Why marketing slogans matter

Brand tag lines are like trees: they take a long time to grow shades of meaning.

(Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty)

“Just slightly ahead of our time.” It was a great tag line, penned by a New York agency in 1969, when the mad men still ruled. Japanese modesty and technological hubris synthesized with a wink, born in the TV age along with the Panasonic brand itself.

Some years later, as a young advertising manager with that company, my sole legacy was to save its vintage slogan from the new-is-better barbarians. For a while, anyway. Eventually, it was replaced (not long after I was). Some people thought “just slightly” undersold the brand. One or two slogans have come and gone since then. Today, I think it’s “Ideas for life,” not that most people would be able to recall that. I had to look it up.

This bit of personal history came to mind last month after the Wharton business school announced its new “positioning.” The mandate teeters on the stiletto heels of the slogan “Knowledge for action.” It was the product of a three-year process in which crowdsourcing stood in for deliberate thinking. In this case, the tag line it replaced—“Transforming the world through thoughtful leadership”—had been developed by a faculty group, but its lack of that Madison Avenue snap was likely its downfall. Too bad. Thoughtful leadership is something the world could use a little more of. It would have given the school a more worthy purpose, T-shirt sales notwithstanding.

Marketers toss a lot of babies out with their branding bathwater, but none more cavalierly than slogans. As in the Wharton case, the quest for a new one all too often eclipses the strategic problem the brand started out trying to solve. Throw in some creative vanity and a political urge to erase the legacy of past leadership, and slogans, no matter how comfortingly familiar they are to consumers, are sitting ducks. It’s hard to understand how a brewery could walk away from “What beer’s all about,” or a bank from “Save your money.” And it’s easy to see why a certain family restaurant would reinstate “Always so good for so little” four slogans after killing it, despite its plainspoken dullness.

It’s in this last example that an important lesson lies: slogans, even catchy ones, aren’t actually born with any meaning. They earn it. They earn it through dramatic beginnings, with determined repetition and over years. “Just do it” was probably met with awkward silence when it was first uttered in that Oregon boardroom in 1988; a quarter century of Michael Jordan, the Beatles, Bo, Lance and Tiger later, it’s a towering, indelible piece of popular culture. Great slogans are like trees that way. And before marketers fire up the chainsaw, they should consider whether the brand can wait a decade or two before it sees any shade again.

But the greatest risk in ritual slogan replacement is that it can distract from the work that should motivate it. Many in the branding business use the tag line exercise as a proxy for creating a strategy, as though it’s possible to reverse-engineer meaning from a clever turn of phrase. Mostly, it’s not. Mostly, you first have to decide what and whom you stand for and put it in language that’s exact and demanding. Even Hemingway had to sort out his story before getting to the trenchant prose. Snappy copy will never be a substitute for thoughtful leadership.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, nominated for the 2012 National Business Book Award