Michael Bierut | Essays

The Tyranny of the Tagline

Here are some thoughts from a few magazines on my nightstand right now: This is who we are. This is how we earn it. Solutions for the adaptive enterprise. The right way to invest. We move the world. Life inspiring ideas. Inspiration comes standard. Break through. Make life rewarding. Live famously. Like a rock. Creating essentials. The passionate pursuit of perfection. Born to perform. Beyond petroleum. Pleasure to burn. Your natural source of youth. Get the feeling. Get the good stuff. Win.

Maybe some of these will sound familiar to you. Corporate America certainly hopes so. Millions of dollars are spent contriving these platitudes, exhortations, and non sequiturs, and billions more are spent communicating them to us. Why do ad agencies and their clients love taglines so much?

Taglines used to be called slogans, and in the days of hard sell advertising mavens like Claude Hopkins and Rosser Reeves, they summed up the product and the promise in one viciously efficient little package: Winston tastes good like a cigarette should. Somewhere along the way, though, slogans turned into taglines, vague bits of poetry that sought to transcend the mundane commercial world and commune with the divine. Hence: Get the feeling. (That one's for Toyota.)

Ad agencies put a great stock in taglines, hoping that with a simple phrase they can create the indestructible core of an evergreen advertising campaign. There is a holy grail, of course -- Just do it - the three words that have anchored Nike's presence in the marketplace for what now seems like eternity. It's a hard act to follow, though. Nike's agency, Wieden and Kennedy, won the Microsoft account in the mid-nineties with a tagline they hoped would surpass Nike's: Where do you want to go today? It came and it went.

Of course, taglines have always had their doubters. "Agencies waste countless hours concocting slogans of incredible fatuity," wrote David Ogilvy. "Notice that all of these bromides are interchangeable - any company could use any of them."

And working with taglines is challenging for a graphic designer. When they're freshly minted, clients tend to invest them with the power of a magician's spell, and insist that they appear everywhere. "Locking up" the logo and tagline is tricky, though, and not just visually: logotypes are meant to have long shelf lives, and taglines...well? There are plenty of warehouses full of three years' worth of business cards bearing taglines for campaigns that were abandoned after three months.

This is a bit of a prelude to a remarkable new corporate identity that was unveiled last month for the YWCA. It is not remarkable because of the way the identity relates to the tagline. It is remarkable because, as far as I can tell, the tagline is itself the identity.

Throughout its 150-year history, the YWCA has been dedicated to two things: eliminating racism and empowering women. I have to admit I did not know this; I just found out on their website. I thought the YWCA was simply the female version of the YMCA. Obviously, I'm not alone in my ignorance, so the YWCA must have decided that their old identity, a stylized Y by Saul Bass, just wasn't getting the job done.

Having designed many identities for non-profit groups, I can imagine what a challenge this must have represented. What kind of typeface communicates the elimination of racism? What kind of pictorial image or abstract shape projects the empowerment of women? One common argument, of course, is the Paul Rand one, the claim that the logo has no inherent significance, and that it gains meaning only through association with the activities of the group it stands for: think of the peace sign or the swastika. But this requires a long-term investment, and for the YWCA, desperate times must have called for desperate measures.

So Landor, the creators of the new YWCA identity, did something so obvious it's amazing it hasn't been done before. They simply set the words "eliminating racism" and "empowering women" and put them on two lines in a bold sans serif typeface. Then underneath, and smaller, is the actual organization's name: YWCA. Voila. You can love it or hate it, but the one thing you can't deny is that it certainly communicates the organization's raison d'etre, at least to people who can read.

Corporate identity is a trendy business. In the last twenty years we've gone from logos with horizontal stripes (a la IBM) to swooshes (Nike) to geometric shapes (Target). Brace yourself: the tyranny of the tagline may be just beginning.

Posted in: Business

Comments [30]

Taglines strike me as miniaturized mission statements. On rare occasion they focus thinking and build a common effort. A good one can be powerful. But mostly they reassure managers and make sure consultants can make their car payments.
Gunnar Swanson

Michael, you are dead on with this commentary. The leakage from advertising into design in ongoing (and generally scarey).

Nevertheless, designers have there own form of "the tagline." It's simply setting the mission statement of an organization is big type. You've done it. I'll done it. Many others have done it too.

I would like to argue, however, that there is a difference.

Here's a sample mission statement on the cover of a regional community foundation's annual report:

"XXXX is a not-for-profit organization and a catalyst for philanthrophy. Our mission is to improve the quality of life in XXXX. Since 1987, hundreds of individuals, families, organizations and businesses have chosen us as their partner in philanthrophy. We create opportunities for people to easily support the causes in which they believe. Join us."

They could have simply said, "Just Do It" or "Philanthrophy Rocks" or "Giving is Good."

Ironically, it seems to me that designers often use more words, more language, in more complicated settings, and in ways that have more meaning.

The tendency towards the tagline is like the tendency towards the soundbite. In the end, it always leads to stupidity and simplicity. Thus, our world politic: that place where a twenty-word sentence is (too) challenging.

What I fear is that good designers will make this nonsense simply look really cool. When we aspire to "Just Do It," we will live in a cooly-designed three-word world.

William Drenttel

Perhaps two of my favorite taglines or slogans in history are:

"I'd rather fight than switch". The Tareyton Cigarette Commericial of the 1960s.

Which is what YWCA should've said when Landor presented them with this apparent Naomi Klein "No Logo" solution.

The ostentatious tagline is the first in the history of Identity Design to supercede an Identity in prominence.

No doubt when Present Landor CEO Craig Branigan stated in an interview. He was transcending Landor from Design Oriented Solution(s) to Brand e.g. Marketing and Communication Oriented Solution(s). Mr. Branigan was not lying.

It shows and it is evident.

"Always expect the unexpected". Excedrin Commercial from the 1970s.

My other favorite tagline or slogan. As well, a credo I live by.


video shops have taglines now, bin collectors, rabbit hutch makers, you name it.

I think they half work when they explain or compliment a corp Id that is otherwise anonymous. Smith and son: the king of chimney sweeps etc., despite the fact that a half decent logo with a chimney related image in it would do the job !

but the criminal ones are indeed of the marketing "buzz" word laden variety.

Advertising agencies have sold the idea for the last few years that everyone can be a brand, everyone can be a Nike - "just do it!"
This is in reality probaly down to there being less big clients to get work off and a lot of copywriters hanging around the coffee machines with nothing to do, so they just decided to downsize and go for lesser clients ;)

It's probaly the ambulance chasing of the ad world.

Ad execs think they have struck an easy target, but in fact they are actually also tarnishing the big brands that paid the huge money to get these fancy taglines market researched in the first place.

Now there are so many around you don't need to think up new ones you just re-engineer one that someone else has !

HP - "Invent!" >>> Dave the Techie - "Innovate!"

I'd predict if things got even worse for the ad agencies and marketing writers of nonsense you'll be able to pick up yout taglines and catchphrases at the supermarket going half price on tuesdays.
It'll be up there with Aura's and Astrology charts. Even your newborn will need a tagline. Your dog, cat, goldfish.

This is an interesting subject - the tagline as identity.
Reading Michael Beiruts' commentary many of the 'taglines' were indeed very familar and many more came to mind, especially those also heard - varying, assuring voices telling me 'vorsprung durch technik', 'getting there', 'the world's favourite airline', etc...just can't remember who they were for though. In the YWCA identity the 'tagline' has taken a lead - I quite like the idea, at least this example, I'm still out to lunch as to whether I like the final execution - the YWCA looks a bit sacrificed plus my trained eye still can't envisage the subsequent applications. However, the approach is an interesting solution be it a trite limiting - what if everybody started doing it - Imagine - "We must communicate 'PASSIONATE', 'DYNAMIC' and 'INNOVATIVE' in a our group logo" - a client asked me recently - So instead of adapting/twisting the first letter of the group name into something that 'transmits' these 3 'qualities' we could put the 3 words, one above the over, in Neue Helvetica Bold ranged left with the group name in small, nicely spaced capitals underneath ranged right and Bingo! Fantastic, that communicates! But what about your main competitor and the many others next door who are claiming exactly the same thing? I think the graphic designer has still got his/her work cut out.
Today many taglines are now registered in their own right protected just as trademarks are - I even saw a T-shirt 'God TM Bless® America©' - are there any words left? There are so many slogans apparent in our daily lives - "just do it", "make a difference" "I'm loving it'. - you could probably string them all together and probably create a really disturbing conversation.
This post particularly interested me because recently in reassessing promoting our studio I too (fell into the trap???) of coming up with a 'tagline' to hit home where we stand re: describing our approach/work - something that no logo could do. The idea, very similar to the YWCA, aims to put our name second and present the 'tagline' as a registered trademark (with a little irony)
After reading all this it got me thinking, is this the way to go? are we acting like a 'brand' too? we'll have to see - I agree with William Drenttel that we could easily end up in a 'coolly-designed three-word world' but if those 'few words tied together' happened to have more meaning and provoked comment/action (like ours, I hope - can't divulge yet - lavoro in corso) then wouldn't that be a good thing?.
I think so, I believe this new 'linguaggio' that may be rearing it's head out there, in the right hands, could do some good and 'make a difference' (©Apple) a la YWCA - like it or not it certainly hits home! (for our studio we'll have to see) - but applied wrongly, I also agree/worry that it could get a bit scary with the possibility of slogans/messages disguised as brands cropping up here, there and everywhere.
On a final note, here in Italy 'tagline' or 'slogan' is often refered to as 'pay-off' - go figure...
Derek Stewart

Derek, I laughed out loud with the thought of a 'tagline conversation'.

In my opinion, the tagline generally seems much weaker than logos tend to be, and it is usually apparent through how much longer the logo can outlast these catch-phrases. How many companies can you think of that have kept one tagline during the course of keeping one mark? Better yet, how many companies have kept a tagline while changing logos?

Contrastingly, it seems amazing how many companies feel the need to change taglines once a year, or quicker. It's like they're saying, "Well, that didn't work...lets try this one."

Rand's point is pretty clear I think, like any logo, these generic taglines are only going to catch on and stand against time when they're associated with a company that can do the same. The tagline alone is completely dismissable and temporary, unless the bussines can prove otherwise. It makes me wonder then, can a tagline really do anything a good logo design can't?
JT Helms

well a logo aims to distinguish a company from it's rivals in the marketplace. it is a long term investment.
Taglines can only survive off the back of this main identity i think.
Microsoft tried "where do you want to go today?" for a while but it didn't last. McDonalds is currently "I'm lovin' it" invented mainly out of a reaction to the people hating it so much lately ;)

So I think most taglines are now being used as mini campaigns that can slip out along with the logo on literature and TV, but very few stand the test of time.

Like you say it's the pressure from marketing heads that is putting pressure on the Nike Swoosh or Apple apple to be accompanied bu a marketing tagline which actually does drag down the design of an identity I think from the universal perfection of the iconic logo to the muddyness of having to deal with LANGUAGE and the problems of translation, which is far slower a tool that a well defined successfully proven design.

Perhaps marketing types just don't get that that design IS communication. No need to muddy the water.


"it certainly communicates... at least to people who can read."

Those who can read english, that is...

What were those values again?

Reminds me of a pet peeve of mine: book subtitles.

The convention for non-fiction books in the US is "catchy evocative, but non-concrete title: prosaic, elevator pitch-length subtitle that lays out the entire premise of the book."

[See for yourself: 19 of Amazon's top 25 non-fiction titles follow this pattern.]

In treating books as products, then, the title functions like a brand-- memorable, associative, referent and referrable by name--while the subtitle does the heavy selling, explaining the value proposition in often literal, explicit terms.

I can see how this functions in book promotion, where the author, interviewer, reviewer, etc introduces the whole title:subtitle once or twice, then repeats and reinforces the title. Does this market/marketing condition, then, reinforce the naming structure? I assume it does. What are the identity/tagline equivalent forces, then?

So that's what it's called: "Locking up."

Many an hour have I racked up trying poke and nudge a tagline, hoping in vain that the next nudge or poke would leave logo and tag looking as integrated as a marsupial and its offspring. Until now I haven't had a word for it. Thanks!

A couple of comments:

I agree with jaf regarding book subtitles. The most obsequious and insecure one I've seen in a long time is Joseph Wilson's:

"The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity: A Diplomat's Memoir."

It screams insecurity, as all tags of this type do. But unlike meaningless corp tags, book subtitles are used like pullquotes. Their use is based on the assumption that attention spans are short and that readers must be given a quick 411 for you to have any hope of reeling them in. In the case of Wilson's book, as with so many quick-to-market non-fiction books, the subtitle is an attempt to breadcrumb you back to the soon-to-be last week's news. Your response is supposed to be: "Oh right...that guy. The guy whose wife was CIA or FBI or something..."

As for the trend toward tag-centric logos...GAWD, I hope not. And this from someone who happens to like tags. But I prefer tags that actually tell you something about the product, tags that aren't so without context that, as someone has pointed out, they can be swapped from one industry to the next. If tags become logos, graphic designers' headaches will only get more acute, and great tags may get nixed because they don't fit on the polo shirt pocket or are deemed to be "just too many words." God forbid if one day something as good as "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking" gets pushed aside for "Life is ticking."

And finally, a few years back I worked for a web design firm that, against the wishes of just about everyone at the company, went with one of those three-word tags. Because the company now ceases to be, I (think) I am free to mention it. It was:

Strategy. Creativity. Technology.

Which, late at night, the day before deadline, became:

Strategy. Creativity. Tragedy.
DummyText.com | just occupying space

Or, to bastardize several posts in one comment:

"Just SCT: For those techno geeks who love acronyms"

Logo upcoming but currently lost in translation.

As a writer turned designer, at least professionally, my first thought is what a great idea. Then I sit and ponder, ponder some more and say, yeah great idea, but does it really, really work?

My first concern, already mentioned is that the 'brand' is made secondary to the messages. And I understand what a struggle it must have been to decide which overbears which. The messages the drive the brand, or the brand that represents the messages.

Secondly, how does one make sure the tagline/logo (let's just call it a taglinogo) doesn't get lost in a text heavy publication. How does one differentiate in a publication from other 'subheads' and such. Will it be pure positioning, like other logos, or will it be trapped in a box? And certainly, with that leading, I think surrounding it a box would be a mistake. So, there is much to see as this neuvo taglinogo makes it way in the world and the interesting will be seeing if it last's as long as Saul Bass's classic, stylized 'Y."

God forbid if one day something as good as "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking" gets pushed aside for "Life is ticking."

For some reason, ad agencies (and designers too), can't stand to let well enough alone. Or perhaps they can't abide working with something they didn't invent.

Hence you have all of Madison Avenue trying to top "Have it your way" for Burger King, and, of course, none of them can. One agency did "update" it at one point into "Your way, right away." Likewise, the Toyota line "Get the feeling" is meant to evoke their old line/jingle "Oh, what a feeling...Toyota!"

When you're doing this for the big money you call it "linking to the brand heritage."
Michael Bierut

The thing about the tagline and its longevity is that its all impatience. The reason Just do It has lasted so long is because Nike keeps using it. It isn't any better than anything else, but by virtue of Nike's patience in consistantly using it in their materials it has come to mean so much more. Microsoft. Where do you want to go today. Why didn't that last? For one they changed their minds, but also, it was too long. I was bored just typing it, let alone using it for 5 or 10 years.
Our potential your passion, That could last. I don't believe it will, because they are using it as a campeign, but lets pretend Microsoft had some integrity and they decided to stick to their guns, and convince us that they really did care about my potential. What would happen to those 4 words?
I think, like Nike you couldn't even say them without thinking of microsoft. The words would take on the meaning of all the campeigns, and all the places people had heard them. But Microsoft would have to dedicate themselves to the words the same way they have to their mark, and I don't think they could. (not as a critique of Microsoft but as a critique of the artificial pace of business)
Simiotically though, the words would accomplish the same thing as a representational mark, both assuming meaning based on context. I guess I'm ok with the slogan as logo idea.
John Gordon

This stuff is even infiltrating the higher levels of design education. I went to see the Royal College of Art MA degree show in London yesterday. The show receives more publicity, including the national papers, than all the other British art and design degree shows combined. It's long been a regular feature in the calendar of arts events and it attracts a broad public.

Outside there's a banner saying "Royal College of Art. The Show 2004". But above that, so you see it first, is the marketing tagline "Unlock Your Imagination". The same problem applies as with all these would-be mission statements. The words are a hopelessly crude summary of the richness and variety of the content. Do decision-makers at the RCA really think that the show's visitors are so clueless that they need a quick reminder that art and design involve using your imagination? This banal tagline, like so many similar formulations, ends up saying the opposite of what it intends.
Rick Poynor

Rick—Imagination and creativity are the only good words most art school can say about themselves so that sort of nonsense is common. It could be worse: I went to a talk by a graphic designer. At least three times during the evening he said that he tells his students "Don't be creative. Be creativity."
Gunnar Swanson

"Expect the Unexpected" can certainly be cited as one of those multi-purpose tag lines. The first time I saw it was back in 1968, in a Village Voice print campaign wittily illustrated by Tomi Ungerer.

I tried to recollect its use in an Excedrin commercial, as cited by Design Maven, but all I got was a headache.

One slogan that's stuck with me since the early 1970s is "Once you get your hands on a Toyota, you'll never let go," which I recall mainly because the Firesign Theater were fired from a commercial radio station in Los Angeles back then for broadcasting the spot as "Once you get your hands under the skirt of a Toyota, you'll never let go."

I can only imagine how they would have accentuated their reading of "Oh, what a feeling."

While I wouldn't discount the power of humor in advertising, I'm certain it's merely a coincidence that my first car, from the early 1970s, was a Tercel (and that even today I'm driving a Celica).

~ mike D, skirting the issue

Michael Dooley

Designing Is The New Typing
Les Sismore

A related, appropriately depressing sketch on The Onion this week:

U.S. Changes Motto To 'America... We're Gonna Make Ya Smile'
WASHINGTON, DC—After a focus group determined "In God We Trust" to be "boring," the U.S. introduced a new motto Monday: "America... We're Gonna Make Ya Smile." "We feel the new motto projects a more playful image for the nation," State Department spokesman Marlon Harris said. "This new slogan tells the world that America Is Fun Country." Harris added that "E Pluribus Unum" will be replaced on all currency with "U.S. Fever—Catch It!"

To quote that great designer of soul, Aretha Franklin, "let's call this song exactly what it is." What this YWCA thing is, is a strategy. You can sing it, print it on a bus shelter or tattoo it on your bum, but none dare call it an idea. And it's damned lazy of Landoor to indulge in ankle-grabbing passing as design. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the slogan.

Having dug that hole, I'd like to call out from the muddy bottom of it that my favorite bit of ad hoo-ha of all-time is this from the makers of Dynel, a synthetic hair fiber used in making wigs:

"It's not fake anything, it's real Dynel."

Top that.
Tom Lunt

I'll see Tom Lunt's "It's not fake anything, it's real Dynel," and raise you:

"100% Virgin Vinyl."
Richard Laurence Baron

There is a lively discussion about the merits of the YWCA identity now in progress at Speak Up.

Michael Bierut

Thanks for the link, Mr. Beirut.
Things got a little more heated over there but on reflection Tom Dolan's final assessment summed it for me.
Derek Stewart

One of the purposes of a tagline or Unique Selling Proposition is to show the differentiation between you and your competitors. In other words what makes your company different or unique from the other guys. Adding a tagline that can use by you and hundreds of your competitors shows a lack for creativity and fore thought. Many leaders of companies should ask themselves (or marketing/brand firms should be asking too): what is unique about their company product or services that other guys don't provide? I can see that integrating a Tagline with an existing logo is a risky business, especially if the reason is because the CEO or company's leaders are bored with it--and not because the target audience is bored or do not recognized it. But I can see how adding a tagline can greatly enhance a company's message that was not communicating before. Interesting discussion.

Outside there's a banner saying "Royal College of Art. The Show 2004". But above that, so you see it first, is the marketing tagline "Unlock Your Imagination" ... This banal tagline, like so many similar formulations, ends up saying the opposite of what it intends.

Yes, ugh upon ugh here.

When I was living in the US in the mid 90s, Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today?" genuinely upset me. First, it was everywhere. They were releasing '95 at that point and I don't think there's ever been as much hoopla about anything computer-related since.

The "today" bit. Maybe it's because I'm a foreigner but I don't like it. It's officious, distancing. And the worst thing is, that I think these buggars know this, and they deliberately used it anyway, taking it upon themselves to turn walking down the street into a commercial activity.

Inchoate thoughts here I know.

Also, the fact that it is a question is annoying because there is nobody there to whom one can answer. A logo with a question doesn't just invite a look, it demands a frigging response, and every time we see that question mark - and at one point we saw it in very many places indeed - we had to either respond or actively ignore. Mental energy squandered needlessly - so emblematic of the feeling of using Microsoft products.

And the clunkiness of the sentence, the meter of it - one heavy syllable, four light ones, then three heavy ones again - made me want to smash something or lean against a wall and squeeze out a tear.

I had never felt strongly about Microsoft one way or the other, but that tagline made me detest them.

And I haven't even gotten to what it actually means. It's not a tagline for a travel company, but for a computer operating system, which, if you're using it, probably means you're not going ANYWHERE today that you haven't already been, ie, your office. (Though that's less true today with so many laptops.) So what exactly are they telling us with this tagline? I still don't get it. Freedom of movement?

From the worst to the best, nobody here has mentioned one of the queens of the American tagline: Volkswagen America's. I don't even want to sully it by restating it.

Well, OK, only because you demanded it.

Drivers wanted.
Adam Khan

Mighty provocative thoughts on tag lines. You're indeed a serious thinker. My respects.

If I may offer a slightly altered view, I would suggest a more annoying problem isn't that tag lines are encroaching on corporate graphics, or that tag lines are fatuous. Seems to me the problem is is that good is good and lousy is always lousy, and the one constant in our nutty business is that there is a shedload more lousy than good.

One could just as easily take potshots at the amazing number of lousy logos foisted on innocent clients and their hapless customers. One is reminded that inside Lucent, their red brush-stroked cicle is cheerfully referred to as "...the flaming asshole."

Your list of tag lines is certainly a group of lousy ones. But occassionally a tag line is great, and it makes a difference. And I think in most instances a great tagline is accompanied by a great logo and it is not a coincidence. They were bought by the same company,often by the same client, and informed by the same positionong and strategy and BrabdStance. We have all learned the hard way that the rare great clients get our best efforts, and the vast majority usually get just what they deserve.

Charlie Rosner
Charlie Rosner

I think the scariest tagline I heard recently was for Comcast. It sounded like a sad parody of itself, and an indictment of television as a medium. The ellipsis is include to indicate the presence of the dramatic and disturbing pause:

"Comcast, a cable company dedicated to changing the way you think...about your cable company"

Glad to see they're aiming high.
Christopher Simmons

This just in, courtesy of Design Maven:

Someone is auctioning off two (2) custom-made taglines on eBay. "Your company may have a mission and a vision, but do you have a brand promise in the form of a Tag Line? If you don't have a Tag Line, are you really ready to have your graphic logo fully developed?"

No joke.

Michael Bierut

I wish my clients would read your blog. Great insight. I think taglines should be used when they have a purpose. Sometimes they just add to the clutter, but clients are so emotional about their taglines, like they were spells (as you said) that safeguard the success of a campaign, even if they contradict the campaign itself.
Ivan Raszl

This just in, from the Institute of Infinitely Small Things: The International Database of Corporate Commands.

Michael Bierut

Jobs | July 23