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Just write it

Slogans can be powerful brand assets – but creating them is harder than it looks
If agencies have fallen out of love with the classic ad slogan, many marketers haven’t
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

The veteran British copywriter Pete Matthews, when asked what made for a good advertising slogan, observed that if your best effort contained the word ‘notwithstanding’, there was probably room for improvement.

That circumspection should not be read as an attempt to jealously guard from lesser talents the secrets of the craft. More likely it was a recognition that even those who have come up with some great lines in their time – and Matthews had – find it hard to deconstruct how they do it. Worse: they fear not being able to do the next one when confronted with that opaque brief, that call for originality, that mercilessly blank page.

Any writer who’s tried knows the feeling. Down go the lines, in a haphazard blur of syntactical permutation. The harder you try the more stilted they get. When you read them all back, one after another, they become increasingly absurd – strange, disjointed fragments of meaning without meaning, the communications equivalent of junk DNA.

Who hasn’t felt the temptation to cut up these failed attempts into their individual words, toss them into a suitable receptacle, and randomly pull out three or four just to see what happens? Slogans like ‘Be your way’ is what happens. And it would be really rather better if it didn’t.

As you dig deeper, the best-practice advice gleaned down the years seems suddenly useless. Keep it short, say some. Well, nobody told the creator of ‘It does exactly what it says on the tin’. Make the brand name part of the slogan, say others; it will help memorability. Yet somehow, we all know it was FedEx, not DHL, that owned ‘When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight’. In any case, it is one thing to prefix ‘Beanz Meanz’ to a nice snappy brand name like Heinz. What are you supposed to do with a brief for, say, Old Mutual Wealth Life Assurance Ltd?

Agency reluctance

It must have been a lot easier in the days when you were permitted to, basically, lie. ‘Guinness is good for you.’ Yeah, that has a ring to it, let’s go with that. It’s the 1950s, so no-one is going to come along and add ‘when consumed in moderation’ to the poster, as they might a few decades down the line, or arrest us, as they would in 2021.

And where was the due diligence when the team decided to blitz into a nation’s consciousness ‘A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play’? You could see, just, how they might have been able to make a case for the first and last of those three daily exigencies. But how did a 230-calorie shot of sugar, glucose syrup, and cocoa butter ever help a person repose?

Agencies don’t make ‘em like they used to, because they can’t. Restrictions are everywhere. But increasingly, they are reluctant to make ‘em at all, deeming the blunt, enduring slogan out of sync with today’s fluid times. Campaign lines abound, and there are social media hashtags aplenty, to crystallise brands’ dearest causes. But where are those unforgettable tattoos in the mind – the slogans destined to be locked with the logo forever? Is the concern that they will remain locked mentally even when unlocked typographically, to be recalled decades after they are deemed defunct, like ‘The world’s favourite airline’ and ‘The world’s local bank’?

If agencies have fallen out of love with the classic ad slogan, many marketers haven’t. In a context where media are fragmented and budgets stretched, many nurture, perhaps secretly, a conviction that a blockbuster line is the only thing that can help them power through the fuzz. Some of the braver ones will sit down with their agency planner and creative director and give voice to their inner intuition – no doubt feeling the kind of discomfort that a diner in a Michelin-starred restaurant would feel requesting a side of chips.

A little evidence would help, but as with most things in marketing, there is scant science to the topic of sloganeering. Brands have been built with and without them.

Brands need fame

Where marketers will find themselves on the same ground as the agency, however, is with a discussion of the tenets of Professor Byron Sharp’s approach to brand building. It will be a rare planner who does not openly espouse the evidence-based school’s contention that ‘mental availability’ – the outcome of brand fame – is the key to reaching more deeply into the pool of potential buyers.

And what makes for brand fame? Many things, but among them are ‘distinctive brand assets’ – colours, symbols, tunes and words that should change rarely, so that they get lodged in the minds of even light buyers. It would be hard to argue why a great slogan should not become one of those assets. But the emphasis would have to be on ‘great’ – or the slogan will not cut through the fuzz but merely add to it.

It is this reality that makes the agency team feel uncomfortable – and the deeper cause behind that is the ad world’s weakness for fashion. Slogan formats have gone through numerous evolutions since their basic, imperative ‘Buy our brand’ form (see panel). Where they have most recently arrived is back to imperative – but of a very different kind. This time it is ‘Buy into our attitude’. The brand appears to be telling consumers what to do, but in reality is sending a signal of affinity to those who feel the same, and a defiant ‘who cares’ to those who do not.

This is the groove into which agency creative teams have become increasingly lodged. It was highly original once. Remember how startling and fresh it felt to be commanded, for the first time, to ‘Just do it’? Now, though, these ‘new imperatives’ are everywhere: ‘Go further.’ ‘Keep climbing.’ ‘Keep discovering.’ ‘Challenge everything.’ ‘Do what you can’t.’

A writer charged with breaking through today faces a choice of two unenviable options: seek to find a fresh expression within the fashionable genre or find a new genre altogether. But because the arc of ‘basic imperative’, way back then, through to ‘new imperative’, today, is so seemingly complete, it is hard to work out where to go.

Any marketer briefing the ‘next killer line’ from their agency should therefore give massively on time. It will not be the work of a moment. But when you think about the amazing power great slogans can have, both internally as well as with consumers, it has to be worth the effort – all the long hours, wrong turns, false dawns and sleepless nights notwithstanding.

Slogan formats – roughly in order of their rise to fashion

Basic imperative (‘buy our brand’)
Say it with flowers.
Drinka pinta milka day.

Fame, salience, recognition (‘everyone knows our brand’)
Beanz Meanz Heinz.
The world’s favourite airline.

Product superiority (‘our brand is the best’)
The ultimate driving machine.
The best a man can get.

Consumer benefit (‘our brand makes you feel good’)
Because you’re worth it.
I’m lovin’ it.

Product advantage (‘our brand has a big thing you need’)
When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.
Kills all known germs. Dead.

Superior by association (‘the right people buy our brand’)
Top People Take The Times.
The choice of a new generation.

Product authenticity (‘our brand is the genuine article’)
It’s the real thing.
A diamond is forever.

Disarming candour (‘decide for yourself whether our brand is best’)
We try harder.
It does exactly what it says on the tin.

Aloof insouciance (‘you either ‘get’ our brand or you don’t’)
Vorsprung durch Technik.
Reassuringly expensive.

Purpose driven (‘here’s how our brand makes for a better world’)
Dirt is good.
We believe in life before death.

New imperative (‘when you buy our brand you buy into our attitude’)
Go further.
Just do it.