January 21, 2018

The last of the anti-social marketing tactics

Taglines are the last bastions of a classic, one-way marketing messaging strategy, preserving marketing’s perceived right to tell customers what to think.

In truth, customers have never listened, except in a few cases of companies with the budget muscle to pound the tagline into customers’ heads over and over again though mass marketing and TV.

In B2B marketing, we’ve never been given the right to tell customers what to think, much less the budgets to pound a tagline into their minds. I’ve spoken to hundreds of CIOs in my career as a journalist and I can tell you that at best, they ignore taglines; at worst, they feel their intelligence insulted by them.

And yet we keep spending hard-earned shareholders’ dollars creating these shallow soundbites that are supposed to protect our brands, even though the transparency of the internet, and now social media, have rendered such defenses useless.

Not that the defenses were much more than Maginot Lines to begin with. I recently did a search on some well-known B2B technology brands and compiled their taglines in the list below. Many of these companies compete with one another. Can you imagine being a buyer surfing providers’ websites and seeing even a handful of these in quick succession? I put them in alphabetical order so that you can feel the “Power of Repetition” in the words and “Experience the Selling.” I mean, some of them are just plain incomprehensible, communicating to buyers that we live in “A Certain World of Connected Freedom for Caring People to Passionately Inspire the Valuable Impact of More Enterprise Silliness”:

  • A world of communications
  • Agility made possible
  • Applying thought
  • At the speed of ideas
  • Building a world of difference
  • Building tomorrow’s enterprise
  • Confidence in a connected world
  • Creating business impact
  • Cutting through complexity
  • Experience certainty
  • Experience the commitment
  • Freedom to care
  • Inspire the next
  • Passion for building stronger businesses
  • People matter, results count.
  • The power to know
  • The power of we
  • The power to do more
  • Results realized
  • The value of performance
  • Working with clients, not just for them

It is also interesting to note how many well-known B2B technology companies do not use taglines (at least not that I could see on their home pages): BMC, BT, Cisco, Deloitte, EMC, Juniper, Lenovo, Microsoft, Nokia-Siemens, Oracle, Pitney Bowes, Xerox. Are the marketers at these companies not doing their jobs? Or have these companies decided that they are going to stop trying to sell themselves in a couple of hackneyed words and instead do it through relationships and experience?

There’s even one company, IBM, which inverts the focus of the tagline from internal “capabilities” to something that customers may actually care a whit about: Smarter Planet.

'a Smarter Planet' logo

Image via Wikipedia

Actually, calling Smarter Planet a tagline does it a disservice. Unlike traditional taglines, which generally hang on the corners of websites like misplaced socks, with no discernible connection to anything around them, Smarter Planet is paired up with a lot of interesting thought leadership content that lines up with IBM’s business strategy—it’s a business theme rather than a tagline. I predict that we’re going to see a lot more B2B companies moving in this direction in the coming year.

What do you think? What am I missing about the value of taglines?

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  • Pingback: Best of B2B Marketing Zone for November 11, 2011 « Sales and Marketing Jobs()

  • Chris Wilson

    Interesting post.

    As a founder of one of those dreadful organisations (agencies) that helps come up with ‘taglines’ I feel I should step into the ring and fight the tagline corner…

    …actually, you’re right – the meaningless taglines you list are just that: meaningless.

    And as you also say, IBM has something that resonates – Smarter Planet is something that the B2B buyers (and marketers) I speak to see value in.

    For me the differences are twofold:
    1. IBM’s is based on not just on ‘what they do’, but on an external view of the world. So it is routed in an audience insight.
    2. IBM puts a lot behind it (you mention this) – thought leadership, content – it becomes the hub of everything they do from a marketing perspective.

    So for me ‘taglines’ aren’t the problem. The problems come from:
    1. How they are conceived (the naval gazing school of tagline development must have been responsible for some of the abominations you list…)
    2. How they are then backed up

    So it boils down to this:
    Why do we in B2B marketing refuse to look outside our offices at the world around us, and why do we fail to have the courage of our convictions? If your ‘tagline’ is representative of both your view on the world around you, and your mission to do something about it – then you’ll have something that’s not only more relevant, but more importantly – INTERESTING!

    If you get that bit right, then its time to back it up – and IBM is a great example to follow (albeit expensive – let’s not forget that their ‘tagline’ has had $$$ investment….).

    The other aspect that you didn’t cover, is that another reason for IBM’s success is that they stuck with it. Because they put a lot of thought into it, and undoubtedly some customer insights, they weren’t going to ditch it after a year. There are a few of the tagline owners in your list who are on tagline #4 in as many years. (Inspire the Next being a notable exception – possibly because the company has quite literally carved it into a huge block of stone outside their Tokyo HQ….).

    So, let’s not blame taglines themselves – they’re just a victim of their creators. We have a couple of much bigger fish to fry: the route cause of poor tagline creation is something we need to worry about because it pervades all reaches of B2B marketing. Namely – an insular viewpoint that ignores what customers are saying and what’s going on in the world; and, an unwillingness to put proper long-term effort and investment behind what we hang our hats on. We chop and change at our peril, and our customers bemusement.

    Anyway, I must stop as I’m tasked with creating a few taglines for a meeting tomorrow….

    Chris Wilson

  • Chris, I love this post – while disagreeing with it.  There is nothing wrong with the concept of the tag line, and in fact it can usefully serve to focus a company or client attention.  The problems with the great selection of worse than useless tag lines that you present is that they are: 
    1) Focused on what their company is, or worse still, wants to be
    2) Undifferentiated.  Sure, I want “Results realized” but it is not clear to me why that company is uniquely placed to do this for me
    My call would be to keep the tag line in IF you can make it a short sharp declaration of what you are uniquely able to do for your client.  And above all else, never, never ever use a tag line that has been designed or approved by a committee! 

  • Great to challenge the assumption.
    Too many people just say we have to come up with a tagline, because everyone has one. It’s just what marketing does,

  • Hi Chris,

    Great insights here. I think that the strategy behind taglines needs to change (along with everything else in marketing) to an external, relationship-based focus like IBM has achieved with Smarter Planet and Cognizant has done with its “Future of Work” business theme. I think that internally focused, “capability-based” taglines are always doomed to failure. It’s just human nature–we have a harder time talking about ourselves than we do talking about others. And in complex, diverse B2B companies, talking about yourself inevitably leads to compromise–these companies represent and do too many different things for the tagline to be forceful and specific. It’s (a little) easier though, to come to agreement on the issues facing customers and capture those issues in a compelling way. That’s why I think Smarter Planet and the Future of Work are, well, the future for taglines.

  • Hi Dianna,

    I’m just having a hard time with the idea that taglines that talk about “who we are” rather than what customers care about will ever get beyond committee, so to speak. You’ll always have many people demanding to be involved in the “who we are” discussion. I think it’s unrealistic to think otherwise for a big, complex B2B company. Thanks for the comment!

  • Hi Robin,

    I guess I’d agree with you if I saw B2B companies “owning” niches. But most strive to be diverse and offer many things. And many times those many things are roughly the same as the many things that many different competitors in the same space also offer. That’s why I think the idea that anyone can come up with a truly differentiated tagline that describes internal “capabilities” is past. We’ve had roughly 50 years to do it in the B2B tech industry and no one’s figured it out yet. But when companies start taking an external approach, like Future Planet, things get easier. It’s easier to differentiate based on what you know about customers than it is on what you do, I think.

  • Love the article as well as all of the discussion that has come out of it. Taglines that are differentiated, relevant and credible still have a place in the B2B world. Many of the above that you listed don’t meet any of these criteria, a few are different but not relevant, and many lack any credibility (akin to the comment of what a company wants to be versus what it is).

    But that being said, if you can come up with a tagline that hits all of these points, it still does serve lots of valuable purposes. Beyond the obvious external ones, one of the most important benefits of a tagline has to do with internal alignment and engagement. It’s just takes a lot of hard work to get there.

  • Hi Chris,

    My question for marketers would be: what do you want people to read about you? When we step beyond the application of branding dollars to taglines like “Just Do It”, a simply introduction can have a lot of uses.

    Consider your blog: Marketing and Sales Strategy for B2B. This tells me more than the title of your blog and helps to position your site the first time I landed here. Your content was on point with that description, and the description confirmed that what I was reading was the type of content you generally share. I probably (knowing me) subscribed immediately rather than waiting to come across your site a second time, because the description assured me that I hadn’t stumbled across a random off-topic post of yours.

    Is this a traditional tagline? Will the ITSMA go invest in establishing this as a tagline associated with your personal brand? Presumably, no. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful in communicating what this blog is about, and similarly I still believe a simple description is useful for a business as well.

  • It’s a good point, Eric, and it probably would work for a smaller company that is focused on a single area. But I think large companies are afraid of doing this, in part because they usually do many different things and also because they usually have competitors who do the same things. So saying they are an “IT product and services company” scares companies looking to be “differentiated.” Of course, since no one seems to have the courage to do what you suggest, maybe it would lead to differentiation (at least for awhile)!

  • Hi Doug,

    I have heard your argument from others: that if these taglines mean nothing to customers at least they are a way to rally the troops internally. But wouldn’t training them to focus on customer needs be a better investment of money?

  • Chris, Your post is excellent as is the discussion. Your point, “Smarter Planet is paired up with a lot of interesting thought leadership content that lines up with IBM’s business strategy—it’s a business theme rather than a tagline.” is the other side of the kitschy tagline coin you describe. Then there is your, which I love, “Using ideas to build customer relationships” because it says what you do for the customer.

    While doing a little research for my own, I found your post. My marketing sales background dates back 40 years. I’ll admit to creating catchy phrases in my younger days, bit that evolved to creating powerful one sentence value propositions.

    In a way, it’s the new elevator pitch. Our window of opportunity is becoming shorter and shorter. Your post was so helpful and affirming, I’ve subscribed to your blog.


  • Thanks for the kind comments, Gary (and the belated response!).

    Best Regards,

  • Nate Pagel

    Can you think of a the brand when I mention a tagline or two? We bring good things to life. Think Different.
    Ok, well done. That’s what you’re missing. You’re a writer, marketer and journalist. Next article: try it without a title.

    What’s your favorite book btw?

    Using ideas to build customer relationships?


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