Photo by Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash
November 11, 2020

What type of tagline works best?

A good tagline can inspire you to think, feel, maybe even react. In the episode of The Smart Communications Podcast, Sarah Durham and Big Duck Copywriter, Ryan Gerhardt, break down three structures for taglines that can strengthen your organization’s brand strategy.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sarah Durham and I am the CEO of Big Duck also of Advomatic. And I’m joined today with one of the newer members of Big Duck’s team, Ryan Gerhardt. Welcome, Ryan.

Ryan Gerhardt: Hi Sarah. Thanks.

Sarah Durham: Ryan is a copywriter on our team. He joined us in 2019 and he’s brought a lot of really great fresh perspective and fresh inspiration to a lot of the ways we think about writing at Big Duck, and he wrote a terrific piece, we’re going to talk about today. It’s a blog called “Three tagline structures to bolster your nonprofit’s brand“. But before we unpack that a bit, Ryan tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your background.

Ryan Gerhardt: Sure. As you mentioned, I’m a little new to the Big Duck team, but prior to joining, I spent the last seven or eight years working in various communications roles and that’s everything from book publishing to writing online articles for various media outlets. I worked in other copywriting work at different agencies and also some in-house marketing for various nonprofits. Been around doing a lot of different writing, a lot of different communications work, but happy to be with the team now.

Sarah Durham: Well, we’re happy to have you and your background’s been really helpful because you bring a lot of different perspectives to the table. And I think a lot of those insights are sort of, you know, brought to bear in this piece you wrote. And so I thought it’d be interesting today to just dig a little bit deeper into it. As I mentioned before, your piece is titled “Three taglines structures to bolster your nonprofit’s brand“. And in that piece, you helpfully articulated three types of taglines that nonprofits often use. So for folks who haven’t read your piece, give us a quick overview of those three types.

Ryan Gerhardt: The three main kinds of types or buckets that we identify at Big Duck are what’s called descriptive or explanatory, values-based, and call to action taglines. So the descriptive or explanatory taglines are kind of just like how they sound. They describe the organization’s work. Maybe they answer a little bit about the quote-unquote, what, and instead of having the name, trying to do everything, if maybe the name is abstract, or maybe the names made up, or, you know, maybe in some cases the name is super long and it has a bunch of different parts, and so then it becomes an acronym. The descriptive or explanatory tagline just does that little extra work to introduce the organization and make it a little bit clearer right away what it is that they do.

Ryan Gerhardt: The values-based tagline really helps to express why the organization is doing its work. So if you do have a name or you do have other identity elements that are pretty clear right away, the tagline in this case as a values-based tagline can start to add an extra element to your work. It gets the audience to think a little bit, get them to feel a little bit and share that really powerful driving force that your organization is using to do its work. And then call to action taglines. I mean, these are a little bit how they sound, but it’s really that tagline that is trying to directly invite or inspire an audience to get involved in an organization to work. And these are really effective ways to attract donors and participants depending on who the tagline reaches most, but they are also, you know, maybe a little bit less brand-specific, so to speak. So these are really more about how can we cause that action more quickly without having to explain is so much about what the organization does.

Sarah Durham: Great, Thanks for that overview. And we’ll dig into each of those three types in a minute, but before we get into that years and years ago, if you’ve been in the nonprofit sector for a while, you might remember that Nancy Schwartz, who is the driving force behind getting attention used to do this terrific tagline sort of survey and celebration where she would crowdsource taglines from non-profits all around the world and share the most celebrated taglines. And it was a really great way to sort of get a sense of the landscape and see how different nonprofits used taglines to communicate in the three ways Ryan’s talking about. The getting attention team hasn’t been doing that for a few years. So for this podcast, Ryan and I thought it would be fun to crowdsource some of your favorite taglines. So we posted some stuff on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter, and we asked people who follow us in those places to share some of their favorite nonprofit taglines. And then Ryan spent some time kind of unpacking those and thinking about how those taglines aligned with these three buckets that he articulates in this piece. So what we’re going to do today is dig in and look at some of those and these actually compliment, I think what’s in your article, Ryan, cause you did a nice job in your article. Actually sharing a couple of examples too, but let’s go one at a time. So starting with descriptive or explanatory taglines what’d you got what came up in our crowdsourcing.

Ryan Gerhardt: One of the first ones that was submitted through kind of the social channels and the crowdsourcing efforts was the tagline for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. So their tagline is “Advancing the way we build and live”. So that one just works really nicely as a descriptive explanatory tagline because a) maybe a lot of people do know who Frank Lloyd Wright is. They’re aware of him as a historical figure, the historic homes that he’s built and all that. But even if you’re not right away, you get to learn, okay, this is an organization that is focused on some aspect of building, but also they’re focused on impact and relevance today and into the future, more so than what has been done in the past by this specific individual, which I think is great for any organization that is named after a specific person who may or may not be with us anymore, but really right up front, they’re telling you, here’s what it is we’re doing. And here’s a high-level overview of the areas we’d like to play.

Sarah Durham: Got any others?

Ryan Gerhardt: Yeah. So there was also another one that came in for the descriptive explanatory for Earthjustice, and it’s “Because the earth needs a good lawyer”. And so that one’s a little bit more fun, but right on the front of it, you see, okay, this is a law organization they’re focused on, you know, environmental earth rights, all of that good stuff. And so this one is really clear upfront, but they also like to have a little bit of fun with it. So you can keep it a little bit lighter rather than just having it be kind of dry and descriptive all the time.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. That Earthjustice tagline is iconic. I’ve heard people cite that for years as one of the most compelling taglines. And I think your point about it being both descriptive, but also fun is really insightful. It’s probably the combination of those things that makes it so successful. Got any others in this category you want to share?

Ryan Gerhardt: Yeah. So just to kind of round out what I was saying in the description of this whole category, the descriptive explanatory taglines work great. Especially when the name is maybe a little bit more abstract or obtuse, or maybe not everybody will understand it. And so one that actually Big Duck did a little while ago was for Keshet, which if I’m not mistaken is actually the Hebrew word for “rainbow”, but if you’re not familiar with the language, you’re not familiar with the culture, you’re not going to know that. And so the tagline itself helps you get a little bit closer, which is “for LGBTQ equality and Jewish life”. So there you get to see how the tagline, when paired with the name, gives a little bit more of a way in for somebody who may be a little bit more of an outsider for the organization. I think that’s really where this category of tagline excels, especially when the name or the other identity elements might need a little bit of help getting into.

Sarah Durham: Cool. Tell us a little bit about some of the taglines that came up when we crowdsourced or when you dug around for more values-based I was interested earlier in your opening remarks, you talked about, you know, one of the things about a values-based tagline is that it not only helps you connect with the values of the organization, but it makes you feel something. So what else you got there?

Ryan Gerhardt: Yeah. So great values-based one that came in was “Rhythm, not algorithms”. And that was for WXPN, which is a public radio station, but right away, they’re really trying to convey to you the value of their staff, how the organization is about people and music and how it’s all from the heart and how they select everything with heart. And so really you kind of get to that extra level. It’s also great because it’s clearly very people-centric and it has that human touch, which isn’t necessarily a unique value, but they’ve expressed it in a really unique way that just, I think, sets it apart and makes it really easy to remember in someone’s mind.

Sarah Durham: I love it. What else you got similar

Ryan Gerhardt: To kind of that Earthjustice, one we got a lot of more fun tagline options and then another one someone sent in was for Canadian Blood Services and their tagline. I don’t know if it still is, but the example they shared “It’s in you to give”. So at first glance, you might say, okay, that’s a little bit descriptive, obviously it’s a little bit on the nose with, you know, you’re actually giving your blood, but really it is about the value of giving it’s about the value of being altruistic. It’s about the value of being community-minded. And so they’ve really found a way to kind of roll those two things into one, but you know, at the heart of it, it is really about the values that they share and the values that they hope their audience members share as well.

Sarah Durham: I love the double entendre of that. I think we’ve seen a lot of great taglines that do that, where like the more you think about it, the more you read different meanings into it. Absolutely. Any other values-based ones you want to share?

Ryan Gerhardt: The thing I just wanted to note in terms of values-based was there are some pretty straightforward formats that you can use to help you get to a really strong tagline without having to, you know, maybe it doesn’t always necessarily need to have that double meaning. It doesn’t need to have that extra level of clever, but we worked with The Shriver Center on Poverty Law. And so for them, it was really important to just get across what is a few of our values. And so the tagline that Big Duck came up with was “For economic and racial justice”. And so kind of that format of for “blank” really helps you set up and say, okay, here’s the organization. And we’re going to tell you right away, our values are striving for XYZ. So if you can come up with a way to finish that off with something that’s unique and memorable to your organization, that is a great place to start with a general format for values-based taglines.

Sarah Durham: Okay. So the third category you talked about is the call to action, the kind of tagline that invites and inspires somebody to get up and do something. What came up in our crowdsourcing for that?

Ryan Gerhardt: It’s actually interesting that we received the fewest call to action examples. And it’s funny because, for me, one of the most widely known taglines that immediately comes to mind is a call to action, which would be “Just do it” from Nike. I think it’s kind of interesting that it might be a little bit more common in the for-profit or the general commercial space, but it can work really well in the nonprofit space as well. And so a crowdsource version that I wanted to highlight that is in that same vein is from Doctors Without Borders. And so their tagline is “Put your ideals into practice”. Now this, similar to Nike’s “Just do it”. It does leave it a bit more open-ended, it’s talking about your ideals. It doesn’t really specify what that is, but the call to action nature of it really involves the audience for the way it puts it on you, the reader to really take that action and decide for yourself what it means to elevate certain values to put your ideals into practice. And the way that you feel is right for you. We didn’t receive a ton of call to action examples, but that was really a great one that I feel mimics other things that we’ve seen work successfully in the space.

Sarah Durham: You’ve talked in our conversation so far about these three buckets, and maybe there are ways to mix and match these things. We’ve talked about double entendres. We’ve talked about the use of humor. You know, I’m thinking about over the years, our team at Big Duck has developed dozens and dozens of taglines for different organizations. And sometimes they mix some of those things. I mean, one of my favorite taglines from years ago was for The Women’s Sports Foundation and the tagline was “Equal play”. And I loved that. That’s an example of a descriptive tagline, right? We’re explaining that equal play is what this organization is all about, but it’s also a double entendre. It’s a play on the idea of equal pay. And the double entendre also makes it a little bit witty or gives you something to think of that’s a little bit playful. So a lot of these elements can kind of come together in different ways as you’re working before we wrap up, do you have any parting tips or suggestions for people who work in organizations that are brainstorming taglines or trying to figure out how to tackle developing one?

Ryan Gerhardt: The first thing that I just want to say is going off of your point, that you can combine, you can mix and match some of these things because really a great tagline is just meant to get you to either think or feel or offer some type of inspiration and add that little something extra or a little something special to your organization’s identity. So you don’t necessarily need to limit yourself and say, okay, it has to be descriptive. They can’t have any values-based elements to it, call to action. It can do more than one thing it’s just helpful too when you’re starting, pick kind of that bucket that you think best compliments what you already have in your name, what you already have in your logo and say, okay, where is that little piece that we need to add? And then, then work from there. And once you get into the wordsmithing, you can, you know, make it a little bit more fun.

Ryan Gerhardt: You can see if you’re going to add in some double meanings and really take it to the next level. It’s important though, to really think about that in terms of keeping it simple, you can combine things, but you really only want to convey one really strong idea and keep that tagline short. Typically at Big Duck, we say eight words or fewer because beyond that, you know, you’re moving away from tagline and you’re moving into something that more closely resembles a value statement or an organizational messaging piece. And so it really is important to keep it short so that it can always stick with the rest of your identity and it doesn’t end up being left off. And really, I think that that is kind of the core, last thing that I want to share is just, it’s important to think about your tagline as living within this larger holistic communications platform. You know, your name is related to your tagline, which is related to your vision. It’s related to your mission and your logo. All of these things work together to build on each other, to reinforce certain elements of your brand, to reinforce certain elements of the services you offer, your programs, these things should all be working in tandem so that nothing ever seems like it’s left out on its own. It’s not just a quick witty line that you can throw out there. It should have some meaning and connection to the overall brand

Sarah Durham: I love that you end on that, the tagline and its role in the kind of the universe of elements that are your organization’s brand assets. I often have conversations with non-profits who are trying to develop a tagline and just failing. And oftentimes in my experience, the reason they’re failing is that they’re tackling that tagline kind of in isolation and without a clear brand strategy, or maybe a clear strategic plan. And so it’s really, really hard to get your tagline, right? Unless you started by being really clear where your organization is heading that vision and mission and that brand strategy, you actually just, co-authored an e-book on brand strategy at Big Duck. And I would say that before an organization tries to tackle a tagline, making sure you’ve got your brand strategy right would be a really, really important first step. It’ll just help set you up for success. So don’t go in cold to generating taglines out of the blue, do them built on this solid foundation.

Ryan Gerhardt: Yeah, absolutely.

Sarah Durham: All right. Well, Ryan, it’s been a pleasure to have you join the podcast for the very first time. You can find Ryan’s thinking and insights on the Big Duck insights page. That’s and then click on insights. We will link to that ebook I just mentioned. And also we’ve got a bunch of other articles and resources related to taglines. So we’ll link to a few different things in the show notes here. If you’re really trying to tackle taglines, we’ve got a bunch of other things we can give you too. You can also check out some of our earlier podcasts with Dan Gunderman. Who’s Big Duck’s former Creative Director. We’ve done a few other podcasts about taglines in the backlog too. Have a great day, Ryan. Thanks for joining me.

Ryan Gerhardt:
Thanks Sarah