On slogans and strategy

by Tom Albrighton 24 September 2012 Copywriting

Imagine a copywriter – let’s call him Tom – has been asked to write a slogan for a small business – a florist, say. They strike a deal where Tom will come up with a few options for a flat fee, and the client will choose the one they like best.

After a few days, several hot baths and many large glasses of red wine, Tom submits his suggestions. They might be something like the following:

Fresh flowers every day

Show someone you care

Beautiful bespoke bouquets

A friendly bunch

Clearly, Tom needs to ease off on the Shiraz. But apart from being rubbish, the problem with these lines is that each one represents a different theme or strategy. In other words, each one foregrounds a different benefit or aspect of the product. (In this example, they are product quality, emotion, customisation and service respectively.)

So while all these ideas are superficially ‘florist slogans’, and all equally plausible, each one represents a very different approach. Therefore, choosing one over another might have implications for design, choice of channel and, most importantly, sales.

As client and writer chop and change between different options, they’re oscillating wildly between completely different strategies. This is possible because slogans are so short and (in theory) quick and easy to generate. The client can reject one line, or many lines, in toto and demand a few more – which isn’t likely to happen with the text for a 32-page brochure.

Exactly the same problem can arise with names for products, brands or companies. Here, it’s arguably even easier to come up with multiple options, but the stakes involved in choosing between them are even higher.

Ugliness parade

If you’ve ever been involved in this sort of project, you’ll readily understand why big agencies prefer to present a single good idea – a creative fait accompli. But if you don’t have that level of creative mystique about you, it’s hard to get the client to buy into such a process, so you end up proposing different options, with all the ambiguity and uncertainty that entails.

In my experience, clients faced with a ‘beauty parade’ will sense this uncertainty, albeit unconsciously, and try to avoid a decision by submitting counter-proposals of their own. The creative process quickly degenerates into a farcical morass of multiplying options, many only marginally different from each other. The longer this goes on, the further the right answer moves out of reach.

Say one thing well

Dr Faye explains the correct strategy for Fillmore Auto Parts, while Ken looks bemused and Don lights up

A meeting to discuss creative work with the client can also stray into this territory, sometimes rapidly or unexpectedly. It happens to Don Draper in Mad Men (season 4, episode 9), when he’s meeting the executives from Fillmore Auto Parts with account man Ken Cosgrove and market analyst Faye Miller. The discussion centres on whether to position the chain as the store for the man on the street or the professional.

Miller, correctly, sees that taking the ‘pro’s choice’ angle will also attract the everyman, even if he isn’t addressed directly. Cosgrove, ever eager to pour oil on troubled waters but also incurably obtuse, suggests ‘Where the pros go, and everyone’s welcome’. The clients love it – which isn’t surprising, since it absolves them of the obligation to select a single strategy. But Don, knowing that he must take whatever they come up with and turn it into a viable ad, is having none of it.

That’s not a strategy. It’s two strategies connected by the word ‘and’. I can do ‘where the pros go’ or ‘everyone’s welcome’, but not both.

As I argued in Say one thing well, having more than one destination is not the best preparation for a creative journey. Look at every effective ad, every effective line, and it will be hammering home one key message. To do otherwise is to give the audience a licence to choose what they want to take from the ad – which will most likely be a half-conscious sense of ambiguity or unclarity.

Give reasons for your answer

To forestall this kind of problem, I usually shore up my slogan proposals with a fair amount of supporting material.

I’ll explain the thinking behind each one, comment on its pros and cons and, where applicable, make the theme explicit. I’ll also present my ideas in order of my own preference, so the client is getting at least some sense of the ‘best answer’.

If the client’s brand is relatively underdeveloped, I might also write a little bit about the brand values as I see them, perhaps with some suggestions for ‘peer brands’ to give context.

Apart from bolstering your argument on an intellectual level, adding this extra material makes the final deliverable feel a bit meatier. There’s something embarrassingly spindly about four or five naked slogans in a plain old Word document. You might have laboured for days to give them life, but they still look puny when you send them over the top with no armour.

I think of this supporting rationale as the writer’s equivalent of designers’ mood boards and scamps. It’s partly about demonstrating due process – showing the client that your ideas weren’t just plucked from the air. But it also gives them the intellectual ammo for their decision – a ready-made rationalisation for what everyone can see is the best way forward.

First impressions last

Another objective of beefing up the proposal is to get the client to think twice, move beyond their snap judgement and really think about the options. But that’s a thorny issue, because, in a sense, snap judgements are valid – if you’re writing an outdoor poster, you’re dealing in exactly these first impressions. The client might argue ‘first thought, best thought’ – or imply such a position by the manner of their feedback on your work.

The answer here is that the client is not the customer. They have way too much knowledge to stand in the customer’s shoes, putting them very much on the writer’s side of the fence. As such, they have a responsibility to make some effort to understand the creative process – and, we creatives, we have a responsibility to help them.

If the stuff needs testing, then it should be tested – but in a proper, rigorous way, with participants who can respond more credibly as the actual customer might do. Similarly, brainstorming discussions like the Fillmore Auto meeting are fine, as long as everyone’s clear that the output is the starting point for the creative process, not its finishing line.

Frankenstein’s slogan

Ideally, the strategy is clarified upfront, so there’s no later disagreement over what the tagline should be about. If you don’t, you risk either the ‘beauty parade’ scenario described above, or (worse) Don Draper’s nightmare: a Frankenstein’s monster of a slogan that tries to cover too many bases, ‘supported’  by creative that’s essentially an exercise in (forgive me) turd-polishing.

It happens in the real world. I recently saw this slogan on a van for Stannah, who make lifts and stairlifts. (I haven’t been able to find it anywhere else, and I don’t think it’s the main corporate tagline.)

From Bournemouth to Barcelona, we make moving around buildings more manageable

You can almost hear the boardroom discussion about the working versions of this line.

‘I don’t like that word “easier”,’ says the CEO. ‘Can we say “more manageable” instead? That’s what we use in our client presentations. Sounds a bit more professional.’

Then the sales director chips in. ‘There’s no sense of us as an international company,’ he observes. ‘Our geographical reach really puts us in a different class from the competition. Couldn’t that be included somewhere?’

Perhaps the writer had reached a point where they were either too exhausted by debate, or too embarrassed by the duration of the project, to put up any further resistance. So they resigned themselves to Stannah’s absence from their portfolio and simply did what they were told, got the damn thing approved and submitted their invoice.

By splitting its message down the middle (geographical spread/key benefit), the result generates more ambiguity than clarity, squandering the audience’s attention by trying to say too much. (As a side issue, I’d also argue that getting the reader to think about holiday destinations, rather than physical mobility, puts them on the wrong track from the start.)

Militant creativity

The writers I’ve met vary hugely in their attitude towards this sort of thing. Some, like Don Draper, are militantly committed to the creative process, priding themselves on going up against the client even at the risk of souring or even abandoning the relationship. Others are self-confessed artisans, doing the best they can within the client’s brief, whatever the compromises.

For me, one of the benefits of experience has been an improved ability to put my case without coming across as precious, obstructive or grumpy. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway…

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