The fine art of a strong slogan

Slogans and taglines can be game changers, says TRA head of strategy Colleen Ryan.

“It’s not what you say, it’s what you do that matters” is a phrase that most of us have been on the receiving end of at some time in our life. Typically it is a chastisement or a threat that your words lead to expectations that you will do something or behave in a certain way.

Compare this to what Trump has said, where many people hope that much of his rhetoric will not result in direct action – the wall with Mexico, withdrawing from climate change agreements, derogatory and demeaning behaviour toward women… to name but a few.

But, this man who can’t string a cohesive sentence together nailed it with the written word. Political slogans and brand tag lines carry significant weight in people’s minds. They are the articulation of brand purpose and promise and they distill complex and often convoluted arguments, demonstrate points off difference, reflect beliefs and values and the good ones cause an emotional response that can be triggered unconsciously every time the slogan is seen or heard.

Once a tagline or a slogan becomes established we no longer consider its component parts, but linguistic analysis that decodes the meaning can give us insight into how it affects people’s associations of the brand – and political movements and candidates are brands, at least during the campaigning phase.

Brands are increasingly seeing the value of developing a brand purpose, and TRA as an insights agency is charged with helping to articulate that purpose so that it creates meaning for the people brands are targeting. Our belief is that for brand purpose to be meaningful it must translate readily into how people can expect the brand to behave, both what it will do for them and how it will behave in general – i.e it has to deliver a promise not just a high level purpose. Every brand purpose does not have to strive for lofty goals, world peace for example is probably out of reach for most brands. What matters is that the purpose is authentic and people can only judge that by what you do. Slogans carry significant weight as a means of communicating purpose and promise.

Look at the four slogans below:

Make America great again (Trump)

Stronger together (Democrats)

Better together (UK Remain campaign)

Take back control (UK Brexit leave campaign)

Four statements with the same intent. To be a rallying cry and a focus around a single unifying idea and ideal.

Two of those statements contain a verb. Verbs are doing words so they convey action and intent. They lead to expectations of how the brand will behave – what it will do. Verbs have an inbuilt energy because they describe an action. Verbs are also more likely to trigger emotion than adjectives. Compare “she is sobbing uncontrollably” with “she is very sad”. The former tugs at the heart strings more than the latter. Actors use this technique – they turn descriptions of characters into verbs that describe what such a person would be doing.

In the Trump campaign slogan “Make” is a very direct and strong doing word. It suggests tangible outputs. Making things and making things happen. Trump, whether intentionally or not, amplified this verb when he talked about setting prohibitive taxes on manufacturers who take their production plants overseas. Making things is what people do when they have a job, and employment was a pillar of the Trump campaign. From a linguistic perspective the addition of the word ‘again’ added a tangible proof point – we were great once so we can do it again. It’s no longer a vague concept even though America’s greatness was never defined but merely implied.

By comparison, “Stronger together” is a descriptive statement and, though a worthy one, it doesn’t clearly indicate any action and could even be a question. So is it even a purpose? Yes, it probably is meant to convey a sense of purpose, but if brands are what they do then the purpose needs to be more than a sense of something. The world is a noisy, busy, and colourful place leaving people little time to ponder what something means.

“Stronger together” lacked not just action but also clarity and emotion. While it intended to convey inclusivity, it’s human nature to feel anxious about whether we are inside or outside a group. It didn’t say ‘stronger with you’ or ‘stronger with absolutely everyone in this together’. So the Democrat’s slogan lacked clarity as well as having no promise of action.

So let’s look at Brexit’s slogans. The Remain slogan of “Better together” has the same linguistic characteristics as stronger together, but is vaguer. Strong has a clear and distinct opposite (weak). Whereas better is much more wishy-washy. Better, not worse? Better than what? Like the Democrats, by choosing a statement with no verbs its promise was a concept with no clear prescription for how the Remainers would behave if they won nor what they would do. And without a verb it had to work harder to trigger an emotion.

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin had its own slogan for Brexit.

So, the leave campaign won the slogan battle and ultimately the war. They had a slogan with a stated purpose that tells you what is going to be done. The verb ‘take’ signifies definitive action and even tells you what action will be taken. It tells people what the Brexit campaigners will do for people and how they will behave – assertive and determined. “Back” means the return of something rightfully owned and feeds our aversion to loss.

The irony of course is that when the Brexit campaign won the popular vote it became startlingly apparent that they had absolutely no idea what to do or even how to behave in the hours after the vote was declared – see Boris Johnson on his doorstep raising the art of bumbling to ever giddier heights – but unlike brands they only had to achieve a single purchase to achieve their goal. Brands on the other hand have to consistently deliver their purpose and the promise of what they will do. And then they have to do it.

Closer to home the relaunch of the ASB “One Step Ahead” line not only demonstrates the importance of a brand’s history and consistent messaging, but also linguistically it is very effective. It has a verb – ‘to step’ which implies forward momentum especially when paired with ahead. But step also works as a noun which decodes as higher so better.

“One” is a specific signifier that is much stronger for example than “a” step. “One step” provides clarity whereas “a step” would have been imprecise and vague. The ASB line promises action and suggests behaviour that will be agile (movement), innovative (being ahead) and focused (one step).

Colleen Ryan.

ATEED have also just launched their new line for Auckland city – “The place desired by many”. Good to see a verb in there, and a very evocative one too.

Of course there are many great taglines that don’t use a verb but the world is changing and the increasing attraction of purpose leading to promise means brands have to be clear on what they do and how they make people’s lives better.

Understanding people and how they feel about and how they process communications, including taglines, is a core tenet of being a customer-centric business and that means using all of the tools that can help with this. Linguistic coding and discourse analysis is a valuable tool that adds insight to other sources of information. Pity no-one told the Democrats that.

Colleen Ryan is the head of strategy at TRA.