The Conundrum of Brand Slogans

Unilever logo

Unilever – Bringing vitality to life.

The agency I work for, MCS, recently exhibited at the Suffolk Business Exhibition in Ipswich and we held a competition for visitors to our stand whereby they had to recall the slogans of 17 top brands. Most were flummoxed and the eventual winner ‘only’ got 11 correct (probably with a little help from the internet). Try these three (I’ve reversed them so you have to guess the brand from the slogan): 1) Trusted everywhere, 2) Looking after your world, 3) Bringing it all together.

Unless you work in strapline development, I’d be very surprised if you got all three correct. (The answers are Duracell, British Gas and BT). And this is why I suggest that brand slogans present a conundrum for organisations – how to get it right.Given that too many major brands get it wrong and create some mundane or anodyne slogan that is instantly forgotten by their intended audience, there is a strong case for not having one. My two favourite brand experts, Mark Ritson and Helen Edwards, offer their own advice. Ritson argues that ‘pointless slogans are a waste of time’ and suggests that major corporate brands with a stable of brands underneath them, such as Unilever, make this error because they are trying to position their brand across a multitude of different segments. In short they try to be all things to all people. Hence, Ritson argues, Unilever’s strapline ‘Bringing vitality to life’ is ‘empty’ and is ‘like saying that you are hydrating water or opening the aperture’.

Ritson ends his polemic arguing that the big brands have ‘collectively lost the brand building plot’ and that this presents an opportunity for small independent FMCG brands. He encourages them ‘to go after’ the big brands by targeting a specific consumer segment and position themselves against their ‘formerly untouchable rivals that are blunted by their corporate brand inanity’. Strong words.

A slogan is forever

Edwards suggests that ‘a slogan is forever’ and that there are two types of slogans. The first ‘are amazing brand assets, condensing meaning and texture into a bare linguistic fragment, evoking so much emotion precisely because they leave so much out’. The second are the kind you can’t recall a minute after you’ve seen them and there is no brand attribution in their content. She asks ‘which brand has just splashed out millions on New ideas, new possibilities? Who has been telling us to Save today, save tomorrow for three years now?’. The answers (of course) are Hyundai and EDF Energy. In fact I’ll wager that even if you try our slogan recall competition from the exhibition after reading this article, you still won’t be able to recall either correctly, or at all, such is the banality of their taglines.

Picture of old Guinness ad - 'My goodness, my Guinness' - showing an ostrich which has swallowed a pint of Guinness and you can see the outline of the pint glass in its throat as a startled drinker looks on.

Guinness: an example of alliteration to create a great slogan.

But Edwards makes a further point in that ‘successful slogans are memes, invading minds, replicating and spreading without control. It is the inability to switch off the meme that scares brands that evolved in fast-moving industries and know the value of suppleness’. She points out that BMW, Heinz, Mars and Thomas Cook have all reverted back to their most famous slogans after trying new ones. She argues that it is for this reason that top brands such as Google, Starbucks, Amazon and Virgin don’t have one. Hence the conundrum – ‘if it’s a knee-jerk, corporate thing, save yourself the effort. You will end up in the forgettable camp’. On the other hand, a great strapline is the ‘jewel in the branding crown’ but warns that it is ‘forever’. (Of course Google has an unofficial slogan – Don’t be evil – but that mantle is no longer believed by the public).

What really makes a good slogan?

The purpose of the strapline is to leave the key brand message in the mind of the target. At AdSlogans, which provides a service for checking availability of straplines as well as slogan/strapline/tagline generation (see nomenclature), there is a long checklist for what a slogan should do or be. Here are the top 5 on the list.

Slogans ideally should:

– Be memorable (e.g. Zanussi’s The appliance of science)
– Include the brand name (e.g. My goodness, my Guinness)
– Include a key benefit (e.g. Eddie Stobart’s Delivering Sustainable Distribution)
– Differentiate the brand (e.g. Mail on Sunday’s A newspaper, not a snoozepaper)
– Impart positive feelings for the brand (e.g. Vauxhall’s Once driven, forever smitten)

Whilst even most good slogans cannot accommodate all five ideals (let alone the whole list), the Carlsberg line of Probably the best lager in the world is an example of a great slogan. It carries so much impact that Mark Roalfe, the chairman of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R suggests that the brand can now get away with simply using the word “probably” and consumers would instantly link it to the drink.

The benefits of a great brand slogan

Well if Aleksandr Orlov answered this he would say that his ‘shimples’ slogan enabled to gain huge market share as well as transforming the price comparison sector. And when the I make that Pimms o’clock slogan came out, it too entered the consumer vernacular, aiding recall and thus purchase. Furthermore, Tom Morton of TBWA states that “ideally the lines are deep enough that they can influence the shape of brand activity even when the endline doesn’t appear”.

Stating the obvious, slogans give the brand stand out from the competition. But they also help the brand define itself – very helpful, Roalfe says, given “today’s fast-paced world where most people only seem to communicate in 140 characters or less”. These slogans connect a consumer with the brand as much as the ad they’re attached to, thereby helping to increase brand loyalty. I would also argue that there is another important function of a brand slogan – getting employee buy-in to the brand. Summing up the brand essence in a single line and having it on every conceivable piece of collateral can only serve to do this as well as build engagement with employees. In these days of employees being ambassadors for the brand and with so many with access to the organisation’s touchpoints including social media, this is key.


Carlsberg logo with strapline 'Probably the best lager in the world'

Carlsberg: Possibly the best slogan in the world.

When we developed MCS’ slogan of Outstanding ideas that stand out we wanted to convey that above all we are a creative agency rather than just a marketing services agency. You can have the best technology in the world in social media, an app, a database, an email or a website but without a great idea behind a campaign, you won’t have a great campaign. And we like to think we have great ideas. Maybe one day we can shorten it to ‘Outstanding’. Probably.

As well as administrator of New River Marketing, Richard Fullerton is Business Partner at MCS, an integrated marketing agency. This article has also been published at Marketing:Blogged.


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