What Science Says About the Secret to a Great Tagline

Coming up with the great tagline isn’t like the movies. There’s no magical Don Draper to feed you the perfect line. It’s usually a long slog through brainstorms and iterations. And although it’s frustrating, you have to do it if you want to find the right one. But you don’t have to fumble around in the dark.

Luckily, researchers are slowly discovering the secrets of a great tagline, making your life a lot easier. What really makes a great tagline? How can you find the right one? We have some interesting insights that might help.  

But First, What Is a Tagline?

As defined by Alina Wheeler in Designing Brand Identity, “A tagline is a short phrase that captures a company’s brand essence, personality, and positioning, and distinguishes the company from its competitors.”

The word “tagline” is often used interchangeably with “slogan,” but the two are slightly different. (Fun fact: “slogan” comes from the Gaelic word “slaugh-ghairm,” which means “war cry.”) We break it down as such:

  • A tagline represents your brand.
  • A slogan represents a specific product or ad campaign.

Still, there’s confusion. Some say a tagline is a slogan. Some say a slogan is a tagline. The lines can be murky, especially in terms of public perception. Everyone assumes Apple’s tagline is “Think Different,” but that was actually just a slogan for a campaign. Still, it’s become so synonymous with the brand that in some ways it will always and forever be its tagline.

Today, however, Apple uses different slogans for different products:

  • MacBook Pro: “A touch of genius.”
  • AirPods: “Wireless. Effortless. Magical.”
  • iPad: “Like a Computer. Unlike any computer.”

Make sense? Cool.

What Makes a Tagline Great?

There have been many theories about what makes a great tagline throughout time. It’s catchy! It’s short! It rhymes! It mentions the brand name! But in 2014, researchers from Texas Tech University, Cal State Fullerton, and University of Georgia uncovered some interesting insights when they studied the characteristics that make a slogan likeable. (The researchers actually included both slogans and taglines in their study, so their findings are relevant to both. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll continue to refer to taglines.)

As the researchers note, brands are usually focused on creating taglines that are:

  • Memorable
  • Likeable
  • Related to the brand

Conventional wisdom suggests that certain characteristics contribute to a tagline’s success.

Thus, to find out what really resonates with people, researchers identified 14 characteristics that conventional wisdom deems effective, such as rhyming, length, or repeated media exposure. The researchers asked respondents to indicate how much they liked 150 slogans/taglines, then analyzed the most popular ones to determine which common characteristics they shared.

What they found was a notable difference in what is memorable and what people like.

The most liked taglines:

  • M&M’s: Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.
  • U.S. Marine Corps: The few, the proud, the marines.
  • Las Vegas: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
  • Disneyland: The happiest place on the earth.
  • Cover Girl: Easy breezy beautiful Cover Girl.
  • Subway: Eat fresh.
  • Red Bull: Red Bull gives you wings.
  • Taco Bell: Think outside the bun.
  • California Milk Processor Board: Got milk?
  • AutoZone: Get in the Zone.

The most recalled taglines:

  • Nike: Just do it!
  • McDonald’s: I’m lovin’ it.
  • Burger King: Have it your way.
  • M&M’s: Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.
  • California Milk Processor Board: Got milk?
  • Subway: Eat fresh.
  • Campbell’s Soup: Mmmm-mmm good!
  • Allstate: You’re in good hands with Allstate.
  • Taco Bell: Think outside the bun.
  • BMW: The ultimate driving machine.

People may be able to remember a tagline because they’ve been repeatedly exposed to it, but it doesn’t mean they’ll like it more. Of all the things marketers think make a good tagline, only three things actually influenced likability:

  • Clarity of message
  • Creativity of phrasing
  • Inclusion of a benefit

This is actually great news for smaller brands. You don’t have to be a behemoth like Nike or Apple to own a great tagline. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are. If you can communicate clarity, creativity, and a benefit, you can connect with the people you’re trying to reach.

3 Secrets to Creating a Great Tagline

If you’re struggling to find the perfect tagline, take it back to basics and focus on these key elements.

1) Remember: Likeability matters. “If recall becomes a problem, you can always pump more money into it and increase a slogan’s memorability. But you can’t pump more money and make something more likable once it’s already been crafted. So from that extent, you have to be careful to build likability in your slogans,” says Piyush Kumar, professor of marketing at the UGA Terry College of Business and co-author of the study. Test your taglines with your customers and employees to see what resonates.

2) Inject emotion. A compelling tagline needs an emotional hook, which is directly related to the brand benefit. Even if it isn’t a specific statement of benefit, a tagline should stir an emotion that communicates a benefit without explicitly stating it. Think of “Easy breezy beautiful Cover Girl.” The tagline uses imagery-rich, emotional language to communicate a feeling.

3) Less is not necessarily more. As Al Ries, chairman of Ries & Ries points out in AdAge, shorter isn’t necessarily better. When emotion matters, it’s hard to communicate that clarity, creativity, and benefit in only three words. Although short taglines might be popular, they can also be generic and vague (e.g., AT&T’s “Rethink possible”). M&M’s could say “Mess-free chocolate.” But “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand” gives more context and allows for more creativity.

Take Your Time With Your Tagline

Finding the right tagline can be a challenging process, but it should be done with care and intention. If you need some inspiration:

Remember, too, that you can always get a little outside perspective. We’re happy to chat about any branding stumbling blocks you might be facing.