How to Craft a High-Performance Tagline for Your Brand
Your tagline is your first chance to explain yourself to a potential customer. Why do you exist? Why should they care?
Whether by design or default, you have a brand identity. And that brand identity determines how your company is perceived and understood by potential customers.
First impressions are everything. If your tagline is executed poorly, it might be the last chance you get to explain yourself to that prospect.
Like all types of creative work, the key to designing a tagline lies in the process. Respect the process and approach it seriously, but be determined to enjoy it as well. The results are only as good as your attitude is throughout the process.
To make this less conceptual and (hopefully) more helpful to you, I’m going to use our own brand as a case study: Oranges & Apples Brand Strategy.
Step One: Nail Your Positioning with an “Only-ness Statement”
An “Only-ness statement” is a concept coined by the godfather of modern branding, Marty Neumeier, in his bestselling book Zag.
But what exactly do we mean by ‘radically different’?
To quote Neumeier himself: “Traditional differentiation is an uphill battle in which companies lavish too much effort on too few competitive advantages: the latest feature, a new color, a lower price, a higher speed. Radical differentiation, on the other hand, is about finding a whole new market space you can own and defend, thereby delivering profits over years instead of months.”
Think of radical differentiation as the engine for a high-performance brand. It gets you on the fast track to having more people buy more stuff for more years at a higher prices.
By being radically different, you reduce the number of real alternatives to 0 in the eyes of your customer. When there are no legitimate alternatives to your brand, the customer no longer makes their purchasing decision based on price. Instead, they need only answer one question for themselves: “is this for me?”
How to craft your Only-ness Statement
The goal of the exercise is this: summarize what makes your brand radically different from every other alternative in one simple but encompassing sentence.
Complete this sentence: Our brand is the ONLY ____________ that ___________. In the first blank, put the name of your category (computer repair service, car dealership, microbrewery). In the second blank, describe what makes you singular, or different from everyone else (that makes house calls, that allows weeklong test drives, that brews all organic beer).
If you can’t keep it brief and honestly use the word ONLY, then you need to go back to the drawing board. Your best option in that case is to make a list of all the competitors who could possibly make that same claim, then start to shift your strategy away from theirs.
Once you finish that sentence, try to tackle the full exercise. This exercise follows the journalistic model of storytelling: WHAT is your category? HOW are you different? WHO are your customers? WHERE are they located? WHY are you important? WHEN do they need you?
The ONLY ____________________ that ____________________ for ____________________ who want ____________________ in an era of ____________________ .
Brand Positioning Example
Oranges & Apples: The ONLY design thinking agency that creates strategic clarity for ambitious brands across the United States who want to be seen as both incomparable and unforgettable in an era of endless lookalikes and mindless scrolling.
Step Two: Condense Your “Only-ness Statement” into a Trueline
All of your messaging and communications should emanate from an internal positioning line, or “trueline.” A trueline is the one absolutely true thing you can say about your brand and derives from the only-ness statement. In a nutshell, your trueline is your value proposition, the reason your brand matters to customers.
How to craft your brand’s trueline
There are three rules to keep in mind in this exercise: your trueline must be something that your competitors can’t claim (or won’t), it must be something that your customers find valuable, and it must be something that your customers find credible.
Condense your “only-ness statement” into a short sentence that describes why your brand matters to customers. It should be composed from their perspective, not yours. The trueline is a stab at what people might say about what makes your brand what it is from an outsider’s point of view.
From a customer’s perspective, this is a basic, differentiating truth about the brand. It can’t be reduced, refuted, or easily dismissed.
Since this step is a little less structured, I’ll give you a few bonus examples.
- Oranges & Apples - Translating ambition into strategic design and messaging
- Southwest - You can fly just about anywhere for less than it costs to drive
- Mini Cooper - The small car for people who want a fun driving experience
- eBay - The place to trade practically anything on Earth
Step Three: Translate Your Trueline into a Tagline
Once you have your trueline, it’s a short step to a customer-facing tagline. For example, when Southwest says, “You’re now free to move about the country,” they’re simply translating their trueline into a more polished form grounded in the customer’s perspective. They’re tapping into our belief that Southwest offers a different kind of freedom that didn’t exist before.
When Mini says, “Let’s motor,” they’re translating a whole complex array of feelings into a tribal message: If you appreciate small, high-performance cars and you hate the American trend toward clumsy, gas-guzzling SUVs, come and join us.
One thing to keep in mind is that there are many different categories of taglines, and all of them are equally valid.
Imperative taglines command action (Just do it, Let’s motor). Some taglines are descriptive (You’re in good hands, Imagination at work). Superlative taglines seek to position the brand as best-in-class (A diamond is forever, The ultimate driving machine). Provocative taglines often take the form of a question (Got milk?, Can you hear me now?). Specifying taglines reveal the category of the brand (Innovative workplace, Personal injury attorneys).
To learn more about these categories and the characteristics of a high-performance tagline, check out this article I wrote on the topic: What Makes a Great Tagline?
How to write a great Tagline
The key to crafting a truly great tagline is to focus on a single proposition. If you find yourself using commas or “ands” to write your tagline, you probably need more focus.
Write down your trueline and get ready for some creative thinking.
For each of the above categories, try to come up with at least two ideas for a tagline within that format. Remember, this tagline is specifically meant to be public-facing.
Rank-order your from 1 to 10 ideas based on each of the below criteria.
- Must be true
- Competitors can’t claim
- Customers find valuable
- Customers find credible
- Focus on single proposition
Then add up the scores each of your idea got for each category. The lowest aggregate score wins!
- Oranges & Apples - Strategic clarity for ambitious brands
- Southwest Airlines - You’re now free to move about the country
- Mini Cooper - Let’s motor
- eBay - The world’s online marketplace
The Art of the Tagline
When done well, taglines are deceptively simple. Great taglines seem so straightforward and obvious from the outside. But the process to develop them is anything but.
Even if the process I described above doesn’t immediately deliver the exact perfect tagline for your brand, I guarantee it’ll get you awfully close.
If you narrow it down to just a few different choices, consider doing some user testing to help you make the final call. Pick a few people you trust that fit into your typical customer profile, but don’t just ask them which they prefer. Ask them a few specific questions to get more useful feedback than the age-old “what’s your favorite?”
- Which option is more memorable to you?
- Which option best helps you understand why my business exists?
- Which option makes you more likely to mentally raise your hand and say “that is relevant to me”?
- Which option intrigues you the most and makes you want to learn more, go one step deeper?
This all may seem like much to-do over just a few silly words, but taking the time to be strategic, patient and thoughtful while composing your tagline can make a colossal impact on your ability to grow revenues. It shows prospective customers that you understand them and care about the impressions you make.
And here's one last piece of advice for the road: do it right, or don’t do it at all.
While I’ve written at length about the power of a great tagline, a careless tagline is even more powerful.
It convinces potential customers that you don’t understand them, that you don’t care about how people perceive your brand, and that you probably won’t care much about them either.