitted via Web sites, blogs, viral videos, social media and the like. One unintended consequence is a blurring and clouding of the brand. In the next year or two, I expect the pendulum to begin its return trip as our industry’s collective fog lifts regarding the value of taglines. Bytes, memes, tweets, texts — communication is being served up in shorter, quicker, compressed bits and bursts. Taglines — good ones — play right into the digital bias toward the quick and catchy.
As we embrace this digital future, it will be more important than ever to make bursts of brand expression potent, evocative, memorable and entertaining. It will become clear that vague, diffuse brand impressions need to be distilled into a single, simple thought, a concise articulation of the root advertising idea, whether it’s a rallying cry, mantra, call to action, worldview, anthem, aphorism or cleverly turned expression of the product benefit — something evocative, engaging and interesting enough to be remembered.
There will be a great rethinking, as there is after every revolution. Soon it will occur to our industry’s bright young minds that, while engaging and entertaining customers with videos, games, events, social media and other interactivity is a powerful way to strengthen their allegiance to a brand, you need to anchor that allegiance by leaving them with something to hang onto, a short little something to punctuate every brand experience. Consumers won’t reach for a brand they can’t grasp and it’s so much easier to grasp a brand if it possesses a well-crafted brand handle.
If it’s true that we’re making progress in our thinking about how to market brands in the digital age, taking a fresh look at the value and function of the tagline will produce a better understanding of what constitutes a good tag today, and a renaissance in the craft of writing taglines that work within today’s digitally driven brandscape. Taglines are no longer slogans set to music and drilled into our brains via endless repetition on radio and TV. It stands to reason that, as the contexts in which taglines occur evolve, taglines themselves will evolve accordingly.
I predict a collective epiphany among a new generation of ad brains unencumbered by the tagline biases and baggage of those currently running the show. The new guard will rediscover the value of this critical, central thread that connects with every other brand thread, as it helps tie the brand to the brain.

Jim Morris is a freelance writer. He can be reached at jim@communicaterer.com.