Don’t leave home without it — a good slogan, that is. American Express’ tag line helps reinforce its benefits to members. Other companies use slogans to differentiate themselves from competitors or better explain what they do. Example:, an online art gallery, uses the tag line “Your Window to the Art World.” A slogan offers a second chance to position your company if it’s not obvious from the name.

Granted, not everyone needs a slogan. If your company name is Scandinavian Furniture Imports, a slogan might be unnecessary — even overbearing. But for companies such as The Bell-Rutledge Group, a slogan becomes imperative to explain who you are and what you do.

If you use a slogan, make sure it’s a good one. Poorly conceived slogans can hurt your business by telegraphing incompetence or unprofessionalism to potential customers, investors and suppliers.

There’s a saying among ad-agency folks: “A slogan is not just a nice quote or a cliche. A good slogan is a war cry. A very good slogan is a chilling war cry.”

The Basics: Direct or Vague?

Slogans fall into two major categories:

  1. Direct with very clear messages.
  2. Intentionally vague intended to be hip.

Both can work, but the vague type requires a longer, more repetitive (and more expensive) ad campaign — and are usually not as successful.

Delta Airlines went the “vague” route with “Delta Is Ready When You Are.” Over time, whenever consumers heard that slogan, they indeed thought of Delta. And that’s exactly what a slogan should do: Create an image. The ad should have a “call to action” that encourages the audience to do something, but the slogan is a pneumonic device designed to implant a mental picture of your product or service. A great example of a “direct” slogan is Pfizer’s, “Life Is Our Life’s Work.”

Costs and Benefits

Slogan development entails much more than coming up with a catch phrase. You must create a mini mission statement, and that requires deep thought. Does your slogan really telegraph who you are, what you do and where you’re headed? When developing (or revamping) your slogan, consider a management retreat.

A quest for the right slogan runs the gamut when it comes to cost. Big companies give millions of dollars to consultants and ad agencies to invent and communicate new slogans — but you don’t have to go that route. A catchy and effective slogan can be created in-house, then printed on everything customers — and potential clients — might see: posters, pens, notepads, mouse pads, uniforms, delivery trucks, stickies, business cards, calendars. The results can be surprisingly profitable: A mailing company south of Boston credits a 22% increase in billings to their year-old slogan: “Letter-Perfect Service for 27 Years.”

When you’ve nailed the right slogan, your efforts become more focused. Employees are energized. Customers finally understand what you’re doing. Buying behavior is inspired, and sales go skyward.

When to Change

Sometimes an existing slogan needs to be updated to stay in step with the times or reflect a shift in company strategy. Example: Nike is changing its powerhouse “Just Do It” slogan to the kinder/gentler “I Can,” in an attempt to increase female market share for shoes and athletic wear. Likewise, Xerox’s new tag, “The Document Company,” reflects a return to its roots after a mediocre excursion into the financial-services market.

A slogan may also change to reflect a societal shift; Ford recently dropped its long-successful “Quality Is Job One” slogan because in the new millennium, quality is expected. The old slogan no longer distinguishes Ford and has therefore outlived its usefulness as a marketing device.

Once You’ve Got It, Protect It

If you want full control over your slogan, register your “mark.” You can legally use the ™ (trademark) or SM (service mark) to inform the public of your claim without federal registration or even a pending application. Of course, your claim may not be valid and could be challenged. The registration symbol, ®, may only be used after the trademark or service mark is legally registered with the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). Once registered, you retain all rights to licensing and franchising deals.

There are two ways to “own” a slogan:

  • Trademark: a word, phrase, symbol or design (or combination thereof) that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods or services of one party from those of others. The first party that either uses a mark in commerce (actual interstate business) or files an application with the PTO has the right to register it. Trademark rights can last indefinitely if the owner continues to use the mark and renews the application every 10 years.
  • Service mark: same as a trademark, except it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product.

To file, you must be the owner of the mark; only you or your attorney may file.

Check for conflicts before you file. It’s not mandatory, but it’s wise. A trademark attorney or search firm will do the search for a fee. You can do the search yourself through the PTO’s public-search library in Arlington, Va., or by going to a patent and trademark depository library. If there’s a dispute, the PTO determines whether potential customers would be likely to associate the goods or services of one party with those of the other as a result of the simultaneous use of both marks. The resolution is based on the similarity of the marks and the commercial relationship between the goods and services identified by the marks.

Dos and Don’ts

Slogans involve a degree of risk, even if you hire an agency. Consider these dos and don’ts to minimize fallout.


  • Keep it brief, clear and concise. Limit your slogan to no more than seven or eight words. “Exactly” (Hertz) and “Got Milk?” (American Dairy Association) are winners.
  • Follow the formula. Catchy + informational = good slogan. Note:“Catchy” does not mean clever, nor does it mean awful alliteration (“Shop Yourself Silly at Sid’s”). FedEx’s “When It Absolutely, Positively Has to Get There Over-night” is the epitome of catchy plus informational.
  • Focus externally. Slogans are not for boosting employee morale (“The Fun Company”), nor should they be money-oriented (“Profit With Purpose”). Keep your sights on your market.
  • Include an “aha.” Try to incorporate a notion your target can relate to.Example: Burger King enticed consumers to “Have It Your Way.” Focus groups revealed that many customers didn’t want onions on their lunchtime Whoppers for fear of offending co-workers or customers. In the misguided interest of operational efficiency, such requests were routinely refused. Burger King realized that personalizing an automated process could give them a huge strategic advantage over rival McDonald’s, and “your way” was born.
  • Get buy-in. If your employees can’t get behind your slogan, they won’t perpetuate it. At all costs, avoid slogans that involve concepts like “We’re No. 1” or “We’re the Best.” Superlatives only set up unrealistic expectations that employees ultimately can’t live up to. It’s far smarter to strive for a “better” concept.
  • Translate prior to a global launch. Even conglomerates run into trouble by skipping this one. Example: In one Chinese dialect, Coca-Cola means “female horse stuffed with wax.” Oops.


  • Get too clever. Dot-coms are notorious for this. Volkswagen (“Fahrvergnügen”) successfully pulled it off, but amateurs should not try this at home.
  • Make it mysterious. Levi’s did this in the ’80s with commercials that had nothing to do with the product — jeans. Let the slogan directly represent what you’re selling.
  • Be a copycat. Creating a variation on the theme of a competitor’s slogan is commercial suicide. The idea of marketing is to differentiate your business; stake out territory your rivals have overlooked.
  • Lie, fib or fabricate. Can you really live up to what’s implied in your slogan? Beware of promising quantitative wonders.Example: A Northeastern chain of area rug stores touts: “Thousands of rugs in every store.” This suggests a huge selection, right? Turns out they have about 215 rugs, each in 10 different sizes, and most of those are special-order items — they’re not “in every store” by any stretch. Not surprisingly, market share has been steadily dipping 3%-5% annually.

Writer: LeAnn Zotta is a strategic-marketing consultant in Yarmouthport, Mass.