Great straplines are valuable tools for a brand: they let customers get an almost instant feel for a company, conveying how that company thinks in a short soundbite. Get them right and they can strengthen almost every aspect of your marketing - but that’s exactly what makes them so difficult to write.

Getting so much information into one short phrase is not easy, and if it’s not the right information you could alienate potential customers. So how do you make sure your brand’s strapline does its job and brings in new business?

Great straplines come in a whole range of different flavours, but the best:

  • Convey a brand’s values
  • Focus on the customer and a shared future together
  • Are simple
  • Are action-driven

Convey your brand values

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon Simon Sinek’s talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action. If you haven’t watched it yet, go and do so because I guarantee it will change your perspective on how to communicate with your customers. The tl;dw (too long; don’t watch) version: your customers don’t actually care what you do, they care why you do it. That’s the reason Apple sell thousands of MP3 players each year and Dell sells none, it’s the reason nobody bought sliced bread before a marketing company got hold of the idea, and it’s the reason so many bad straplines are bad.

Conveying your brand’s Why, its reason for existing, is important because Why appeals to people’s gut, the part of them that identifies you as friend or foe before they’ve even had a chance to think about it. Your Why puts you firmly into a person's tribe or firmly outside it. If you and your customers share a Why they’ll buy everything they can from you. If you don’t, they’ll soon find somebody else to do business with.

Focus on the customer – especially their future

Conveying shared values doesn’t mean talking about you, though. Have you ever been at a party and stuck in the corner with the one guy who keeps on talking about himself? If your strapline is just a statement of what you do – anything along the lines of “keeping the environment clean” or “boat builders since 1911” – then you’re being that guy.

Your strapline is your first real chance to engage with customers – if they don’t know your brand already – or your chance to remind them of the connection you already have. If your strapline is all about you then your customers will react in the same way as you probably did at that party – by getting away as quickly as possible.

Instead, focus on your customers and make it clear that the focus is on them. A good strapline shows that a brand empathises with its target audience. But most importantly, focus on the customer’s future: their dreams and nightmares, their aspirations and worries, their hopes and anxieties.

One of the key takeaway messages from Seth Godin’s latest book - called Tribes - is that you should “Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.” A great strapline paints that picture for your customers - new and potential - and puts you firmly in their tribe. It shows people that you share their values and visions and that you have the deepest and most important thing in common with them: your Why.

KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid

Seth Godin once said that “if you can’t state your position in eight words you don’t have a position”. But eight words is far too long for a strapline, people simply won’t remember it. So you need to work out how to state your position and get your shared values across in two to four words. That’s not much space to be funny or clever in - much less clever enough to not appear condescending or funny enough that everyone gets the joke. So keep it simple - you don’t have space for anything else.

Make it action-driven

This is one of the two main points that separates a great strapline from one that's only good, the other being a focus on Why not What.

People remember actions much more than words. Further, they’re much more likely to respond to an action if you tell them exactly what they should do.  And they're even more likely to respond if it's an action they want to do already, which is the reason that tying the action in with your Why is so important.

If you want our strapline to move people towards your shared vision then it must be action-driven. You can’t just paint a picture of the future then let people stand back and admire it – they’re too lazy for that. You need to get them moving towards that future.


Nike - "Just do it"

A classic strapline, this hits three major spots:

  1. It tells active people that Nike are all about action, connecting to their Why and putting Nike into their tribe immediately
  2. It's composed of three very simple words and;
  3. It is completely action driven

Apple - "Think different"

This strapline immediately lines up Apple's reason for being with their target market: people who want to change the world. It's also action-driven and completely focused on the customer.  Think about how much stronger it sounds than "we think differently". That's just hand waving and vague. But "think different" is a challenge and an action, and it's a challenge lots of people want to accept.

Sainsbury - "live well for less" vs Tesco - "every little helps"

These two supermarkets share a common focus of value, but deliver their focus very differently.

Sainsbury' strapline is a call to action, almost a mantra to live your life by; it also hints at more than just value, suggesting that you can enjoy life even without expensive goods. Tesco's strapline, on the other hand, is not action-led. It is based on a common saying and is purely tied to value.

Which is better? I'll leave that debate to the comments, but I know where my money is spent each week.

Berghaus - "Live for adventure"

Very similar to Nike's "Just do it", the Berghaus strapline appeals directly to the tribe they want to be a part of, driving the people in that tribe to accept a challenge they want to accept. Highly motivational and aspirational, this example is great for showing how a successful brand focuses on the consumer.

What do you think?

Four elements go into creating a strapline that works hard for a brand and takes its place as the leader of all of a brand's marketing and communication efforts. But lots of companies miss out on these, preferring to talk about themselves and their products than to make the leap from the easy and conventional to what really works.

Do you know of any more examples that fit the pattern? Or any great straplines that fall outside of what's been discussed?  Let me know in the comments, and let's help the world towards a better understanding of strapline anatomy.