Mar 14

Intellectual laziness—and ineffectiveness—often comes in threes.

The Chicago Sun-Times has a little article in today’s paper about a cupcake shop in Chicago named Skinny Piggy. They’ve reworked their business model. Now customers can build their own cupcakes. Their new tagline:

Choose. Decorate. Smile.

Upon reading this, I curled up in a twitching ball, whimpering and sucking my thumb under the table at the Burger King where I work much of the time.

As it happens, the day before I began writing a post on the phenomenon of the

Three. Word. Tagline.

This cupcake line was the icing on the cake. It’s gotten to the point where I eagerly await the next stupid tagline fad just to get some relief from this one. Unfortunately, since anyone—ANYONE—can write one of these pathetic excuses for a tagline, I suspect they’ll be around for a long time.

Any company that pays its ad agency or marketing consultant or freelance writer any money to come up with a tagline consisting

Of. Three. Words.

is a company to be wary of, because, boy, are they suckers. If that’s as smart as they get running their business, you’d be well-advised to steer clear.

And, regardless of who came up with the three words the company bought, it’s still the company that bought the “tagline”, which makes them as lazy or clueless or both as the people they hired to strain their brains for, what—30 seconds?—to think of three words that describe what the company does. Or the names of three benefits. Or some combination of these.

Just take a minute to soak in the scintillating taglines in this far-from-exhaustive list:

Alibaba.com. Find it. Make it. Sell it.

Benedictine Unversity. Learn. Grow. Lead.

Blue Cross Blue Shield. Experience. Wellness. Everywhere.

Buffalo Wild Wings. Wings. Beer. Sports.

Century 21. Smarter. Bolder. Faster.

Chartwells. Eat. Learn. Live.

Ellen. Love. Laugh. Dance.

Hershey Syrup. Squeeze. Stir. Share.

Kellogg’s. People. Passion. Pride.

Mariano’s. Shop well. Eat well. Live well.

Nite. Style. Quality. Performance.

Northern Initiatives  Launch. Grow. Prosper.

Regions. Loans. Treasury Management. Can-Do Attitude.

Skinny Piggy. Choose. Decorate. Smile.

Trojan. Real. Good. Sex.

I have less of an issue with the lines that list benefits than I do with those that simply describe the process they hope their customers will participate in. Because these lines are not taglines at all (with the exception of the Blue Cross Blue Shield line which I begrudgingly must acknowledge makes the most of this “three separate words” format to identify three benefits, and form a sentence in the process). Other than that one, these are mundane, run of the mill, unremarkable descriptors. They tell us nothing about the brand. They certainly tell us nothing differentiating. It’s as if someone gave them the following exercise:

“Describe, in an ideal world, what your customers would do upon entering your store/website in three words”.

If you own Skinny Piggy, given its new business model featuring cupcakes that customers build themselves, how long and how hard would have to think before coming up with Choose. Decorate. Smile.?

All that these three word descriptors are expressing is the wish of the owner or CEO: “Geez, fingers crossed, I sure hope customers come to me and do the following three things.”

As for the other version of these taglines, the one that features three benefits of availing one’s self of the product or service, at least this version has, nominally, something to do with the prospective customer. Still, writing one of these lists of benefits should already have been accomplished earlier in the the process than at the tagline-writing stage. Presumably the ad agency wrote a creative brief as a guide in taking on the challenge of creating the tagline. Right there, in the creative brief, there’s a section that pertains to the benefit or promise of the product. Instead of using this as direction in the quest for a compelling tagline, the writer simply copies three words from the brief on a separate sheet of paper and turns it in to the creative director. Voila! Instant tagline.

So, we can agree that writing one of these accursed taglines is so easy a junior account guy could do it.

Now let’s consider for a moment not how easy they are, but how effective they are. How evocative are these taglines? How sticky? Let’s randomly choose from the list above the Kellogg’s corporate tagline: People. Passion Pride.

On the plus side, this tagline has alliteration going for it. Three “P” words in a row. Few of the others even attempt any sort of alliteration.

Now let’s consider how differentiating this tagline is, how effectively this tagline sets Kellogg’s apart from its competition, or from any other business, or for any organization of any kind for that matter.

People. Not a whole lot differentiating about that, since, without people, you’d be hard pressed to have a company or any other sort of organization in the first place. Of course, what they mean by “people” is probably, “We have great people.” I’d venture to say every single other organization on the face of the earth would make the same bold claim.

The next two words . . .

Passion. Pride.

get a little more specific about the nature of the presumed nature of their people (They’re passionate about what they do) and the feeling that results from having all these passionate people (Having passionate people makes us swell with pride). As well as the pride their people take in what they do.

Again, I’m not going too far out on a limb in assuming that every organization in the world would say and feel the same.

So what purpose does this tagline serve? What does it make us feel. Does it intrigue us? Provoke us? Make us smile? Does it get us pumped? Does it motivate us? Does it affect us in any way, really? No, certainly not. It’s just another of countless examples of corporate blah blah that we have been immune to, as a species, for, what, centuries? Probably longer.

And by “us” I don’t necessarily mean us, consumers. This tagline is primarily aimed at an internal audience, the employees at Kellogg’s. That’s the “us” I’m talking about. They are no less immune than the rest of us.

Let’s sum up. These

Three. Word. Taglines.

1. Take no effort to write

2. Have no effect on their intended audiences

3. In no way allude to or attempt to leverage the brand’s differessence

The fact that these taglines are oh so popular speaks volumes about the pervasive lack of understanding of what a tagline is, what it’s supposed to do, or how invaluable it can be to a business.

For most companies, the tagline is just an item to be ticked off on their obligatory, mindless marketing check list. The primary goal is to find a passable one quickly, inexpensively and with minimal effort, so that they can concentrate on important items of the list (social media, SEO, big data, etc.).

There is a price for this kind of intellectual laziness. I can’t back this claim up with hard numbers. But the business landscape is riddled with dead and dying companies who weren’t as smart or as hard-working about their business as they needed to be. Tagline laziness is just one indication of this flaw.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve already given the nature and value of a good tagline far more thought that the companies that have embraced taglines like the ones on the list above. I applaud you for that.

The good news is that, for the companies that take taglines seriously, every competitor that doesn’t provides one more competitive edge.

Feb 14

Clever is ever the lever.

Let me share two quick examples of taglines I think work very well, based on their word play.

Sleep Number Beds. Know Better Sleep.

And this tagline that I spotted on the side of a truck owned by a recycling company:

Chicago Shred Authority. Better Shred Than Read.

Neither is profound. Neither necessarily taps into some deep “brand truth”. The second one is flawed in that it is a “category sell” that says nothing about what’s unique about this particular company, But, what both of them do is cause the brain to pause and process for a nanosecond, and in the process, induce a little tickle, all of which helps the brand and its promise stick. And both taglines are likeable, which, as we’ve discussed in the past, is the single most significant characteristic of a brand, an ad or a tagline.

Here, by the way, is a research assignment for anyone who wants to take it on: Who was the first mattress company or mattress retailer to use the following tagline:  Leave The Rest To Us?

Feb 14

Movie production companies squander golden opportunity.

I go to the movies a lot, like once or twice a week. I’ve gotten really sick of those self-indulgent little mini-movie “signatures” that come at the beginning of every movie of a certain sized budget. I’m referring to the time consuming logos-in-motion that every big production company seems compelled to stick on the front of any movie it’s associated with these days. (I’m just assuming these are production companies of some sort. They give us no real indication of what they do.)

Since many movies seem to have three or four production companies (or whatever they are), we are forced to watch what amounts to a series of little commercials for each company, albeit failed commercials, after having already sat through 20 minutes of commercials for upcoming movies, which, of course, was preceded by several other commercials for TV shows, soft drinks and sundry other products. At this rate, watching all this rigamarole, plus the credits at the end, will soon take more time than the movie itself.

The reason I’ve chosen this forum to complain about production company “signatures” is that, from a tagline perspective, they provide an interesting example of the relative meaninglessness of an image, like a logo, devoid of words. These mini-movie entities aren’t really advertisements because all they offer is some short little vignette or graphic thing accompanied by the name of the company. Offhand, I can’t recall a single company OR its signature. There’s no stickiness there. Their brands don’t actually stand for anything because these silly little movies carry no meaning. They may be curious diversions (at least the first time you see them), but what is the point, the purpose of these things? If these moving images were conceptually tied to something akin to a tagline, some short set of words that would speak to that particular brand’s differessence, that, at least, would bestow meaning, and provide a “brand handle” for the brain to grasp.

Funny that these companies toss around many millions of dollars, but can’t seem to buy a clue about how to market themselves, at least in this context. Here they’ve got a captive audience, and the best they can do is slap some silly doodle on the front of the film on which they’ve gambled so much.

Feb 14

In case anybody out there cares about my take on the Superbowl . . .

I was rooting for Seattle, so I found the game thoroughly enjoyable, which is rare. The commercials set a new record for blah. The only spot I even smiled at involved cows and was for Chevy. And the only other spot I had any reaction to or feel is worthy of mention was the Chrysler spot with Bob Dylan as their new spokesman. My reaction was revulsion, disgust, profound disappointment. This is the third example in as many weeks of nothing being sacred. Dylan has sold out, Jimi Hendrix’s family apparently sold out, allowing Purple Haze to be used in a commercial, and, finally, Stacy’s Mom Has Got It Going On, one of my favorite songs, has been co-opted by Cadillac. Shame on you, Fountains of Wayne, shaaame.

I am actually quite relieved to have reacted, for the most part with a big yawn to this year’s parade of commercials. For the past decade or so, I have felt deeply embarrassed for the advertising business as its creative bankruptcy was put on display, with so many advertisers stooping to lowest common denominators like cute dogs and horses, potty humor, amateurishly executed, sophomoric physical comedy, moronic beer drinkers and on and on.

Not that we didn’t have our share of those kinds of spots this year, but I have apparently become immune. Yay for me.

Jan 14

Mazda’s extraordinary arrogance.

“Dare the impossible and you can do the incredible.” So we’re told by the new Mazda commercial. The sentiment is debatable, but, in this commercial, one thing is not debatable. By grouping themselves with three iconic figures—Bruce Lee, Frank Lloyd Wright and Jackie Robinson—Mazda has broken new ground in the delusions of grandeur department.

“Conviction, creativity and courage . . is the Mazda way”, they tell us, by way of equating themselves with Lee, Wright and Robinson. Really. I should think that, were conviction, creativity and courage “The Mazda Way” they would apply this to their own advertising, and try having the conviction, creativity and courage to resist yet another in a decades-old series of self-congratulatory overstatements that are the rule in car advertising.

Of course, arrogance often accompanies genius, as in Wright’s case. But genius makes arrogance more forgivable. Mazda is no genius. Companies can be ingenious, but never geniuses.

Even if Mazda were, in fact, somehow heads and shoulders above other car companies, voting themselves into the hall of pioneering visionaries would still be a shameful bit of braggadocio. But, last time I checked, they’re not.

The commercial might have been forgiven had they injected even the slightest humility into it. But they didn’t. Nothing about goals or striving.They don’t say they were inspired to defy convention by an icon like Bruce Lee who defied conventional thinking about big’s relation to strong. They see themselves breathing the same rarefied air.

Once they’ve thrilled themselves with the myth this commercial spins and have gotten the standing ovation at the sales meeting, does it ever occur to the Mazda folks that this might sound, from the outside, like an unmitigated crock? Chairman Jimmy tells us that “The human capacity for self-delusion is limitless.” If this is true for individual humans, and it is, consider how much more true (I know, I know, truth doesn’t admit of degrees, but I’m trying to make a point here), it is for big companies, of which Mazda is, as of this commercial, a shining example.

Having such a high opinion of one’s self does not make it an accurate opinion. But it does reveal a personality flaw, or, in Mazda’s case, a brand personality flaw.

Zoom zoom.

Jan 14

Fresh tagline for really old brand.

My heartiest congratulations to the folks at Pine Sol. That’s a brand that I didn’t realize still existed. But recently I saw a TV spot from their new campaign. I don’t recall anything remarkable about the actual ad, other than the tagline, which grabbed me in a small way.

The tagline is:

Pine Sol. Cleaning What Stinks Since 1929.

Normally, I would recoil from such a tagline because it wastes its opportunity by referring to how long they’ve been in business, which, I often argue, is seldom meaningful to people. What if they’d only been making Pine Sol since 1947 or 1978. Who cares? What difference does it make?

Now, 1929 is a long time ago, so I guess there’s a little of that “venerable old brand” thing going on, though I’m not sure if that’s a positive thing in the household cleaner category. One’s reaction could easily be, “Yike’s, that’s probably the stuff my great grandma used. Why don’t I go out and by a butter churn while I’m at it?”

In the case of this tagline, I’m willing to disregard the reference to the date, because I am taken by the use of the word “Stinks”. It’s one of those wonderful, used-by-everybody-in-everyday-life words that advertisers are, for some baffling reason, phobic about. Too strong a word? Too vulgar? Surely your experience would support my contention that most clients would be afraid of “stinks” and probably insist on “smells” instead, because it’s more palatable or whatever.

Honestly, I’ll never understand why so many advertisers are freaked out by regular, normal, natural language. But, because that is the case, it allows this tagline to really stand out and make an impression. “Stinks” is nice and visceral, thereby really emotionally conveying the benefit.

The only remaining problem for me in thinking about all this is that my impression of Pine Sol from long ago is that Pine Sol is one of those things that stinks, what with its pine scented odor and all. This is the only barrier that might preclude me from considering giving Pine Sol a try.

Jan 14

A conflict? Or just egotistical paranoia?

It being the new year and all, I thought I’d break my holiday break blog silence by talking about me. Why should this year be any different.

There’s a  . . . I’m not sure what to call it, a quandary, a conundrum, a dilemma, that I have faced now and then, ever since I started producing criticism of ads and advertising for public consumption.

There are lots of people who operate as ad critics. However, most of them don’t also do work in advertising. As a freelance copywriter, the survival of my business depends on being fed by many hands.

Whether in Screen, Adweek, BrandWeek, or on blog sites like TheMarketingSpot.com or this Tagline Jim blog, I have been publicly biting many of those hands, criticizing advertisers and ad agencies, naming names, for 20 years. And that doesn’t include scores of letters to the editor that have run in various industry publications. Is this a risk?

In my more paranoid moments, I wonder if I’ve unknowingly stigmatized myself with some agencies and advertisers on whose short lists I no longer exist, if I ever did, because I’ve been critical of some of their work.

Of course, this sounds like the of cosmic paranoia of a narcissistic, self-deluded, the-world-revolves-around-me ego. I find that comforting. I’d like to think that, while some people may pay some attention to some of my diatribes sometimes, the larger advertising world is mostly unaware of my existence and my public blatherings are of no real consequence. I have zero evidence that, as a result of my attacking the work of an advertiser or agency, they became aware of the criticism and blacklisted me. The closest I came to getting in trouble for opening my big mouth in public, as far as I know, was a letter to the editor I wrote that AdWeek ran, in which I criticized the Budweiser folks, and their agency, DDB Worldwide, (for whom I was working as a freelance writer at the time), for stealing the idea for a Bud campaign from another source. But even then, I never heard directly from anyone at DDB about what I wrote. All I recall is having a vague impression that someone on the floor of power at DDB wasn’t happy.

On the other side of the ledger, there are several advertisers out there about whom I’ve written critically, and yet, subsequently, have given me projects to work on. This supports my assumption that when I worry about this problem, it’s just baseless paranoia on my part.

So there you have it, a glimpse into how my brain occupies its time during idle moments.

Next post, I’ll be back on the attack. This time my target will be Mazda’s new ad campaign, which has offended my sensibilities as so much advertising does. Mazda is one of zillions of brand/hands that will never feed me, so I’ll be biting away.

Dec 13

Holiday break time.

In every ad agency for which I’ve worked, I advocated long and hard for the agency to do the civilized, humane thing and close from Christmas eve through January 2. My efforts went nowhere. Even though everyone in the industry knows that, since virtually all clients, and all resources, vendors and many employees of these agencies will be gone during this period of time, the powers that be, of which I was sometimes supposed to be one, steadfastly refused to close. Sometimes there was no rationale offered, because, I suspect, they couldn’t come up with one that made sense. In a couple of instances, the rationale offered was that opportunities can arise at any time and it’s our duty to be open to every possibility. Of course, by this logic, the agency should have been open 24/7/365. Of course, some of these powers that be would have been delighted to be open ALL THE TIME. Of course, these powers wouldn’t be around all the time, but some unfortunate grunts would get stuck with graveyard shifts and the like. No skin off Mr. Big’s nose, because, for him, no skin in the game in terms of making the sacrifice and being there, at the ready, all day, every day.

And, looking at it in terms of probabilities, the chance of a new opportunity popping up on, say, December 27, is extremely slim. Most clients, the ones who create opportunities, are away from their desks, enjoying the holidays.Besides, even if that did happen, the chances are overewhelming that this opportunity would still be there on January 2, since even agencies that remain open at this time are skeleton-staffed, so there’s not really anyone one there to marshall the absent troops to respond to the opportunity. Whatever it is, it will wait until January 2.

All of this is by way of saying, I’m shutting down the blog from now through sometime early next year. Thanks for reading, whoever you are. And have an enjoyable, or at a minimum, bearable, season of cheer and gift cards.

Dec 13

More thoughts on how wrong love is.

Three or four posts back, I addressed Pure Insurance’s tagline, Love Your Insurance, reflecting on whether love was an emotion one could actually feel for an insurance company or policy.

I concluded that the juxtaposition of love with insurance was so jarring, it was probably a good, provocative tagline.

Since seeing that tagline, I’m seeing the invocation of love in taglines as a trend, an adfad, and a very worrisome one.

Let’s consider two recent examples. First, there’s . . .

Keurig. Brew The Love.

Now, though I’m not a coffee drinker, I do understand that coffee is a very emotional thing. People do speak of loving this or that coffee. I can relate, because love is an appropriate word to use in describing my relationship with Diet Coke.

So, what’s the problem? There’s something about conflating a product with such a passionate emotion about that product that feels . . . forced, contrived, overstated? It’s similar to Coke’s  Open Happiness tagline. This line trivializes or diminishes happiness, and Keurig’s line does the same with love.

On to the second, more objectionable example. It may not be a tagline, technically, but it is the concluding thought of a TV spot, and it feels tagline-ish. It’s for Subaru. I’ll give you a little context by including the line preceding the tagline-ish line, which connects the tagline to the benefit, sort of.

Love a car that lasts. Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.

Really? Love is the differentiator? Other cars can’t evoke this emotion, only Subarus? Is that what they’re saying? Or are they saying Subaru owners all love their subarus? If they didn’t, their cars wouldn’t be Subarus, but only unloved facsimiles?

Or are they claiming that the car is manufactured with love? Is the love installed by the Subaru company, right there next to the fuse box? “The Love Goes In Before The Name Goes On” to paraphrase the old Zenith tagline?

Whatever they’re going for here, it sounds false and cynical to me. If the line was more about “There’s a lot to love about a Subaru” or “There’s More to Love with Subaru” or something along those lines, I have no problem. Cars are a big deal for a lot of people, and many of them really do seem to love their cars, to the extent that you can characterize a strong positive attachment to an inanimate object that is incapable of loving back, as love.

And if this were the anchoring thought, then “Love a car that lasts” could become one in a list of attributes, each of which people love, i.e. “Love a car that accelerates well”, “Love a car that gets good MPG”, “Love a car with lots of headroom”, etc.

I’m not suggesting a new tagline rule: “Never use the word ‘Love’ in a tagline.” As the Pure Insurance tagline demonstrates, sometimes it may be a powerful and effective word. I guess I’m just cautioning all you tagline writers out there, tread very, very cautiously with love. Of course, if the tagline writer is any good, there should be no reason to remind him/her that the words that comprise a tagline should be very carefully considered. That’s kind of the entire drill.

Nov 13

Lazy? Cheating? Historically ignorant?

I know there are no new ideas. I also know that, if we haven’t seen a particular advertising idea for a decade or two, it’s apparently fair game for some other brand to use it. Though, personally, I’m not okay with that.

But when a company grabs an idea before the corpse is cold, I call that shameless, intellectually dishonest, intellectual property theft.

Perhaps I’m being too unforgiving. You tell me.

As you should be aware, New York Life has anchored its ad campaigns with the same tagline for decades. That tagline is:

The Company You Keep.

As far as I have been able to determine, the new New York Life campaign, featuring a new tagline,  Keep Good Going, debuted this year.

Today, I came across an ad by the Principal Financial Group, the headline of which is:

With a 96% retention rate, judge us by the companies we keep.

I’m sure that Principal isn’t the first or only company to “borrow” this particular play on words. But, given that New York Life and Principal travel in many of the same circles as financial/insurance companies, it strikes me as brazen that they would use this thought so close on the heels of the now retired The Company You Keep tagline.

Having seen this ad, I know think of Principal as being unprincipled and I’m even less inclined to consider using their services than prior to seeing this ad. Is this too harsh a judgement? What possible rationale could Principal offer to justify this ripoff?

These and other questions . . .