July 11, 2018

What makes a great nonprofit tagline?

Dan Gunderman, Big Duck’s Creative Director, tells all about taglines. Dan defines what taglines are, the function they serve in a nonprofit’s brand, and shares tips for crafting a tagline that is simple, meaningful, and truly unique to your organization. 


Sarah: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Sarah, the CEO of Big Duck, and I’m here today with Dan, our creative director. Hi Dan.
Dan: Hello.
Sarah: We’re also joined by Dan’s dog, Fred Astaire, so if you hear little jingling noises or dog noises, that’s what’s going on. And we’re going to talk today about taglines, and this is a bigger topic than you would think, but let’s start by defining what a tagline is for organizations who haven’t thought about it.
Dan: Sure. I like to think of them as an expression of your positioning and personality in eight words or fewer. So for the creation of a tagline, I might start with a positioning statement, figure out a way to distill that down, and then add the little bit of the artistry of the personality.
Sarah: And for those of you who aren’t as familiar with the terms, positioning and personality, there’s a lot about that on our blog and on our website and probably another podcast. But positioning is the single idea. You want people to think of when they think of your organization. So it’s kind of that reductive central idea. Personality is the tone and style. So positioning and personality together in eight words or less.
Dan: That’s right.
Sarah: Names and taglines kind of go together, right? We often see the tagline following a name or around name. How does that relationship work?
Dan: Often we think about taglines here as really an opportunity to fill in a blank that the name can’t accomplish. Sometimes that means an organization has a really descriptive name. It tells exactly what they do and then the tagline is an opportunity to add some personality to that to give a feeling that maybe the name can’t quite accomplish on its own. And then the converse is true as well. If you have a name that maybe doesn’t say what you do, let’s say Big Duck for example, you might use a tagline to do a little bit of explaining. So our tagline is smart communications for nonprofits.
Sarah: One of the examples that follows that same format that I often use is the Robin Hood Foundation, which tells you it’s a foundation, but it’s a somewhat abstract or evocative name with their tagline, fighting poverty in New York City. So you get the poverty piece in the New York City, the geography piece in with a tagline, and it kind of ties together really nicely in terms of the Robin Hood theme or narrative.
Dan: Yeah, and you want those things to work together and sometimes if you’re feeling really ambitious, you can also lump the logo in with that and think about the whole thing as a system. The name, tagline and logo working together so that you’ve got the name doing one part of the job, the logo, maybe expressing something about the personality that can’t be expressed and maybe the tagline helps to elevate some idea that’s in the logo so that you’ve got the whole thing working as a unit.
Sarah: Yeah. I often think that taglines are kind of an underutilized opportunity for nonprofits that in a rebranding process or rethinking about communications, there’s often a lot of thought or focus on the visual stuff, logo and other visual elements, and then the next thing people tend to focus on is messaging. People generally are less likely to kind of go into a rebrand thinking a tagline would help, but a tagline can do a ton of heavy lifting and it’s sometimes easier to create or get at than those other things. Or is that not fair to say?
Dan: It depends a lot, but I do think there’s some truth to what you say about people not necessarily expecting the tagline to be able to fill in the blanks that it can fill in. I think we often have a starting point with clients where we’ve got a perfectly fine name and logo. They’re working fine together, but maybe there’s just like a piece of information that’s missing or it doesn’t explain it all what they do or there’s a piece of the feeling that they can’t quite capture that the tagline can help them with.
Sarah: Yeah, and those elements, certainly the name, logo and tagline, but even beyond that messaging or visual elements like visualizations or graphic elements, I often think of those things as an ecosystem that augment each other. That each of those pieces does a part of the heavy lifting. None of those pieces on its own has to communicate everything. You know? That’s a challenge.
Dan: Yeah, that’s right. We like to think of everything sort of holistically that way when we’re working with clients, and especially if we know that we’re also going to be doing some messaging. Because often one of the things that we find in a tagline exercise especially is that people want to put everything in there that they want to explain everything that they do. They want to make you feel a certain way as well, and really taglines can really only do one thing. Similarly, a name can really only do one thing. Your logo can really only do one thing, so maybe together those things can do three things, but really you want to keep things as narrow and as limited as possible, especially with your tagline.
Sarah: This actually would be a risk if you were going through a rebranding process where you were doing things very incrementally, right? If you were first doing one thing, then doing the next thing, then doing the next thing, you run the risk that each of those things on its own works, but as a system or as a universe, they don’t necessarily hang together.
Dan: Yeah, we strongly encourage, especially if you’re doing any kind of name, tagline, logo work, that you do all of that together. Then of course it’s also hard to separate the logo from the visual system, but that’s probably a conversation for another day.
Sarah: Okay. All right, so let’s go a little bit deeper into the types of taglines. I’ve heard you talk about there’s kind of three different buckets that you think of when you think of taglines. What are those?
Dan: Yeah, and there may be other ways to think about it, but I think we’ve always found it to be really useful to think about it in three buckets in terms of how to create a tagline. I usually start to think about things with a descriptive tagline. I think that’s the easiest place to start. Sometimes you just want to explain more about what you do that’s especially useful for you if your organization has a name that maybe doesn’t say anything about what you do at all. We talked about Big Duck earlier as an example of that. I think also there’s an organization we worked with a couple of years ago called Prisma that you have no way of knowing exactly what they do based on its name. So they went with a very straightforward tagline, the center for Jewish day schools, just to really hit home like what they’re really all about and they use their tagline pretty religiously.
Sarah: So that’s a descriptive tagline.
Dan: Yeah, so that’s a descriptive tagline. Other directions you can do, especially in the nonprofit world, we find that values based taglines are really effective. We’ve done a ton of these in our work. If you think about UNCS as an example, their tagline that they’ve used since the year I was born 1972, it’s a mind is a terrible thing to waste. But stands the test of time it just continues to be effective and it’s really just about why they do what they do. Earth justice has another good example of that because the earth deserves a good lawyer obviously that’s a belief statement and so there’s a values behind that.
Sarah: You wrote one of my favorite values based taglines years ago for the Women’s Sports Foundation, which was equal play, and I love that tagline because it’s both the kind of you know, women should have equal pay, equal play kind of values piece, but it’s also fun. It speaks to their work.
Dan: It is. And it also to segue into the third type of tagline, it can also be a call to action if you think of equal as a verb. They are working to equal play. And so the third type of tagline that we sometimes think about is also a call to action. Nike’s just do it as an example of that. Everybody knows that we wrote another one for an organization called Auburn, trouble the waters heal the world. And it’s really an opportunity for you to invite your audience to get involved in your work and that can be a really effective way just to really attract donors or participants depending on who you want to reach most with your tagline.
Sarah: Okay, so three types of taglines to consider exploring if you are working on your own tagline, descriptive, values based and call to action.
Dan: That’s right.
Sarah: And for inspiration, I think it’s always really great to look around and see what other nonprofits and for profits are doing with their taglines. What are some of your favorites? What are the ones that inspire you the most?
Dan: I sometimes use the BMW example in meetings, partially because they use it more as a classic tag. If you think about where taglines actually come from, it’s at the end, it’s sort of more of a slogan and there is a little bit of a difference between taglines that are used for advertising and taglines that are part of your brand. But in the case of BMW, I think they’ve been using their tagline for a long time and if you’ve watched a commercial and seen a BMW ad in the last five years at least you’ll note that the advertisement has a car usually driving through beautiful scenery sounds of revving. It looks gorgeous. The car looks gorgeous, the scenery looks gorgeous. If they show the driver they’re exceptionally happy and then at the end of 30 seconds the last thing it says is BMW, the ultimate driving machine. It really just brings it all home. So you can think about your tagline and a couple of ways then as you’re developing your own. You can think about it as something that sort of sums everything up at the end. Let’s say you have like a full experience at your gala and then maybe you might bring it all home at the end by delivering your tagline or showing it on a screen or something as a way to sort of bring home the whole experience. The other way you can do it is think about it more like a positioning statement that you’re putting out front first. It’s part of your brand, it’s your first ambassador, so along with your name, tagline, logo, all together, they are the first impression that you’re making on people. So you can think about it that way as well. And so what is that first idea that you want to put out there? We strongly recommend that you avoid trying to put everything into your tagline. It’s very tempting to try to shove everything in there. It’s like well this is our entire mission and we’re going to try to get that down into eight words. You’re gonna end up with a very either jargony tagline that is potentially meaningless or very vague, but instead find one really specific idea to communicate in a pithy way. And I think that will serve you a lot better in the long run.
Sarah: I’m curious how you feel about these. I’m generally not a fan also of taglines that are single words separated by bullets. So for instance, I can think of a few disease and disorder organizations who will do hope, cure, future or research or something like that. And to me that is less interesting because it’s so generic. It doesn’t feel like it really distinguishes that organization from any other organization. But how do you feel about those?
Dan: Yeah, I tend to agree. I think there is a way, I almost don’t want to say this, but I think there is a way to do that well. If you can find three words that are truly unique to you, kudos to you. Congratulations. And then maybe it’ll work, but I think generally you’re totally right. I think that if your tagline is really three words that many other organizations can use, you know, whether it’s research, collaboration, hope or something like that, you can probably just do better and you’re not getting as much bang for your buck.
Sarah: Yeah you can push farther. One of the exercises I do when I give workshops on brand raising is ask people who’ve got taglines for their organization or they’re in the process of developing a tagline, to write the tagline at the top of a piece of paper and then write the name of all their peers and competitors below it. And if that tagline works just as well for all of your peers and competitors or many of them, it’s probably not uniquely differentiating enough
Dan: In addition to that exercise or maybe to get to the heart of that exercise that you were just talking about, this is where your positioning statement actually can become incredibly important. When you’re developing your positioning statement, and again, that’s probably a conversation for another podcast, but when you’re developing your positioning statement, you are looking for that thing that differentiates you from your peer organizations. And so if that’s your starting point, you’ll have that idea in your positioning statement somewhere and you’ll want to figure out a way to express that positioning statement in a way that is unique to you.
Sarah: So before we wrap up, there’s one other thing that comes up a little bit in our work and you see this a lot in the for profit sector, I want to get clear on this, which is kind of about the shelf life of a tagline or maybe a different way to say it is how the tagline differentiates from something that’s more of a campaign line. So you and I have talked in the past about Apple’s line, think different. And you could argue that’s a tagline, although I think I would argue that it’s a campaign because it had a finite shelf life and it was tied to visuals. It was a part of an ad campaign that they ran for a few years. So to me a tagline has a longer shelf life than that. It’s more evergreen and it probably lasts for the duration of whatever the brand’s life is and it doesn’t necessarily change when you do specific campaigns. But do you agree with that?
Dan: I do agree with that. I mean I think think different maybe evolved into something that was a little bit bigger than the campaign. It didn’t run that much longer than the campaign, but they used it a lot and not just in the ads that they ran. Those ads were great and I love that. I love that as a slogan or a tagline. But I think you’re right. We want our taglines the last forever. Now that’s not realistic in terms of just the way that the world works. And the way that the world changes, but when we’re developing a tagline, and this is true when we’re developing names and logos as well and especially names, we want those to last forever. So we like to think of them as very long shelf life. Hopefully at least five years, hopefully more than 10. If you’re really fortunate and you develop something that is just perfect for you for all time, you end up with something like UNCS, a mind is a terrible thing to waste, which they’ve been using now for 45 years. So that is a successful tagline because it’s something that they developed a long time ago and I think it actually did start as a campaign, but it’s something that really worked for their brand as well.
Sarah: Great. Alright, well thanks for joining me Dan, and for those of you who are starting to listen to this podcast regularly, if you like it, please take a moment to give it a rating in iTunes and share it with anybody you would like. That was Fred coughing.
Dan: That’s my dog coughing I apologize.
Sarah: Alright, bye Dan.
Dan: Thank you.

Dan Gunderman

Dan Gunderman is the Former Creative Director at Big Duck

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