Copywriting. Not a terribly sexy word, is it?
How many times have you seen a 5-year-old puff out her chest and proudly declare, “I’m going to be a COPYWRITER when I grow up!”
Wikipedia’s definition doesn’t help. It defines copywriting as “…the act of writing text for the purpose of advertising or other forms of marketing.”
Somebody needs to submit better copy for that definition. How about this?
Copywriting is the art and science of capturing the essence of a product’s value in a short sequence of compelling words.
Honestly, that’s how I see it. Copywriting is more than just “writing text…blah, blah, blah.” It is an important skill set to master, regardless of your job title.
Even if you’re not personally responsible for writing copy, if you preside over a campaign, brand, or company, you will benefit from knowing how to identify winning taglines.
The success of a product, brand, and sometimes the success of an entire company can hinge on the choice of words that represent it.
2 Best-in-Class Examples
Consider just two examples of major marketing campaigns from the 90’s that launched their companies to new heights with a carefully crafted short sequence of words.
The first example is Apple. The core message they wanted to communicate was refined to just two words – “Think Different.”
That perfectly captured what Apple wanted to convey throughout their entire 1997 marketing campaign. They wanted misfits and rebels to self-identify with Apple and it worked.
Those two words propelled Apple to what it is today. But do you remember the mid-90’s campaign that only needed two letters? The company was Dodge and the word was “Hi.”
That cute, fun message endeared the target audience (college grads in their 20’s) to the personable Dodge Neon.
Clearly, the right words can make all the difference. But how do you find them?
For much of my career, I’ve been responsible for naming products, brands, and the taglines that represent them. But there is a real art and science to it. They almost never just “come” to me by some kind of spontaneous inspiration. And I suspect that I’m not alone.
The world’s best ad campaigns are the result of research and intense effort where expert marketers labor to hone and refine copy until it sings.
There are a variety of ways to land on a killer marketing tagline. In this article, I will share my personal method along with 6 specific approaches that I take into consideration whenever I need to nail a tagline for a company, brand, or campaign.
Make 3 Lists
My method starts with making 3 lists:
- A list of the words and phrases my competitors are using
- A list of words and phrases target customers are using
- A list of words and phrases related to the category
This list-building exercise is an important step that informs and guides my creative process. Without it, I’d be shooting in the dark.
Here’s a little more detail about each of these lists.
List 1: Competitor Copy
This list starts with research. I go to the websites of each of our competitors and I review their social media channels to record the keywords and phrases they are using.
Why is this step important? First, to avoid catastrophe. It would be devastating to inadvertently adopt a tagline that a competitor is using (or one they used last year). You will look like a copycat and when your boss finds out, you might regret skipping this step.
This research also kickstarts my brainstorming process because even though I want to avoid a competitor’s exact wording, if the concept they are communicating is compelling, I will work on variations that say the same thing but in a different and better way.
I always keep Thesaurus.com open on a browser tab and I use it to look up some of the main words competitors are using to see if there are synonyms that are unique and communicate the same value but in a more effective way.
List 2: Customer Copy
The second list comes from a brainstorming session where I record all of the words and phrases that I know our customers are using. This starts with comments that I’ve observed from listening to our customers in the past but then it gets more scientific.
I use a variety of SEO tools to help me identify the volume of traffic for keywords and phrases. My favorite tool is Google’s Keyword Planner but I also use Moz Pro and SEMRush to build out a more complete list.
This step is important because sometimes it is possible to integrate into your copy the exact words customers are using when they search for answers to a problem your product solves.
List 3: Category Copy
The third list is based on the nature of the content I am promoting. I list all of the keywords and phrases related to the category itself, specifically focusing on words that didn’t come up in the first 2 lists.
This step is important in order to round out a complete buffet of words from which to cherry-pick.
As I start pulling together a list of contenders to pit against each other, I let two guardrails serve as quality control for options worthy of entering the ring.
Guardrail #1: Is it Concise?
First, I check to make sure the tagline is short. Concise copy is actually the most difficult to nail. Give me three paragraphs and I’d fill them in an hour (okay, to be honest, maybe an afternoon) but sometimes I wrestle over a tagline for days or weeks because I know I need to get it right with as few words as possible.
As Blaise Pascal famously said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
The perfect length of a marketing tagline may vary but I try to keep it between 3 and 8 words. Sadly, this first qualification eliminates many of the drafts that I get excited about early on.
Guardrail #2: Is it Captivating?
The second guardrail is to make sure it is captivating to the target audience. Does it have a sharp hook or is it just white noise? This is where I have to try to force myself to see the campaign with fresh eyes.
When I’ve worked on a product launch for many months, I know I’ve lost the ability to see it as our customers will see it. I might find a tagline option fascinating but do those 3-8 words resonate with someone who’s never heard of my brand?
Is it thumb-stopping? Will it be enough to entice a customer to pause and engage with it in their social media feed?
I try to envision the customer’s perspective myself, but to verify my suspicions, I also ask co-workers, friends, and family what they think.
This second guideline has saved me from embarrassment more than a few times.
As I start to build out my list of contenders, I keep these 6 approaches in mind. I don’t always have an option from every category, but these are the types of tagline strategies that I consider.
6 Tagline Techniques
Let me preface this section by admitting that I wish I had ten techniques to write about because one of my favorite methods is to use alliteration in taglines. It would’ve had such a nice ring to it if I could say, “Ten Tagline Tips” or “Ten Tagline Techniques.”
Alliteration falls under the first category which is I’ve labeled “Clever.”
Technique #1: Clever
There are many ways to be clever with a tagline including using a play on words, alliteration, rhyming, humor, wit, or something downright corny or punny to communicate the message of a campaign.
Obviously, this only works if the personality of the brand warrants it. Not every product category can pull off humor and some shouldn’t even attempt it.
I recently observed a local marketing agency use clever copy in a billboard promoting a funeral home. Sadly, someone approved that campaign direction, but they should’ve left Technique #1 off the table from the very start.
Good examples of using a play on words include Maybelline’s campaign, “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.” and John Deere’s, “Nothing runs like a Deere.”
Pringles was clever with a rhyming tagline, “Once you pop, you can’t stop.” and so was Kia, “We wanna see ya in a Kia.“
Technique #2: Short Phrases
The second technique for tagline copy is to use short phrases. This can include two phrases separated by periods (i.e., “Taste Great. Less Filling.” and “Save Money. Live Better.”), three phrases separated by periods (i.e., “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.”), or it could be just two or three single words (i.e., Sony’s “Make. Believe.”).
Honestly, Technique #2 is my least favorite strategy, but I list it here because sometimes it is useful, especially when combined with Technique #1. Mix in alliteration or do something clever with it and it can be effective.
A good example of combining Technique 1 and 2 is Dollar Shave Club’s campaign, “Shave Time. Shave Money.”
Here’s an important tagline tip – Many of the most successful examples contain a combination of 2-4 of these 6 techniques. So whenever possible, I try to create at least one option that incorporates 2-4 techniques in one tagline.
Technique #3: Customer-Centric
The third technique is to find a short sequence of words focused primarily on the value a product will bring to a consumer or the solution it will give to their problem.
In this case, the tagline isn’t descriptive at all. It doesn’t refer to the brand or the features of the product. Instead, it focuses on the consumer and paints a picture of how their lives would be better if they owned this product.
It sounds like every tagline should use this approach, but it doesn’t always work as well as one of the other techniques. Each campaign has a unique need, but I always try to put at least one option into the ring with this characteristic.
A good example of this approach is Wheaties’ campaign, “The Breakfast of Champions.” It doesn’t list their ingredients or describe its taste. Instead, it paints a picture of you as a champion, like the athletes on the box.
Another good example is Allstate’s campaign, “You’re in Good Hands.” Instead of using a 3-word descriptive tagline like, “Life. Home. Auto.”, Allstate paints a picture of security and peace of mind.
Technique #4: Product-Centric
After learning about Technique #3, this one might feel like the wrong direction to take but often it is necessary to use a tagline to unpack what the product does.
Consider M&M’s tagline, “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” This is descriptive. It explains a feature of the chocolate. Perhaps it is successful because it is a combination of Technique #1 and #4. It is a clever way of describing the benefit of a candy shell.
Another good example is Bounty’s tagline, “The quicker picker-upper.” This is a combination of Technique #1 and #4 because it rhymes but also describes what the product does. In fact, it also factors in Technique #5 by claiming to be better (quicker) than the competition.
Technique #5: Authority
The primary focus of Technique #5 is to establish authority by positioning the brand or product as the best, first, most, or only in a particular category.
Those specific qualifying words don’t necessarily need to be part of the tagline, but the point communicated carries that message.
This strategy can be very effective in convincing customers to trust one brand over another.
Hallmark used this approach, “When you care enough to send the very best.” This is subtle, but it positions them as the greeting card company with the highest quality.
One of my favorite taglines is from Jets Pizza, “Life is short. Eat better pizza.” They are positioning themselves against one competitor in particular (Little Caesars) by claiming that their pizza is better and worth the wait and the extra few bucks.
Utah uses a combination of Technique #1 and #5 with, “The greatest snow on earth.” It is a clever play on words and also establishes the state as the best place to ski or snowboard.
Technique #6: Authenticity
The last technique is to use the tagline to communicate authenticity and passion. This approach can create trust among consumers. If they are convinced that the brand sincerely loves what they do, they may prefer them over the competition.
In the late-80’s, Delta used this strategy with, “We love to fly and it shows.” UPS also chose this direction with, “We love logistics.”
Choosing a Winner
To recap, I start by building 3 lists. Then I use those 2 guiding principles to draft a list of 10-15 contenders factoring in as many of the 6 techniques as possible.
My next step is to sort these by the ones with the strongest potential.
The top contenders go through a refining process whereby I attempt to optimize them in two ways. First, I try to add one or two additional techniques to strengthen its potential impact. Then I check to see if it’s possible to shorten them, even if by just a few characters.
Customer Journey Mapping’s Impact on Taglines
My approach to taglines has changed in the last couple years. I used to land on one for each campaign and then I’d integrate it into most or all of our marketing assets. But Customer Journey Mapping has shown us that we need a few tagline options.
Sometimes one can be effective across all customer types and demographics but since we’re tailoring our strategies for each targeted ad group anyway, we now attempt to come up with a different tagline for each customer demographic.
It takes more time but Josh Martin and his team at Arby’s have taught us that this approach works. Have you noticed how they use an entirely different message for each audience type?
Their commercials proclaim, “We have the meats,” but their social media targets a younger demographic so they use video game and anime figures to align themselves with the gamer community.
There’s very little, if any, overlap and it works for them. And we’re seeing success from using a variety of taglines tailored to each target demographic/psychographic as well.
Click the link below for a Word document template that can be used as a worksheet to complete the steps listed in this article.
Just for fun, would you like to see how these 6 techniques apply to this article? Click the video below.