How to Write Your Own Firm's Tagline

Some of you are getting stuck on the slogan or tagline stage of things. We've only actually been using them for about three centuries, and the word itself traces back to a war cry from marching troops, who would say the same thing, over and over. It bound them together and articulated a purpose for the fighting they were about to engage in. It was simple, clever, and memorable. "Pull the entrails out of those heathens, and I say again...." Or something like that.

(I should clarify that this is not relevant to writing a tagline for your clients. Most of them are not in the B2B professional services space, and almost none of this would apply to your client work. The most memorable taglines, too, are memorable because someone spent hundreds of millions of dollars searing them into our consciousness, and that kind of investment is not at your disposal.)

If you aren't sure what I mean by the sorry state of taglines in this field, take a look at the 700 or so examples of remarkably uninspiring taglines in this collection for a LinkedIn article.

Let me start with a critical note, though: don't worry about perfecting a tagline on top of a lousy positioning. It's just not going to do you any good. In other words, the really hard part is capturing the actual essence of your positioning, long before you do the fun work of writing the tagline.

I love writing taglines, but only if the positioning is strong. If you aren't sure about yours, there's lots of information here on the site, and it's also a primary subject of my most recent book, The Business of Expertise. And a colleague recently wrote a really thorough treatise on positioning: "The Positioning Manual for Indie Consultants".

Having said that, let's not over-complicate this. I'm going to offer some very specific guidelines, all of which you can bend to your own purposes.

  1. Keep it short. From 3-12 words is perfect. This three-word tagline may be the most succinct and perfect example I can find: We Think Outside. It's for a firm that specializes in marketing for brands that get people outside, and it plays on the otherwise tiresome "we think outside the box" that we see everywhere. The best taglines can be absorbed without reading them. Reading requires eye movement, and lazy humans skimp on it sometimes, so the shorter the better.
  2. Don't use superlatives. Not only are they overused and unbelievable (as in no one believes them), they use up space and sound desperate. Saying "best" is silly; sometimes saying "leading" can work. If nothing else, write the tagline without them and then consider adding them later if you want to live a little dangerously.
  3. Discipline for market. Usually—not always—use the established formula of "what you do" and "who you do it for". Or x for y. This phrase is one I learned from Blair Enns, my co-host for the 2Bobs podcast. E.g., PR for B2B Tech; Trial Enrollments for SAAS Products; or Change Management for Companies Experiencing Disruption.
  4. Don't invent meanings. None of you reading this are big enough to move a market, at least quickly enough. You can't imbue words with your own meaning, but instead will need to rely on the commonly accepted meanings of specific vocabulary. Nor can you say "branding" but "really mean it in our case" like the whole more better strategy I've written about.
  5. Don't kill any ideas prematurely. If one of the early options suggests a bad association in your mind, keep it to yourself. See if anyone else notices it. If two people—on their own—make the same connection, move to the next idea. But it could be just you, and the problem with mentioning it early is that others won't get it out of their minds. Once you see some phallic reference in your mind, it's hard to get rid of it, but it could be you and not everyone else.
  6. Omit references to process or approach, generally. What's true of your firm can be significant, here, but it's on the second tier and just clutters a tagline. This is like the suggestion about superlatives, above. Try it without, and then maybe add them later if you really must.
  7. Slim the decision-making body down if necessary. If you get stuck with too many ideas and you can't agree on a winner, or the cream isn't rising to the top, think about (carefully) dismissing some people on the committee. Cacophonies don't yield conciseness.
  8. A play on words, as long as it's not too obtuse, can make it memorable and remarkable. The earlier example of "We Think Outside" has multiple meanings, and they all work.
  9. If you can insert some aspirational element into it, all the better. But the aspiration needs to be tied to your specific positioning. You want to do some narrow thing for some narrow target, and you want to be aspirational about it because it's worth doing. "Aviation Marketing That Gives You Lift". Or this four-word tagline that says everything you need to know: "Born Industrial; Raised Digital".
  10. Consider inserting something else that narrows it further, like timing. In this example, the agency is most effective past seed-stage but before exit. The role is to establish a clear upward growth trajectory at a certain point in a firm's history. It's not just B2B, but certain kinds of B2B, at a specific point in their path.
  11. Once you have the core statement together, put it up on a board, digital or otherwise, and try to eliminate every possible word that doesn't carry its weight. Try to consolidate words, too, substituting three words for two words.
  12. Is it boring to most everybody but you? It should be. Anything that's nearly addictive to your prospects will seem irrelevant to others. This firm started as a plain ol' software engineering firm and they found their niche and now they are unstoppable.
  13. Read your mission statement and see if your best tagline option is congruent with it. If there's not a sufficiently direct connection, you might want to look at rewriting your mission statement next. It's really good to review them regularly.
  14. Make a decision at the top of the risk tree. Listen to any internal advisors who have been reliable in the past, but don't be afraid to make a risky decision that others aren't quite onboard with. Taglines do involve some risk.
  15. Finally, be specific about how you define a right-fit client. I've shared this once before, but I'll refer you to it again because it's such a remarkable example from a client. See "What to Expect" at this link. They do marketing for the building products industry, but they narrow it down further with the additional description.

Ready for some examples? I've made most of these up, but they illustrate how to think about it:

  • CRO for E-commerce
  • Portals to Build Engaged Communities
  • Digital Employee Recruitment
  • Video/Animation for Enterprise ABM
  • Apps for Channel Marketing Support
  • Digital Thought Leadership Presence for Executives
  • Marketing Automation for Complex B2B
  • UX Design Systems for Early Stage Startups
  • Rapid Response SEM for Multi-Location B2C

Your first reaction will probably be "meh" because you don't think any of these are inspiring. I agree, by the way, but don't insert inspiration until you have substance. Then knock yourself out and blow us away with a great turn of phrase.

To review, most of the problems I see in tagline development have nothing to do with tagline development. It's more that the positioning on which they are building the tagline doesn't allow sufficient narrowness to support a brilliant tagline. So instead of just telling the truth, we try to replace substance with memorable cuteness. Start with concise truth and dress it up next.

If you can't write a great tagline for your firm, go back to your positioning work and take another pass at it. If the positioning is great and you can't seem to get unstuck, hire an outsider to come up with some options. Sometimes you're just staring at the same thing for too long.

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