Your Startup Tagline is Anti-Social

Most startup marketing folk seem to love taglines. Practically every web page I see has some version of the classic three-word tagline. As a marketer I appreciate the focus on distilling down the essence of what you do to its most simple form. As a human being however, I hate taglines.

I’ve written about why taglines suck on this blog before. Taglines are generic (if you use the word “connect” congratulations, you share 1/3 of a tagline with 99% of startups in the world), forgettable, and often fail to clearly communicate what the company does. However, it finally came to me exactly why taglines are such a waste of time, energy and space:

They are inherently anti-social

You need to describe what your company does in a succinct way. That’s what people think they are doing when they write a tagline. The problem is the format – generally three verbs smashed together – is not a format that human beings naturally use to communicate. If someone asked me what I did this morning I don’t say “Rise, Consume, Digest!”, I say I got up, drank some coffee and ate a piece of toast. Even on Twitter where barely anyone uses proper english, nobody would ever pick 3 verbs. In fact here’s the tweet that inspired this example:

Coffee & toast. Nom, nom.

Notice the distinct lack of verbs there (assuming nom isn’t a verb). As humans, we don’t communicate in 3 verb phrases. So why are we using this strange form to talk about what our companies do? Here is the exact reason why taglines suck:

Nobody repeats your tagline

So you have a robotic three verb phrase on your website that you hope communicates the essence of what you do in as few words as possible. But you also want folks that discover your stuff to tell their friends about it, right? The problem is, you’ve given them a description that no human will ever say, type, yell, tweet, sing or otherwise share with their friends.

Your customer: Hey I signed up for this cool service yesterday!

Their friend: Great, what does it do?

Your customer: Share, simplify, connect!

Their friend: ????

Nope, never going to happen. Instead they’re going to make up a short description for you. They might do a great job of that or they may not. If you gave them a easy phrase (for example TripIt’s “All your travel plans in one spot”**) they might remember that and just say that. Give them the 3 word tagline and they are left to describe it in their own words which will generally be a long confusing description that may or may not communicate what you do. Customers, especially new ones could never describe what you do in as elegant and succinct a way as you could. Why not help them out a bit?

Your customers are not robots. They are people that communicate with phrases not single words separated by commas. Give them something they can share with their friends.

**Vinay correctly points out in the comments that Tripit has an official tagline of “organize your travel” which I also like because it’s something you might actually say as opposed to something robotic like “Book, Organize, Retrieve”. That said, it’s interesting that neither I nor any of the other commenters noticed that tagline.

 

69 thoughts on “Your Startup Tagline is Anti-Social”

  1. Great post. I pretty much ignore tag lines, but it is one of those “checklist” items that marketing makes me come up with. How come it has become a hard requirement in the go to market process?

    Kind of like “grow the brand”, so obvious, but to me it would see that the best brands grow themselves with kick butt products, and fanatical attention to their customers. The rest happens. If you have to bring in a consultant to grow your brand, you are in trouble.

    But I digress. Thanks for making my morning!

    Geoff

    1. Thanks Geoffrey!
      I’m not sure when or why we got so programmed to think in terms of taglines but I don’t see many I think really work. In almost every case I think you could replace the tagline with a short phrase or sentence that would work much better and only take up slightly more real estate.
      And don’t get me going on folks that make their tagline part of the logo!
      April

  2. Nice post April!

    For me, the best tag lines are the most clever and thought provoking, while supporting the brand (if there is one) – straightforward doesn’t do it for me in most cases. I see tag lines as a creative/strategic writing challenge — but only because there are so many yucky, generic wastes of space out there. I know that doing one better is really not that far off…

    Sam Title
    Chief Executive Cofficer
    The Coffice*
    http://www.twitter.com/TheCoffice
    http://www.facebook.com/TheCoffice

    *They call it “going for coffee” ~ We call it “going to work”

    1. Thanks Sam,
      I’m in the straightforward camp but I think you can simplify it down to the point where, like you say, it becomes a generic waste of space. Again, I like the example of Tripit – “All your travel plans in one place” That’s it exactly. I know what they do in 5 seconds and I can now decide if I’m interested enough to spend another couple of minutes on their site. They could have said “Plan, Aggregate, Share” or something like that but I would have had to keep reading to really understand what they meant by that.
      April

  3. Hi April,
    Great post. Almost every customer I have worked with has been programmed to ask for a tag line (We need something like “1000 songs in my pocket”) without having spend the time to think what value they are providing to the customer and that the 3 verb mashup is not reflective of that value.

    Pooja

    1. Hi Pooja,
      Thanks for the comment. I don’t understand how we got here but it’s true that people assume they MUST have one and that it must follow this strange haiku-like structure. I’m all for a short description as long as it communicates value while making some sense. I like 1,000 songs in my pocket a whole lot better than Download, Listen, Transport. 🙂
      April

        1. LOL – oh there are a lot of them around there that you might argue have worked very well. I would counter that by saying that that doesn’t mean something might have worked better 🙂
          April

  4. Struck a nerve today, April. I’m glad we removed our tagline from our logo (it only has one verb but is still cryptic).

    My guess is the practice is a hold-over from the MadMen days, when marketing was done by artistes (or con artistes) and it wasn’t well understood or measured or justified. Now it’s a matter of ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ or ‘everyone else has one, we need one.’

    I like either creative or straightforward descriptive sentences. Both the TripIt and Coffice ones mentioned above work very well. There is creativity and elegance in both. TripIt is memorable because it describes it to a t. Coffice is memorable because there is an element of surprise and preconception-bending to it.

    Tj

    1. Thanks Tim,
      I’ve been cautioning folks about putting the tagline in the logo a lot lately. Products change, markets change, logos are hard to change so it’s better to keep the messaging out of there.
      Ah yes, if only we could all be artistes…..yeah, on second thought, no thanks. 🙂
      April

  5. Timely article… since I just bit the bullet and removed my tagline TALK.SHOP.FLOCK. from our WOW Network logo. We all loved it here at the office but when I came to realize from surveying others that it was not resonating, I had to make the decision to give it the axe.
    Sometimes I wonder… am I running a START-up or a SCREW-up hahaha. Nothing like learning from the mistakes though is there? 🙂
    Thanks April – always great advice from your blog posts….

    1. Thanks so much Sue.
      It’s really hard to kill things on the marketing side, especially when folks internally fall in love with them (and oh man, does that ever happen a lot). But you’ve done the right thing by putting the internal opinion aside to focus on the external opinions, which at the end of the day are the folks that make it possible to us to continue to have an “internal” at all. 🙂
      April

  6. April, great point delivered well. Moreover, it reinforced my new business’s (proposed) 5-second pitch (aka tagline) aligns with best practices.

    Always enjoy your posts!

    P.S. @Sam – Hey stranger!

  7. We could have possibly gotten here by being told that the customer needs a leave behind. If they can’t remember your name, they might remember your tagline as a reference. Moral of story, pick a good product/service name.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree that retention is important but action is important too. Your short description has to inspire folks to stick around long enough that they might buy or put you on a short list. But beyond remembering just your name, you want them to be able to talk to other people about what you do. Most taglines are not helpful when it comes to that.
      Product names are a whole other kettle of fish and I totally agree with you that they are important. I’ve done a few posts here on naming (and those link to some good posts elsewhere on the topic):
      http://www.rocketwatcher.com/blog/2010/04/how-to-name-your-startup.html
      and
      http://www.rocketwatcher.com/blog/2008/10/i-know-nothing-about-product-naming-but-that-doesnt-stop-me-from-doing-it.html
      April

  8. Hi April,

    Myself, I could never understand why businesses use taglines. I always assumed that it is there to make them look cool and be accepted at big conventions. Also it’s an eye candy if it’s written in a cool font with some graphic frills around. Nothing else.

    But when I go to a website, I don’t even read the product title or name (that’s why I have to resort to searching online for the same thing again next week). All I care about is the product. And me being able to get it as fast as I possibly can.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. LOL – I like that. It makes me wonder what the verb form of Cranky is. Cranking? Crank? You could use:
      Product Manage, Observe, Crank.
      We should have a product management personal tagline contest!

    1. It’s those jeans!!
      Being anonymous is a massive competitive advantage. I would work with that. How about:
      “Yes, as a matter of fact, I AM talking about you.” 🙂
      April

  9. Agree with you in general about tag lines, but there seems to be a mistake about TripIt. They have a 3 word tag line: “Organize your travel”.

    1. LOL – you are completely correct on that! I totally ignored the tagline beside the logo and looked at the (much, much larger) one line descriptor below that on their home page. That said, I like “Organize your Travel” as well – it meets the requirement of being short and descriptive but it’s also a phrase you would actually say.
      April

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  11. Kick ass post! I tagline WAS anti-social – glad I read this and ended up changing it.

    Funny thing is, it’s not super hard to get right.

    For example, for one of my blogs I use “The blog about building customer obsessed, value-adding businesses.” Right away anyone who visits understands what the blog is about and doesn’t have to guess. Whereas I could have used a tagline like, “Customer Obsession. Value. Wealth.” and would have had a far less impact on anyone reading it.

    Maybe a good test is, if your tagline gets you excited, it’s going in the right direction.

  12. Right post at right time as I was about to sit down and write the tagline as Buy, Do, Feel Good now I will have to go back to drawing board.

  13. I happen to stumble upon this blog on taglines as it was forwarded to me by a friend. Nonetheless, being a copy-based creative director and a professor of advertising, I say that your opinion is not entirely correct, not entirely wrong. There are points there that warrant attention for copywriters to be conscious about when coming up with a tagline. That being said, I would just like to comment as to your contention that humans don’t communicate in three-word statements. I disagree. We do. At least I do and some friends and colleagues in the circle do. In fact, I am a fan of single word dropping. They are witty only if they are used within context and timely delivered. Perhaps, 10 years ago we have little use of such trend but because of the fast paced and noisy environment the world has become, such short shorts in taglines has become a vogue. Being a writer, I find such also imaginative, in a sense that they make me imagine and think about what they tell. It is an insult to spoon feed consumers with complete sentences as if we do not know what the tagline, in combination with the logo, and with the help of brand recall, meant. I do agree though that some three word taglines can be taxing. That’s because the brand has yet to be established. Such device modification doesn’t help in introducing a brand. But if you have brands such as Nikon and Nike, taglines need not say much.

    I like this blog and perhaps I can use this as a case study for my students. It presents a lot of legitimate considerations such as: the dichotomy between the business minded and the creative minded in abstracting a message (the former being detailed, the latter being imaginative, thus, subtle); how much can we abbreviate in order to be subtle, otherwise, elaborate: taglines as representation of cheaper brands (JC Penny) in contrast to luxurious brands (LV, Gucci); visual and copy synch; AIDA in terms of copy with little word or more words; appeals and biases to certain copy styles… the list goes on.

    1. Hi Gregg,
      Thanks for the comment. It’s interesting that you think the 3 word tagline is a new trend.
      I see is as a holdover from the good old days when all we did in marketing was a 30 second spot on TV and there was a belief that as long as we could get folks to remember our tagline or jingle or logo, sales would surely follow. We now know that many of those supposedly successful campaigns resulted in fantastic recall but literally no increase in sales. My favorite example of this is the “Got Milk” ad campaign – we all remember it but milk sales went down.
      What you are saying might be true for established brands, but for technology startups (my focus here) where audiences don’t know who you are or what you do and are only going to give you a short amount of time to communicate those facts, catchy slogans like “Just Do It” aren’t going to get you as far as more direct english. In my opinion anyway.

  14. Hi April,
    Can you please give some suggestion here how to increase your signup or register members over your b2b websites? for example by giving some promotion offers etc.. have you got any idea ?

    1. That’s a big question! Listen, if there was an easy formula that I could apply to any B2B startup that would guarantee an increase in sign-ups, everyone would be doing it (and then I suppose it wouldn’t work any more).
      The reality is that you need to get inside the heads of your customers and think about what they want. Not about what your product does or how you can trick them into signing up even if they don’t want to. Figure out what they want and provide it to them in exchange for a sign up. This will take a lot of customer interaction and experimentation.
      Every business and every prospect base is different. What works for you won’t be the same as what works for everyone else.
      Good luck!
      April
      Good luck

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