When brand straplines go awry – the end of Just Doing It?


I love brand taglines.

Brand taglines, or straplines if you prefer, have gone out of fashion in recent years. Particularly with the rise in global brand simplification and standardisation, so evident in digital brands such as Google.

But the simplification or even absence of straplines may also be symptomatic of the tortuous and expensive creation and approval process they require. Their development for established multi-national organisations is consultative, researched, discussed and sometimes political.

It’s difficult enough to create a brand or product name that gets approved for use in many different markets. Just ask Ford about the ‘Verve’ – the proposed replacement name for their new Fiesta model, that was eventually rejected. Which I personally view as a missed opportunity for the brand. Let alone create a phrase that summarises what the brand is about in a pithy and witty manner; being readily understood in different countries without causing offence in mistranslation.

An unfortunate example here, again for Ford by chance, was the rejected name ‘Icon’ for what eventually became the Focus. In this case the rejection of Icon was entirely understandable on a Pan-European level, due to its unsuitably close simularity to a French mistranslation of the dreaded ‘C’ word.

Still, the simplification of straplines gave way to their disappearance.

Can you imagine lines such as ‘Probably the best lager in the world’ (Carlsberg), ‘Good things come to those who wait’ (Guinness) or ‘There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard’ being approved in our visually-led, copy-simplified world, today? Surely these are headlines, not straplines by modern standards?

The straplines that are left in English, untranslated, tend to have become monosyllabic to aid comprehension and the desire for a rapid read (‘Just Do It’, ‘Like.No.Other’, ‘Every Little Helps’). No wonder so many copywriters turn to writing books and scripts. There must be days when they are bursting to write fully formed sentences with eloquence, subtlety and intelligence.

There have been cases where straplines have caused significant problems for brands. One of my personal favourites was for Wang Labs, the computer company that created stand-alone word processing machines in the 1970’s and 1980’s before IBM, Compaq, Microsoft and Lotus effectively made their software and machines outdated.

The story goes along the lines that Wang needed to demonstrate their brand was different and looked after customers better. The branding solution created in America and presented at a global conference was ‘Wang Cares’. Wang Cares it seems answered every question, except one raised by the marketing director from the U.K. – where the expletive slang ‘Wankers’ sounded uncomfortably close to the proposed global strapline. The strapline never saw the light of day, at least over here.

The story came to mind today whilst listening to a podcast from BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz show. The programme highlights stories from the newspapers and invites examples of humorous articles to be sent in. A story from the New York Times, which was reported some years ago, made me smile.

The Bureau for At-Risk Youth, based in Plainview, N.Y., created a campaign to persuade young students that drugs weren’t cool. A straightforward copyline was created, ‘Too Cool To Do Drugs’ and elementary school children were provided pencils carrying this message.

The problem was reportedly first discovered by Kodi Mosier, a 10-year-old student at Ticonderoga Elementary School. He noticed that as the pencil was sharpened, the message changed – with surprising effect.

‘Too Cool To Do Drugs.’ became ‘Cool To Do Drugs’ and eventually read the emphatic ‘Do Drugs.’

Apparently the teacher brought this to the attention of The Bureau for At-Risk Youth; who recalled as many of the pencils as they could, before printing new ones with their message printed the other way around. Eventually leaving the message ‘Too Cool’ on the sharpened replacement pencils.

I guess it goes to show just how carefully a brand needs to understand the media it uses to communicate its message. Less ‘Just Do It’ and more of a call for thinking ‘Where And How Will This Message Be Seen Over Time?’




4 Responses to “When brand straplines go awry – the end of Just Doing It?”

  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. 2 Gordon Newman

    Hi Kevin,

    It’s easy to understand how this kind of thing can happen, this particular shocker reminds me of the badly thought through websites doing the rounds online for quite some time, for example;

    http://www.whorepresents.com – a site pinpointing representatives of hollywood types

    There are many such examples, but the watchout is always to take a lateral look at all the work you do, or alternatively, give it to the office comedian to spot the not-always-obvious.


  3. 3 brandtao

    Gordon, that’s a classic.

    Hope all is well in Dublin? Let me know if you are visiting London?



  4. 4 Walt

    excellent writing.

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