Thursday 29 April 2010

Why are most straplines just crap lines?

OK, so I’m generalising and being just a tad subjective. And I only used the word ‘crap’ because it made a nice headline. So let me be more specific. A great many straplines you see these days are irrelevant, forgettable and most unforgiveable, boring.

It wouldn’t be so bad if these straplines belonged to small, local companies and had been dreamed up by the business owner, whose full-time job is making widgets, not writing powerful, effective, memorable straplines.

Or if they’d been thought up by the account exec or an inexperienced junior copywriter in the ad agency. They’re only working on a small account so it doesn’t warrant the creative heavyweights spending any time on it.

No, these straplines belong to some of the biggest household names in Britain. Companies you know and love. Companies with strong brands which you’d have thought they’d be working hard to protect, cherish and nurture.

An emotional emptiness

What all of these straplines have in common is the feeling they give me. A horrible, mushy nothingness. An emotional emptiness. No connection with the business. And a sense that if the company doesn’t even know what it stands for, how can I?

Step forward just a few of the companies on my Strapline Roll Call of Dishonour.

This one’s a real corker. Sky TV is in millions of homes across the country. They bring, ‘the most up-to-date editorial, pictures and video-breaking news, sport, showbiz, movies, TV, travel and more.’

Just think of the panoply of words that are at the copywriter’s disposal, the images and emotions that can be stirred up in the reader’s mind, the bond that people have with the box in the corner and nowadays, their computers. Write something that taps into this feeling and you’ve reinforced Sky’s position in the market and helped create an even stronger brand.

So what do we get?

Believe in better

What’s this? A strapline for the C of E? A promise of nirvana in the afterlife? And at the very least it’s saying, you can believe in better from Sky, but this doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.

How about this one:

We can help

Which just goes to show that one of the key requirements of any strapline is relevance. At least try to suggest what kind of company you are and what kind of products or services you sell. This strapline could literally be applied to any company, but would actually work really well for the Samaritans.

Here’s another one which was only launched in April 2010:

Drive the change

OK, so it does have ‘drive’ in it. And they may be launching new models which have changed from the old ones. But the use of the word change doesn’t work in this context. The old Asda strapline, ‘You’ll love the change’ worked because Asda had changed and it tied this into a value proposition. The Renault line does none of this and is just woolly and unfocused.

What’s more, there’s no suggestion of the French heritage of the cars. Remember, Renault’s most successful TV campaign, Nicole and Papa’ was so charmingly Gallic you could almost smell the Gauloises. And tying into your national heritage and country of origin has worked so well for Audi – ‘Vorsprung durch technik’ – that now VW do it too – ‘Das auto’ - 25 years after Audi first had the idea.

All in all, a great strapline. For an HRT product.

Here are a couple of straplines which completely baffle me:

Toby Carvery
Just as it should be

So Toby Carvery is just as it should be. I’m getting that feeling again. What should it be that Toby Carvery is just as? (You see what I mean?) I haven’t been to a Toby for about 30 years, but if you gave me a good reason to go again, I’d go. This isn’t it. I don’t know what Toby should be as and now you’re making me think about it.

I just want something that suggests a good choice of well-cooked food, nice wines, a relaxing atmosphere, good times, great company. All at a good price. A place that’s special, but not posh or expensive - a kind of upmarket Harvester.

And what about:
We can be bothered

Well, I’m glad to hear it. I think they want to be in the territory of the famous Avis strapline, ‘We try harder’ which is a good strategy. But please, don’t use the word, ‘bothered’. Straight away you’re thinking about Catherine Tate’s irritating teenager.

Here are two more which actually aren’t bad:

Saving you money every day

Nice and simple, and it talks about saving money which is what Asda is all about. But even this can be improved. I’m guessing that the ‘you’ in the line is a collective you referring to everyone in Britain. In that sense, Asda does save us Britons money every day.

But I’m an individual and every single person who reads this line does so individually. And guess what – I don’t go to Asda every day. I might go once or twice a month if I can’t avoid it. It would be much better to say, ‘Asda. Saving you money every shop.’ There’s alliteration, it scans nicely and people now refer to doing the weekly ‘shop’.

Enterprise rent-a-car
We’ll pick you up

Great. The USP as a strapline, and why not. And even if it isn’t a USP and every car rental company does it, nobody else is saying it. Therefore, it becomes a brand property of Enterprise.

Why so bad?

There are a variety of reasons. From the client’s point of view, nobody in the marketing team wants to green light a strapline which might backfire and harm their career prospects.

A strapline which actually says something about the company and its brand values might attract unwanted attention, open up the company to criticism or be controversial. It might even heaven forbid, stand out and be noticed. In short, nobody wants to be the person who takes that risk.

(It reminds me of the phrase from the 80s, ‘Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.’ It was true. But where are IBM now?)

This mindset was echoed in a recent presentation by Rory Sutherland, President of the IPA. He said, “Creative people have a fear of the obvious, and yet they have to present their work to people who have a love of the obvious.”

In short, clients want obvious straplines because that’s what they feel happy, safe and secure with. They certainly don’t want to run the risk of standing out.

On the advertising agency side, similar thinking applies. The agency doesn’t want to lose the account and if the client is saying they want a safe, corporate strapline then that’s what they’re jolly well going to get.

Of course, many large, established companies have a set of brand values, standing and reputation to uphold and can’t be seen to be supported by a tagline that’s too radical, creative or just plain different. I understand that. But the skill of the copywriter comes in developing something new and fresh while keeping within these constraints.

And so we are left with these safe, sterile, meaningless jumbles of words. But remember, as the old advertising saying goes, ‘Safe isn’t safe.’

Tune in next time for more on straplines and how to write a great one.

For more invaluable help and advice on writing, marketing and advertising, go to


  1. As a newcomer to copywriting I've taken to reading billboards wherever I go. Yesterday, on the train to London, I pondered Sky's 'Believe in Better'.

    Actually, it works for me. Although not as you'd expect - I don't use Sky and my only exposure over the year has been Sky New. I certainly 'believe in better', having a preference for the BBC.

    Travelling by train always reminds me of BR's famous 'We're getting there' strapline. It promises so much but fails to deliver on one essential - there's no indication that they, or the traveller, will ever arrive.

  2. You hit the nail on the head. There even examples of where a seemingly unclear strapline/tag-line can have a lasting effect on the buying public. The one that jumps to mind is Nike and their "Just do it" strapline. It leaves up to the reader what "it" is but it the reader can imagine action and inspiration with the "just do" portion of the tag-line. Since Nike is all about action shoes and apparel, the phrase fits and has the desired memorable impact,

  3. On the Asda strapline: i don't think Asda would ever want to communicate the fact that people do NOT go there every day..the fact that we only go if it's like...a choice between them and Lidl! I think they do well by saying Saving you money every day'. It makes people think that hang on a minute! Others do go there! Maybe it's not too bad!

  4. The British Gas strapline "looking after your world" boils my urine for a number of reasons. It's not bad per se, but it certainly feels patronising, paternalistic and totally out of kilter with the role that most of us actually want the major utility companies to fulfil: delivering energy at a competitive price (that strikes the right balance between the need for shareholder profit and the needs of consumers not to be ripped off!). Yet another classic case of a company falling over itself to develop a relationship with customers regardless of whether or not customers are interested!

  5. This guy owes you a credit: