Taglines & Themes

And A Deal!

Recently a leaked email revealed 85 taglines that the Clinton campaign considered before settling on “Stronger Together.” This got us thinking about how some of our clients use and develop taglines.

Do you even need a tagline?Probably. We think taglines are underused by schools and other nonprofits. Taglines are a quick way of directing and managing first impressions and your audience’s expectations. They can reinforce something you want people to know about you, set a tone, and cut through a lot of competing clutter quickly. Not only are they powerful for branding, they can also be used for admissions events, fundraising initiatives, special events like your school auction or a speaker series, etc. Taglines and themes, when carefully and consistently used, can often boost the impact of special events, campaigns, special programs, and more. Our experience tells us, for example, that invitations for school events enjoy a much higher response rate when the event has a tagline and is included in the invitation.

Taglines and themes can be difficult to create. There are two basic parts to the process—the creative brainstorming and the road-testing. You might convince your regular creative services providers to work on a tagline while they work on other projects. Or you can hire a group (like us!) to focus on a tagline challenge, or one aspect of it, for you.

Very often, however, you CAN do it yourself and we recommend trying it—especially if you are a smaller day school or nonprofit on a tight budget. A small day school’s markets and stakeholders are largely local and easy to talk to, which often makes the work of developing an effective tagline easier. The tagline process can also provide great side benefits as well, as it forces you to think from the perspective of your audience and connect more intensely with your market. If you can get a team of 5-10 people to be part of the process (from different departments), and one person to drive the effort, we suggest you try it.

When committees start working on tag lines, they tend to focus on content, usually at the expense of the all-important sense of “feel.” Try to avoid that. Start your process by describing for yourself what the tagline should feel like, not what it should say. A tagline is often first or second thing people “get” about you after your name so its visceral impact matters a great deal. What are the taglines of your competitors? What do you want yours to do differently or better? What’s the key takeaway?

After answering those questions, start generating ideas. As you start, try not to edit out any ideas. Just keep a list. Think hard about the confidence your organization has in itself. Many organizations lack confidence in their messaging and tend to be more conservative than they need to be or they fall prey to using jargon and big words, long latinate phrases, overstuffed sentences, and clichés. Once you have at least 50, edit about a third to half of them out.

A few very basic criteria to get you started.

  1. Is it easy to remember?
  2. Does it make you feel something—smile, touch your aspirations, draw you in, surprise you?
  3. Is it fewer than 5 words and 10 syllables long? And if not, is it worth the extra length?
  4. Does it have at least one verb in it—even if that verb is squirreled away inside a noun

If you’re not thrilled with the options you’re left with, solicit more ideas. Keep going until you think your list is solid. You don’t necessarily need 85 options, but we urge you to have at least 25. You can get help developing this starting list by asking for suggestions from staff, or, engaging a consultant who has worked with you to develop a list of suggestions.

Another way to generate an initial list of taglines is to crowdsource it. If you want to try this, we recommend Crowdspring. Offer $500 and you’ll get a nice long list to work with—you can quickly narrow it down to about 25. But you also have to write a comprehensive and thoughtful brief and spend time judging each entry—a very serious time commitment. Make sure each option is at least, at first glance, plausible to at least two or three people on your team—not just one person.

The next step is to spend a little time tweaking your favorite 10-15 or so into shape—change the tense, a word or two, the order of ideas. Add different versions of the same tagline to your list.

Testing is next. Put six similar taglines on single pieces of paper under a fake but nondescript school name that might sound slightly like your name (“Ardwood Academy, Learning for A Lifetime“). We don’t recommend using your own school’s name at this point because perceptions of your school might influence perceptions of the tagline. We also do not recommend that you ask current families—they already know you too well.

With your six pieces of paper, head over to a nearby playground, if you’re an elementary school, or a high school sports event, if you’re an independent high school or college, and show them to random parents. Ask them what kind of school personality the taglines convey. Get them to offer adjectives about the school—not the tagline. Then ask for any comments on the tagline—do they like it or not, which is their favorite if they had to pick. Remember, though, that what they say about the tagline is far less important than the impression of the school they receive. Take copious notes!

Talk to at least 20 people, and you’ll likely have one or two consistently emerge as top choices—if not, keep testing. A top choice is one that conveys what you want and people seem to like.

Keep going down your list and testing groups of taglines in sixes. Then take the 5 or 6 that people seem to like much more than the others. You want to test that final set together. But before you do, undertake another round of tweaking—can any of the winning taglines be improved? Be ruthless. Then test that winnowed and edited set with more random parents—this time with your school’s real name. Gather the feedback—do any of the ideas seem to sing? Do they need more tweaking? You should come out of this process with a winner or two—although the winners might not match your goals. That’s okay as long as one tagline from the final group works for you. Sometimes a tagline might also need a type treatment, icon or logo to make it work.

If you don’t like any of the top five or six, take that as a sign that there is some disconnect with how your organization thinks about itself and what the market thinks. That’s an insight even more valuable than a good tagline. More on that in a future post.

A Deal

If you’re having trouble getting started, write down your best 10 tagline candidates to date and a pages of notes about what your want your tagline to do and say and what you think the problems are. Give us a call, or shoot us an email and if we think we can do it, we’ll brainstorm a dozen more for you to consider. Free to the first organization that contacts us or $500 through December 1st, 2016.

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