The Only Tagline Tip You Need: The Tagline Isn’t the Point

by Jason Ocker
May 21, 2020

Taglines are hard. Good thing there’s help out there. On a recent Google search, I counted 1,748 tips for writing those three-to-five amazing words that say everything about your brand. Although you could probably guess most of the tips. They’re always common sensical. And they usually don’t get you closer to a tagline.

Too often, a tagline is approached like it’s a magic spell, a special untrademarked combination of words that are exactly what you’re looking for and which were patiently awaiting you since the dawn of language. But, despite what all the listicles say, there’s almost no such thing as a great tagline. Look at the ones that are usually touted as such. Here’s a list from Forbes with all the usual suspects: Just Do It, Every Kiss Begins with K, Think Different, Got Milk?. Those taglines are all vague, simplistic, and without meaning.

Well, vague, simplistic, and without meaning…by themselves.

But appended to brands with compelling stories, stories based on great ideas or that have been invested in heavily over time by organizations that know how to wield a brand like an eight-armed cow farmer? They are magic spells. “Just Do It” is dumb until it’s undergirded by the marketing machine that is Nike and then it’s an inspiration to generations of people who love squeaky shoes.

The way I try to talk to clients and random T passengers about taglines is that it’s never about the tagline. It’s about the story under the tagline. And I usually use the metaphor of a book. Let’s go to the subheads.

The Tagline is the Title of Your Book

Without the story behind the cover, any title is a bunch of vague words. Look at The New York Times Bestseller List. The top three in hardback nonfiction at the time of this writing are: Camino WindsWhere the Crawdads Sing, and If It Bleeds. Those phrases are…not even kind of meaningful. Again, by themselves. But pair them with the bestselling story inside, and they’re infused with all sorts of meaning that the audience who reads and loves the book will take with them for the rest of their lives.

So before you even schedule a tagline exercise, make sure your story is tight and relevant. In my experience, if you’re having trouble with the tagline, the problem is probably more with your story than your Creative team. If your story is too unfocused or contradictory or irrelevant, you won’t find a good tagline for that. If you have the right story, the right title will happen. Ask any author.

You can also do this one with movies. Jaws feels like one of the best titles ever, but really I’m thinking of the movie itself and the poster and the marketing and the overall brand. If 28-year-old Spielberg came up to me in 1974 and told me he was making a movie called Jaws, I wouldn’t know anything about the movie. Is it a romantic comedy about a dentist? A horror movie about a python? A biopic about that dude from those two James Bond films? 

The Tagline Isn’t About You. That’s What the Byline Is For.

Too often, organizations focus that tagline on themselves instead of on their audience. In book terms, that’s what the byline is for. It’s not Agatha Christie Book by Agatha Christie. Even if her name is what’s selling the book. So beware of words like “we” or if the tagline sounds like a dictionary definition of what your organization does. There’s some exception to that, when you’re a new brand trying to explain yourself to the market. But at some point that strategy needs to shift to a loftier audience-facing statement that also allows you to grow and change as a company. Amazon’s a good example here. When they first jumped into our lives, their first tagline was, “The world’s biggest bookstore.” The tagline worked, but, due to their success, became irrelevant quickly.

It Can Only Say One Thing. Otherwise Use a Subtitle

I get it. Your business is more complicated than chocolate candy that melts in your mouth, not in your hands. But that doesn’t matter. You have to uncomplicate your business for the purposes of the title of your story. That means sacrificing some nuance. Prioritizing some meanings and offerings. Making some clear decisions. In the book world, nonfiction books approach the challenge with a subtitle that gives the title context.

And that’s the good news for brands. A tagline is never required to do any work by its lonesome. There’s always context. Look at an page for one of those bestsellers I mentioned. It’s not just the title of the book and a Buy button. It’s all kinds of information.

You’re going to elaborate on that tagline every time it’s used. On your website, in a presentation, inside a digital experience, at a conference. That’s what collateral’s for. That’s what the pillars of your messaging are for.

And that’s the only tagline tip you need. Your tagline is the title on the cover of your book, something you’ll never release a book without, but which will still only be there for a second, before your audience flips that cover open to get to the story. So if you’re sweating your tagline or if your agency is on round 17 of ideas, maybe go back to the story and see if the issue is there. 


Photo by Taylor on Unsplash

Jason writes. Tells stories. Develops strategies. He oversees a wide range of creative and technical projects. He’s also an award-winning author of half a dozen books and has been featured on or in CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

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