How to Write an Advertising Tagline: A Distilling Process

How to Write an Advertising Tagline

How to Write an Advertising Tagline: A Distilling Process

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a bad tagline will just stink up the joint.

Here’s how not to offend your olfactory system – and your customers.

A great poem by Emily Dickinson suggests that rose oil and poetry have a lot in common. Both are the purest distillation of the source material. Both are the result of a grueling, crushing process. And, if done right, the final product is memorable, valuable, and lives on long after the flower or the author cease to be.

The same can be said for advertising taglines.

A good tagline is your company’s essence. Your product, your people, your process – all distilled down to a few simple words. As quickly and easily as one can identify the familiar smell of roses, your stakeholders’ senses should perk up when they hear your tagline – because it’s just so darn you.

Using modern distilling techniques (sorry, Emily), let’s consider how best to cook up an essential tagline.

1. Harvest your raw materials.

Start brainstorming about what makes your company unique. Yes, think about your products and services and why they are better than your competitors’. But also consider your people. Your corporate culture. Your values as a company. Everything should be on the table. (Hint: Some of your most valuable insight may come from employees who have nothing to do with marketing and administration. Go have a conversation with the people who actually make what you sell.)

2. Close the still and boil the water.

There’s a recurring movie montage that symbolizes hard work in the business world. A locked boardroom. Picked over Chinese take-out. Bleary-eyed executives with loosened ties and rolled-up sleeves working furiously into the night, ripping pages out of notepads, balling them up and tossing them three-pointer style into overflowing wastebaskets.

Welcome to your own personal boardroom montage.

Gather your best creative minds. Lay out the raw materials from above. Then beat the hell out of ‘em – the materials, not your creative team. Your team will feel sufficiently beaten and exhausted when the exercise is over, because tagline writing is long, grueling work. It should take days, weeks, even months – never hours.

And what should you be doing during those days, weeks and months? Thinking. Talking. Arguing. Poring over your online thesauruses and dictionaries for new words and double meanings. Exhausting one idea, redirecting the conversation, then returning to the old idea when somebody has a fresh thought.  Mumbling your way through lines like you are trying to solve the final puzzle on Wheel of Fortune (some of the best taglines come from this technique).

Basically, you brainstorm until you can’t brainstorm anymore. Then you go home, take a shower, get some sleep, and start all over again.

3. Watch out for contaminants.

It’s said that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. But there are ideas that lead to nowhere good. Stay away from the following; they’ll only muddy your message:

  • Overused words and phrases: Quality. Excellence. Trust. They sound nice, right? There’s a reason they sound like tagline words – they are painfully overused, to the point that they say nothing new about your organization. Use them and risk your message getting buried. Other words that fall into this category include: empowering, advancing, extraordinary, exceptional, tradition, opportunities, leadership, committed, dependable, world-class, expert, partnership and “since [insert year here].” These words are as bad as corporate jargon – they fall stunningly flat with consumers, they engender no loyalty or enthusiasm, they convey zero personality, and they move nobody to action. Find better words.

  • Multitasking: Your tagline can’t be all things to all people. The best taglines convey one idea, and convey it really, really well.

  • A message that’s not unique to you: Indistinguishable ideas are arguably worse than unoriginal words. The ideas are the crime – the words are merely the getaway car. Let’s consider this made-up tagline for a university: “Enhancing learning through educational opportunities.” Sounds fancy. It also says nothing. Don’t all universities enhance learning through educational opportunities? If your tagline is true about you – as well as everybody else in your industry – find a new one.

4. Filter the collected oil.

Cutting down your idea list can feel an awful lot like cleaning out your closet. You’ll find some obvious keepers. You’ll come across others that are so dull they immediately end up in the “discard” pile. And then there are the ones you linger over – maaaaybe you can make it work, if you only lose 20 pounds/completely alter your business model?

Don’t torture yourself. If a line doesn’t fit, cut it.

5. Give it the smell test.

Spend hours with ideas and you’ll know them intimately. Unfortunately, you’ll also lose your objectivity. So corral some new faces – people who are unfamiliar with the project – and hand them your list. Ask them, which ones are authentic? Which ones resonate? Which ones really sound like us?

Usually, you’ll have some true standouts. Occasionally, you’ll come to the harsh realization you’ve got nothing but stinkers. Don’t be afraid to toss the batch and start over.

6. Bottle and let sit.

After much grueling work, you’ve got a shortlist of solid taglines. So how do you choose the winner?

Put the list in a drawer and forget it.

Why? Because the right line will linger, revisiting you day and night. The others will eventually go stale.