How to Write a Great Tagline (According to Science)

by Katy French

Coming up with a 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, it’s necessary to find the right one. That said, you don’t totally have to fumble around in the dark.

Luckily, researchers are slowly discovering the secrets of a great tagline, making your life a lot easier. So what really makes a great tagline? How do you come up with the right one? We’ll break down everything you need to know, along with our own tips to create your own.

But first, let’s review the basics. 

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. For example, 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 Catchy Tagline?

There have been many theories about what makes a catchy 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.

Note: 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 call them taglines.

So, as we know, brands are usually focused on creating taglines that are:

  • Memorable
  • Likeable
  • Related to the brand

And, of course, conventional wisdom suggests that certain characteristics contribute to a tagline’s success. In this study, 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.

What does this tell us?

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.

So how can you put this knowledge to work?

How to Write a Great Tagline

Writing the perfect tagline is a fun, creative challenge. But there are a few things to keep in mind before you dive in. 

  1. Give yourself enough time. You want to make sure you have the brain space and clarity you need to do it well.
  2. Know your Brand Heart. Your tagline is just another extension of your Brand Heart (your purpose, vision, mission, and values). If you don’t have clarity on these, you can’t accurately communicate your brand. Use our free workbook template to articulate your Brand Heart if you haven’t done this work already.

Now, if you’re really ready to start working on your tagline, here’s how to do it in a (mostly) pain-free way.

Step 1: Write a paragraph that explains who you are and what you do.

Don’t be self-conscious. This can be a brain dump.

Column Five’s Example: “We believe your content is telling a story about your brand. We help brands discover and tell their best stories. We do this by designing a plan to reach your brand’s goals, crafting stories that engage, educate and inspire, and making sure your stories get seen and heard.”

Step 2: Condense that paragraph into one line.

OK, fine, it can be two. The point is to distill the core of what you’re trying to say. As you continue to refine, 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. 
  • 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.
  • 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.

Column Five’s Example: “We help brands discover and tell their best stories—stories that educate, engage, and inspire people to work with your brand.”

Step 3: Condense even further.

Now it’s time to tighten (even more) and polish (even more). This is probably the trickiest part. If you can’t get it down to one front runner, try to come up with three variations.

Column Five’s Example: “Best Story Wins.”

(BTW, if you want the extended story behind our philosophy, find out how “Best Story Wins” became our tagline.)

4) Test your taglines with your customers and employees.

You’ll want to see what resonates, how people respond, and if there are any unexpected associations people make. Continue to tweak and polish until you have a frontrunner that everyone, including your brand team, feels good about.

Note: If you’re still feeling stuck, you might want to check out these 13 unique and inspiring brand taglines for more inspiration.

Make Sure Your Brand Messaging Framework Is Aligned

Your tagline is a huge component of your brand messaging, and an extension of your larger brand strategy. To make sure everything is aligned…

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

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