How to Write Your Firm’s Tagline: A Process for Success

In a previous article, “Elements of a Successful Brand 2: The Tagline,” we delved into the why and what of a good tagline. In this issue, we explore techniques you can use to craft a tagline that will resonate with your clients.

When a company resolves to develop a new tagline, the process often goes something like this: 1) they gather a group of stakeholders and creative staff to brainstorm ideas; 2) participants winnow down the options based on personal preference; 3) the team debates the relative merits of each finalist; 4) months pass and no decision is made. Writing a simple tagline becomes an overwhelming experience! 

It doesn't have to be that way. In fact, this approach suffers from a few fundamental problems:

  1. Objective data isn't driving the creative and selection process
  2. Nobody has set strategic parameters
  3. There are too many decision-makers

There is a better way to structure the process — and produce a superior end product.

Collect data first

Remember that a tagline is a tool that serves your clients and prospects. It should say something that matters to your customers. Typically, it should do one of three things: clarify what you do, express an important brand attribute or support your positiong.

The best way to find out what really matters to your clients is to ask them. If budgets are tight, you can call them yourself. You are more likely to get honest feedback, however, if you bring in a third party to conduct the research. Clients usually are more willing to open up if you aren't on the other end of the phone.

Keep the questions open-ended — some of the most useful information can be off-topic. Ask questions that will uncover your strengths and weaknesses. And don't be afraid to ask about your competition. The more people you interview, the better equipped you will be to develop a message that is meaningful to your audience.

Next, survey your competition. Visit their websites and make a list of taglines and key messages. If you can, try to identify their positioning (don't worry if you struggle with this — many companies haven't positioned themselves very well).

Narrow your parameters

Once you've got some data, sit down and try to make sense of your findings. Begin with your competitive intelligence and establish what messaging or positions are already taken. Next, read over your client comments and look for patterns. What do people find most valuable about your firm? Why do they choose you over someone else? Are there any surprises? These answers will inform your tagline.

As you uncover salient points, write them down on a big sheet of paper. If your firm has an established market position or specialty, write it down, too. What services and value do you offer your clients? Write them down — and try to be as specific as possible.

By now, you should have a good list of attributes and advantages that, to some degree, define your firm in the eyes of your clients. Gather your team together and go over the list together. Discard any messages that are already owned by competitors. And remove any items that don't say anything unique about your firm (“better service,” “better people,” etc). The more you narrow the list, the more smoothly the next step, brainstorming, will go.

Assemble a brainstorming team

When brainstorming ideas, it helps to have a lot of heads in the room. Aim for at least six people. If at all possible, include the ultimate decision-makers in the process. Tape your list of attributes to the wall. Next to it, tape the list of three qualifying criteria: “Clarify,” “Express a Brand Attribute” and “Support Your Positioning.”

Enlist one person to write down every new idea the group submits, preferably on a white board or easel. Ask people to look at the two lists and think about concepts that address the needs and desires of your target audience and support one of the three qualifying criteria. Write down every suggestion, even variations in wording. At the conclusion of the session, be ruthless and slash your choices to 4-6 finalists.

One word of warning: the brainstorming process can turn chaotic if it isn't tightly managed. Some firms prefer to hire an experienced professional to facilitate these sessions. A facilitator also brings a useful outsider's perspective and ideas.

Decision time: less is more

This is probably the most critical point in the process. The fewer decision-makers, the better. Appoint no more than 3 stakeholders (fewer, if possible) to make a binding decision. This is especially critical for professional services firms with flat organizational structures. To get 8 or 10 people to agree on anything is folly.

Together, analyze each of the tagline finalists. How does it sound? Is it short enough? Is it specific? Does it reveal anything important about your firm? Is it memorable? Is it grammatical? Is the idea simple? Equipped with these criteria, you'll probably be able to prune away at least half of the candidates.

At this point, the final decision rests in your hands. Listen carefully to each person's point of view. Try tweaking the wording. And consider each tagline option from a client's perspective. If you simply can't come to a consensus, show the options to 1 or 2 trusted customers. Often, they will provide the detachment you need to break a deadlock.

Even if you follow a clear process, tagline development is rarely easy. But a well-defined process can take some of the subjectivity out of the experience and guide you to a satisfying and strategically valid choice. Good luck!

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