The Science of Slogans: The Best and Worst Ad Campaigns of All Time

More

What's in a slogan? One part elegant phrasing, two parts brand positioning, and a glaze of virtue and idealism. Oh, and don't forget a pinch of good luck.  

maxwell.png

SITEMASON

The year was 1907, and legend has it that President Theodore Roosevelt had just finished a cup of coffee at the Hermitage, the Nashville home of President Andrew Jackson, when he declared it "good to the last drop." Ten years later, the folks who brewed the cup, a company called Maxwell House, made the former president's coinage their official slogan. Some 90 years later, it still is.

Like diamonds, great slogans last forever. (As a matter of fact, De Beers' rock solid "a diamond is forever" line is 64 years old.) Still, some of the most popular brands change their slogans annually. Forget nine decades. In the last nine years, Dr. Pepper has experimented with a dozen slogans around the world.

Here are some of the most enduring (and the most constantly changing) slogans in American business in a gallery prepared by editors at The Atlantic.


THE SCIENCE OF SLOGANEERING

A slogan is the public face of what is known in the marketing profession as a brand "positioning." We want audiences to perceive not only a product, but also a higher purpose. The best slogans capture this higher purpose in a memorable way. The energy drink Red Bull wants to stand for not only hyper-focus, but also the invigoration of mind and body captured in the phrase "Red Bull gives you wings." MasterCard aims for consumerism that complements the priceless things in your life: "There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard." Since 1988, Nike's call to action "Just Do It" has resonated with athletes and would-be athletes alike.

Ideally a positioning taps into our underlying human motivations. The desire to be a good parent. The need to demonstrate status. The urge to have a good time. This is harder than it seems. Let's say you're Johnnie Walker whisky. Do you stand for casual hedonism? Well, you make rare, expensive liquor. So do you stand for luxury? Well, bar tenders serve you at dives. It took two years and extensive market research to identify the positioning of history, optimism, and personal progress captured by the slogan "Keep on Walking."

There is a commonly accepted idea in marketing that a brand must identify and stick with a compelling "brand positioning" over time. But the changing values and attitudes of customers -- plus the inherent difficulty of finding the right few words on the first (or twenty-first) try -- means most slogans do not stand the test of time.

In the 1980s, British Rail tried to convince potential passengers that they were making significant improvements to their service with the slogan, "We are getting there." Passenger experience suggested otherwise, and the much-ridiculed slogan proved short-lived. Ford's "Quality is Job 1" met a similar demise around the same time. There is nothing wrong with slogans acknowledging weakness and being aspirational, but they do have to pass the test of experience. Avis' current slogan, "We try harder," was originally coined in 1962, as "We're No. 2. We Try Harder." Positive customer experience ratified the claim and helped Avis achieve significant sales growth.

southafricatruck.pngFROM GOOD TO GREAT (AND BACK)

More common perhaps is the slogan that does not say anything coherent about the brand. While in South Africa recently I saw the slogan, "Nature will thank you" on the back of a Corobrik truck. Was it a reference to the company's sustainability program? How its bricks were made? I still have no idea. Multiple meaningless slogans in a short time frame is a sure sign that the brand in question has lost its way. Rather than seeking to identify a positioning that makes the brand meaningfully different, these brands seek to use slogans as an echo chamber, hoping to find one that resonates with their target audience.

Ultimately, a slogan is only useful as long as it still conveys something meaningful about the brand. When circumstances change a brand may need to rethink how it expresses what it stands for. FedEx found great success with the slogan "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight." It directly addressed the company's dependability. But times change and overnight delivery become less compelling in the age of the Internet, so now we have "The World on Time" to indicate global reach.

Sometimes slogans just need fine-tuning in order to reflect the cultural psyche of the target audience. Over time L'Oreal has shifted its slogan from "Because I'm worth it" to "Because you're worth it." Today it reads, "Because we are worth it." The company worked the personal pronoun to track the zeitgeist, moving from self-regard to flattery, to collective pride.

Once established, however, a slogan can be hard to replace. In the 1990s Maxwell House decided to make a change after three-quarters of a century. "Better beans make better coffee" was the new motto, and it was geared toward quality. The effort flopped. A year ago, the company tried again to expand again from merely "good" with the slogan, "Good just got great." But most people still know the brand from Teddy Roosevelt's off-hand comment.

When it comes to slogans, sometimes it's best to leave "good" enough alone.

>

Jump to comments
Presented by

Nigel Hollis is chief global analyst at Millward Brown, a global market research company. He is the author of The Global Brand, published in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan, and blogs at Straight Talk with Nigel Hollis.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In