Strapline, tagline, endline, brand line, motto … many terms get used to describe a slogan, but ‘slogan’ itself is probably the best. It originates in a Celtic term for ‘battle cry’: appropriately military for an industry concerned with campaigns, strategies, tactics and targets. We’ve had them for centuries, from the heraldic Latin motto (now confined mainly to education and, oddly, football clubs), right up to the postmodern anti-slogan ‘Does Exactly What It Says On the Tin’.
Devising a top twenty inevitably throws up questions of definition – what exactly qualifies as a slogan? ‘To be or not to be’ is one of the most famous phrases in the language, but it doesn’t feel like a slogan unless used for commercial ends. A slogan is tied to a specific organisation or cause – ‘Make Love Not War’ may not have a commercial purpose, but it’s an incitement to change behaviour: a battle cry for peace.
When it comes to modern-day slogans, it’s useful to think of them in two roughly consecutive eras: the advertising endline and the brand line.
First there was the golden age of the endline, often used to anchor a particular campaign. Many are set to music, the point at which a slogan becomes a jingle. Like nursery rhymes, they infiltrate the mind through rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, wordplay and repetition. Unlike nursery rhymes, they smuggle in a commercial message on the way. These are the lines that stay with us from our childhoods – it’s hard to judge them objectively, without dreaming wistfully of p-p-picking up a Penguin or finding that a finger of fudge is, erm, just enough.
Advertising endlines are still with us today, but at some point in the early 90s, people decided they lacked sophistication. As agencies repositioned themselves as strategic consultancies, it seemed demeaning for a catchy jingle to be the end product of all that work. So the brand line was born. More than an advertising endline, a brand line aimed to sum up the entire ethos of an organisation – a form of words around which the whole internal and external brand could be defined. ‘Just Do It’ was arguably the turning point. Conceived in haste as an endline to tie together a disparate campaign, it inspired an unexpected response in the audience, who latched onto the attitude it expressed. Although it appears in surprisingly few Nike adverts, it has come to define the brand. Consultants continue to cite it as the archetypal brand line, but it’s notable that it emerged by accident, rather than as a result of a year-long brand audit.
A great brand line is undoubtedly a powerful thing – ‘Every Little Helps’ being one of the best. The problem is that the sheer weight of expectation on a brand line often leads to bland generalities (Sky’s ‘Believe in Better’). Many also lack the wit and warmth of the classic advertising endlines. There is something satisfying about a well-honed message being communicated in a playful phrase. ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ is a piece of pure commercial poetry.
Whether it’s the advertising endline or the brand line, there is an argument that the age of the slogan has already passed. A single slogan is considered too monolithic for brands that prefer to think of themselves as fluid and dynamic. Better to sign off with a web link or a QR code. And try getting ‘Refreshes the Parts Other Beers Cannot Reach’ into a hashtag. But slogans are a durable technology in themselves. If you can encode a commercial message into a winning piece of wordplay that lodges in the mind and eventually in the language, then you have created something of rare value. This is the power of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’: three words that embody an entire national narrative.
When it comes to judging the best slogans, you can use many criteria. Longevity is one, but then many dull lines stick around, while some advertising lines answer a short-term need but do so brilliantly. Impact is another – ‘It Is. Are You?’ fails the longevity test, but was great in its time. ‘Entering the language’ is another phrase that comes up a lot. The problem is that some lines enter the language through sheer force of media spend. Repeat anything often enough and it’ll gain currency (simples). The best lines enter the language by subtler means, through cleverness and catchiness, or their potential for wider proverbial use.
It may be that sticking to three words helps as well – it works for eight of the top twenty. Apart from that, patterns are hard to detect – some lines take the form of imperatives, some are descriptors, one poses a question, another offers an answer. In any case, most people won’t agree with the selection and there are many other worthy contenders. Let battle commence.
Nick Asbury writes for businesses and brands. See more of his work at asburyandasbury.com