I hate (most) taglines. There, I said it.

Nothing drives me nuts more than a bad tagline. And by bad tagline, I mean most of them.

Why such a tagline hater? Because to me, most taglines still speak the language of advertising. And, as my business partner David Burney is fond of saying, we no longer trust the language of advertising because our experience tells us it is usually disingenuous.

Is DeBeers right when it says a Diamond is Forever? Could we afford to live in a world where Every Kiss Begins with Kay? Are the champions really still eating Wheaties for breakfast? While these have all been successful taglines over the years that have probably sold a lot of jewelry and cereal, they lack something increasingly important to brands in the 21st century: honesty.

When confronted with a bad tagline, I’m sure you immediately think or say something like “Wow, I wonder how much someone got paid to come up with that?”

Which was exactly my reaction when I was flying on Delta last week and saw a sign with their “Keep Climbing” tagline on it. I couldn’t help but think about the big bucks they probably paid the legendary Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency to develop it. According to Weiden+Kennedy’s case study about the campaign on their website, the tagline “is a declaration of the company’s commitment to making flying better and a celebration of where the brand is and where it is heading.”

So at the same time Delta was telling us how amazing their people were in advertisements like this one:

Delta’s customers were telling us about experiences they were having like this one:

The most successful brands of the 21st century will be the most authentic brands. I’ve talked previously on this blog about my home state of North Carolina’s motto, Esse Quam Videri, which means “To be rather than to seem to be.”

When you watch the two videos above about Delta, do you wonder, as I do, if Delta might have been able to avoid the bad publicity of the soldiers’ story if they had taken the money they spent telling us how great Delta’s people are through advertising and used it instead to empower those employees with training, revised policies, or technology tools that would have actually helped ensure a better experience for customers?

In other words, don’t tell us you are climbing. Climb.

Do I ever like taglines? Absolutely—when they reinforce something I already know and appreciate about a brand. When I see the tagline and immediately recognize what I love about the brand in it, it’s a winner. For example, when Apple started using the tagline Think Different in the late 90s, I believed that the people at Apple actually did think different, and their products helped (and continue to help) me think different as well. The words felt true to the brand I already knew.

But when I see a tagline that is trying to sell me a vision of a brand that I don’t currently see, that is the language of advertising. Telling and selling versus being an authentic representation of the brand.

My own personal experience has been that the best, most authentic taglines are often not developed in marketing departments or by advertising agencies, but instead emerge from the organization’s stories and experiences over time. Sometimes we don’t even see them as taglines until later.

For example, the only thing even close to a tagline we ever used at Red Hat was “Truth Happens.” But it was not developed as a tagline, it was the title of a short film that we were only going to show once—to introduce a keynote by Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik (you can read the story of the Truth Happens film and watch it here). In fact, if the marketing guy had his way, it would have been called “Innovation Happens” (yes, the marketing guy was me).

In retrospect, as a film title or as a tagline, “Innovation Happens” sucks.

We made the right choice to go with Truth Happens as the name, which didn’t just tell the story of a company, it told the story of a movement (the open source movement) that many had predicted didn’t have a chance of succeeding. Lots of folks who saw the film at that original keynote asked about it, and, over the next few years, it became a rallying cry inside and outside the company.

It wasn’t until a few years later that we put it on a t-shirt.

So if your first question when building your brand is “What should our tagline be?” maybe consider taking a different approach. Perhaps instead start by attempting to uncover the deepest truths about your brand.

Begin a conversation with your members of your brand community and let them help you. Maybe eventually that conversation will lead you to a great tagline, maybe it won’t.

But you’ll likely discover things much more important and true to your brand than a tagline along the way, and you may find the conversation itself is its own reward.

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