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The Tagline Tarpit

By Randy Mitchell


The place: Prehistoric Los Angeles


The event: The very first marketing meeting


A small group of Paleoindians is gathered around a rock. They are locked in a heated debate over a timeless marketing question: “What should our tagline be?”


The meeting drags on and on. It’s an epic decision and consensus seems eons away.


Before they realize it, the meeting’s momentum begins to fossilize. Literally. Our intrepid marketing ancestors have been entirely engulfed by thick, black goo.


I cannot confirm that this actually happened in ancient La Brea. However, I have empirical evidence to prove that the tagline tar pit is real.


Agencies and clients frequently disappear into the primordial ooze of trying to find a line that says everything to everyone. To avoid this sticky situation, please allow me to share a few tagline tips that will help.



Tagline Tip #1: Be a brave client.


When you see “Just do it,” you instantly think of Nike. It’s arguably one of the most recognizable taglines in marketing history. Smart, adaptable, memorable.


Now, I’m going to ask you to do something rather unorthodox. Imagine you had never heard of Nike. You don’t know who they are, what they sell, or why you should care. What does “Just do it” tell you about this mystery company? Seemingly nothing. It’s not employing the standard tagline essentials: product push, industry expertise, exceptional people or company history.


Therein lies the beauty of “Just do it.” It’s all about the customer and their personal roadblocks to fitness. Three little words tell you to exercise and overcome your excuses. And if you buy their gear along the way, well, that’s just fine with Nike.


I met the man behind the Nike campaigns at an AdWeek event many years ago. His name is John C. Jay. I complimented him on the Nike work, which was still in its infancy at the time.


John’s response impressed me in its simplicity: “We have a brave client.”


That is a wonderful compliment. It’s also a smart business practice. Allowing a powerful tagline to stand for your brand is courageous, particularly if it doesn’t say absolutely everything about your company and products. And if your company can muster up that courage, you have the opportunity to escape the sticky morass of marketing mediocrity.


Tagline Tip #2: Maybe you need a defining line instead.


Perhaps you would love to be like Nike, but you have a complicated B2B brand or startup service that demands more explanation. If that is the case, may I suggest a different approach?


Instead of a tagline, you may actually need a defining line until your brand or service becomes better known.


What is a defining line? I’m not certain that it’s a common term just yet, but it’s the way I describe a line that conveys a necessary explanation or definition in a memorable way.


Here’s an example. We worked with a software developer that was launching a remarkable information management platform. The new software could sort through an almost infinite amount of company information to find a specific piece of data about an employee, vendor or project.


The line that made sense of it all was: “Turn your business into a search engine.”


To me, this is a defining line. It describes what the product does in a visual, compelling way.


In other instances, a defining line may be even more explicit. This is appropriate when you absolutely require a statement of what you do and why it matters.


Tagline Tip #3: Some brands have a tagline and a defining line.


Some brands combine the clarity of a defining line and the creative emotion of a tagline. This can be tricky, but it is doable. One good example is Hebrew National hot dogs.


The Hebrew National defining line is part of their logo. It reads: “Made with premium cuts of 100% kosher beef.” That’s straightforward and explicit.


On the flipside, the Hebrew National tagline boldly declares: “We remain strict.” There’s the emotional impact. And the two statements work well together to create a strong representation of this legendary brand.


I sincerely hope this exploration of taglines and defining lines will help you avoid the tar pit. Remember, you don’t need to say everything. You simply need to stand for something.