Choosing a tagline looks easy, but choosing a tagline that works well for a technology startup is surprisingly hard. There are several common mistakes that startups make with their tagline. These are easily avoidable if you know what to look out for.
I’ve been helping a software startup recently with their search for a new tagline. Like many bootstrapped startups, they don’t have enough cash for a full brand strategy project. Even so, to create a tagline that works you still need more strategic thinking than just jumping straight to the whiteboard to pull a tagline out of your a__.
Six criteria for a good tagline
I usually recommend against DIY brand strategy and tagline creation (even for a bootstrapped startup). Like any marketing challenge, you can be too close to the problem to see the simple solutions. Branding can be hard to outsource because you need to live with the outcome every day but that makes it even more important to get outside help. That said, if it helps you to understand how the process works then I’ll share with you some boundaries of what a tagline isn’t. My hope is that this will help you assess the options presented to you by someone who does this for a living. If you’re determined to try it out for yourself then these secrets will also give you an idea of what you’re looking for.
The most important thing to ask is where your tagline will be used. Is it going on the back of your business cards? On the signage outside you office? If you are a tech startup with a quirky name then you will be using your tagline locked-up below your wordmark as part of your logo.
Lets be honest, you want a tagline hanging under your logo because your name doesn’t have enough industry recognition (yet) for people to instantly know what it is that you actually do. In this case, the audience for your tagline is people who are already shopping for what you have, but don’t yet know whether or not you sell it.
1. A tagline is not about you, it’s about the pain you solve
I judge taglines for tech startups by the Van Signwriting test: If I see your tagline on a van or a company car, I ask myself “Do I instantly know what that company really does and whether it’s relevant to what I need?” A general promise about “Profitable Solutions” doesn’t focus in on a specific pain that I might already have as a potential customer.
Or to use the terminology from the Lean Startup and Business Model Generation, what is the “job” that the user is trying to do? Your tagline needs to address the specific “User Job” that your product helps them to get done.
Too many tech companies get caught in same trap as the company Initech from the movie Office Space and drown their employees and customers in corporate and technology jargon.
Technology marketing works best when you start with an existing pain and then find a solution to the pain. Imagine that your customer’s pain makes them like a group of people walking around with a big padlock around their necks. They are looking for a key to unlock their particular padlock. Sure, they’d like to choose the cheapest, most reliable, nicest key that their peers also use. But before any of that, they just want to know, “Can you solve my pain?” To answer this, people need to know what industry you are in and what industries you serve.
A practical and pragmatic tagline might be boring but if it explains what you do clearly enough then it can help sell widgets.
2. A tagline is not your brand essence
BMW’s brand essence is Driving Excellence but they have never used it as a tagline. They have used all sort of variations ranging from “Driver’s Car” to “Driving Joy” through to the perennial “Ultimate Driving Machine”. But none of these external taglines full revealed their secret brand essence. The reason that great companies don’t wear their heart on their sleeve is that an internal brand essence is about what your vision is for the impact that you will have world. For BMW, the vision remains a constant while the advertising and taglines can change over time.
Sharing your mission, your promise and your brand in a tagline is just too much information, too early. If you’ve ever done any personal development then you might have flirted with finding your life purpose. It’s likely to have been a variation on “Contributing to Others”, “Leaving a Legacy” or “Loving Life”. As powerful as a life purpose is, it would be a bit weird to walk up to a stranger at a party and say “Hi, my name is Bob and my life purpose is to spread joy in the world. How’s your night going?” Don’t try and make your tagline convey the deepest secrets of your company or be a manifesto for changing the world.
3. A tagline is not your features and benefits
If you’re asking your tagline to close a sale for you then you are being premature. You don’t need to get your audience all the way to a purchase based only on the tagline. You only need your audience to be interested enough to want to find out more. This also means not going to far down the line of practicalities. The goal of a tagline is to stimulate interest. The individual features and benefits of your product are not relevant yet. Stick to being specific about the industry you serve and the pain you solve.
4. A tagline doesn’t need to cover everything you do
Most tech companies sell a range of products and services. Even when you’re small there will still be a mix of off-the-shelf products, custom-builds and even a bit of consulting. I hate taglines that are a shopping list of things that a company sells. Pick whichever service you are best at, get the best margin on, or that best defines your position the market. A tagline should help you focus.
5. A tagline is not a vague promise about the outcomes you sell
I rant alot about how technology companies jump to selling the Why without explaining the What or the How. If your tagline has the words “solution” or “profit” in it then you have made a grave error in the psychology of how people buy products. Sure, you might provide “Enterprise Technology Solutions that Increase Profitability.” But so do photocopiers and Human Resource software processes. If you try to sell only the outcome then your tagline will be too vague to be useful. The old advertising adage that you should “Sell the hole, not drill.” only works if people know what “drills” are. If your startup is in a new category then people may not know that they want a “hole” yet. Your tagline just needs to convey what you do not why.
6. A tagline is does not have to be unique
Never kill a tagline because “It could just as easily apply to our competitors”. For startup marketing, a tagline similar to your competitors probably means that your tagline is doing a good job of describing your industry. The uniqueness of your corporate personality will probably mean that the right tagline will still be different from your competitors. However, your tagline is not there to differentiate you, that is the job of your brand name, key messages and brand stories.
Next steps: Test your tagline and iterate fast
The sum of all these will be a practical tagline that is probably less sexy than you were hoping. So I’ll give you one final test that has a practical upside. If you’ve followed these rules then your tagline will be pure gold for SEO purposes. Remember people will be searching for practical tools that they can use to solve their own unique pain.
If you want to test a tagline, go to your google analytics and spot what searches people are making that hit you the most. Then use the google adwords tools to figure out what other common terms your audience are also searching for. Combine the best of these into 5 tagline candidates and then test each tagline as a the headline of an adwords campaign to see which ones work best. You can also use social media to get feedback and iterate your tagline.
If you are ever stuck in a brainstorming session or a hackathon and need to choose a tagline fast then just fill in the blanks of:
We solve [pain X] for [group Y] by [doing Z].
Then iterate from there.
In the end, you’ll have to make the final judgement call, but keep in mind why you wanted a tagline in the first place. To build your business, that will take clarity, focus and the occasional moment of pragmatism.
Note: This article featured in Ycombinator/Hacker News on Christmas Day 2012. It was a great Christmas present and I’m excited to be part of the conversation. Several of the comments and tweets have added to the ideas for testing and iterating. It seems that the key to a lean brand is agility and flexibility. My book on digital marketing for tech companies also includes whole chapters on brand strategy and market positioning.