How to Craft a Great Slogan - and Why You May Not Need One

It's not the words, it's the meaning behind the words. And that only comes from knowing exactly what value your business brings to customers' lives.
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Just Do It. You Deserve a Break Today. You're in Good Hands.

Good slogans are insanely memorable -- "You Deserve a Break Today" hasn't seen the light of day since the early 1980s, but most Gen Xers and above can easily tag it to McDonald's, years after the fact. How many billions is that worth? It's easy for clients to pin their hopes on copy writing. After all, it seems so simple -- put a handful of words down on paper in the right order, and boom!, you're a cultural icon.

But a preoccupation with slogans can also hinder companies' communication efforts, because it distracts them from what's really important: Developing a compelling message. Slogans are a quick, pithy summation of a company's brand -- a memory tool. If your business has a robust message already -- if people know what you stand for -- then a phrase like "Just Do It" takes on a rich, deep meaning tied to adventure, scrappiness, a refusal to fail, and a desire to push limits.

But let's say it wasn't Nike's slogan. Put forward by Joe's Ice Cream or McSweeney Tax Specialists, "Just Do It" could evoke something completely different: "Don't Worry About the Calories!" or "Don't Procrastinate on Your Paperwork!" It's not the words, it's the meaning behind the words. And that only comes from knowing exactly what value your business brings to customers' lives.

A Slogan Is Nice, A Message Is Mandatory

McDonald's slogan these days -- "I'm lovin' it" -- is memorable only because they've spent so many millions of dollars blasting it at us. Unlike "You Deserve a Break Today," which highlighted McDonald's as a relaxed haven of comfort food amidst a harried world (a very good message)--their new offering evokes little meaning. Loving what, exactly?

On the other hand, try to remember Southwest Airlines' slogan. I certainly can't. But like most Americans, I know Southwest is a fun, funky discount airline -- no-frills but not crappy. That description took more than three words, but that's more meaningful and effective than "I'm lovin' it" any day, because it gives me a clear reason to want to spend my money with Southwest.

Don't Waste Your Time

No question, a great slogan can emblazen your brand in customers' minds and bring you more sales. But don't kill yourself trying to create one, especially if the real problem is a lack of clarity around your message. Can you articulate how your company is different from your competitors, and why customers should choose you? What value do you give them? Is that reason clear enough that all your customers can state it? If not, start there.

However, if you already have a compelling message and are still jonesing for a slogan, here are five tips to get you on your way:

Leverage happenstance. Look at your product reviews. Tell your employees to ask their friends what they think your company stands for, or what your products do. A chance phrase or an off-the-cuff reaction could be a goldmine for you.

One sentence or less. Slogans are meant to be no more than one short sentence, and preferably just a phrase. We try harder. "It's Miller Time!" You get the idea.

Repetition and rhyme. Our ancestors knew best -- "reading, writing, and 'rithmetic" is pretty catchy, even if it sacrifices proper spelling in the process. Make it easy to say through rhyme and repetition.

Simply the best. Sometimes you might literally use a well-placed superlative -- like BMW as "the ultimate driving machine." But for every brand, you'll want to identify what your company does the best and highlight it. The New York Times is the most comprehensive and trusted news source? All the news that's fit to print. FedEx means guaranteed speed and reliability? When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.

Colloquial. Slogans aren't the place to repurpose content from your doctoral dissertation or delve into metaphysics. You want a slogan that's exactly how people talk. Finger-lickin' good, dropped consonant and all as you mop up your fried chicken. A little dab'll do you, for any Brylcreem aficionados still out there. And AT&T's venerable "reach out and touch someone" -- very clear, but very colloquial. If you want people to repeat your slogan, make it easy on them by sounding like a real human being.

You don't need to take on Madison Avenue if you're got a solid message. But if you want to, now you can.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.

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