How not to create a tagline

on Jun 13 in branding, business, hints and tips, marketing, statistics posted by

Apple's Think Different tagline with rainbow apple logo

Leading brands such as Apple invest huge amounts of resources in developing taglines.

Marketers place a great deal of importance on taglines. But why? Marketers know that the tagline can define the brand and even become synonymous. Think of Nike’s “Just Do It” or Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Finger Lickin’ Good” or Ford’s “Quality is Job One”. The tagline can be a vital feature of a brand’s identity.

So choosing a good tagline is not a trivial task. But how do you choose one? To answer that question, let me share a story with you. Recently, I developed several choices of taglines for a client (who shall remain anonymous). I put choices in front of the client and the team was close to reaching consensus. At this point, the organization’s leader ruled that we should accept a completely different version.

It’s always disappointing to have worked on something, only to have it discarded without additional consultation. But in my opinion, the chosen tagline was simply not appropriate for the organization. My primary concern with the tag line was that it was too long. It was 11 words and 15 syllables long. Typically, a tagline needs to be short for two reasons. First, it must be easily memorized. Second it must be short enough to be included on tchotchkes, sales materials and other promotional items, usually alongside the logo. The chosen tagline just seemed too long.

But could I back up my gut instincts with real data? To find out, I analyzed a list of taglines of 325 leading brands on Eric Swartz’s Tagline Guru website. (This collection of top taglines is listed here, used with permission.) Swartz’s list of taglines was not randomly chosen, but were from a list of those nominated in a survey of most influential taglines.

Data Analysis
I conducted two analyses to detect patterns among these leading taglines:

  1. Characterize statistics for the number of words and syllables to determine the typical length of a successful tagline
  2. Compared word and syllable counts for the top 100 and top 10 taglines (as determined by the online survey reported in the Tagline Guru website).

Figure 1 shows a scatter plot for the total number of words and syllables in the analyzed taglines. Of course, we expect a correlation since a tagline with more words will have more syllables.

scatter plot for the total number of words and syllables in taglines

Figure 1. Total words versus syllables for 325 leading brand taglines.

The purpose of this plot is to show that the number of words and syllables cluster within well defined limits, as shown in Table 1.

  5th percentile 95th percentile
Number of words ≤ 2 ≥ 9
Number of syllables ≤ 3 ≥ 12

Table 1. Percentile distribution for the number of words and syllables in leading brand taglines.

That is, nine-tenths of the taglines have between three and eight words, and between four and twelve syllables. Figure 2 shows the distribution of number of words in taglines visually. In this frequency distribution (which appears to be log-normal), we can see that the number of words clusters toward the lower end of the scale.

Frequency distribution bar graph of frequency of taglines with different numbers of words

Figure 2. The number of words in leading brand taglines shows that four words is a typical number, while few taglines have more than eight words.

Another important result is that the number of syllables in the top ten taglines was significantly less (t = 2.71, p = 0.007, assuming equal variances: F = 1.12, p = 0.35) than the number of syllables in the other 315 taglines (Table 2). (Note that the t-test assumes that variables are distributed normally, which is clearly not the case as shown in Figure 1. Therefore, data were log-transformed to comply with this assumption.)

  N Mean St Dev
Top 10 taglines 10 4.8 2.25
Other taglines 315 6.987 2.97

Table 2. The mean number of syllables in the top 10 brand taglines is significantly fewer than other leading brand taglines.

However, neither the number of words in the top 10 taglines nor the number of syllables per word differed significantly from the other taglines. Also, these differences were not found when the top 100 taglines were compared with the others.

Looking at the sample of taglines together, we see that most taglines have a total of more than three syllables. Six syllables is the most common number for a tagline (Figure 3).

Bar graph of total words versus syllables

Figure 3. The distribution of total syllables in a tagline indicates that most taglines use several syllables.


The take home from these findings is that creating a tagline outside these limits (less than 2 or more than 9 words, or less than 3 or more than 12 syllables) may be risky. Very few taglines created by major brands exceed these ranges.

That is not to say that taglines should never be outside these ranges. For example, the top ranked tagline of all time is “Got milk” with two words and two syllables. Mastercard’s tagline “There are some things that money can’t buy. For everything else there’s MasterCard.” with 18 syllables and 13 words, is ranked 17th of the top taglines. But both these are outliers from the other taglines.

This analysis shows that there are word and syllable limits within which most leading brand taglines fall. As a rule of thumb, marketers ought to stay within these ranges. But the rule is not set in stone. If you are very clever (and perhaps a bit lucky) you can create successful taglines outside the norm.

The key point is that understanding the brand (meaning the perceptual construct of the audience) is the most important aspect of creating a successful tagline. Yes, the data provide guidelines for number of words, syllables, and syllables per word, but these must be considered along with extensive research of the brand, deep understanding of the mission and vision of the organization, team work and collaboration, and creative, original approaches that set the brand apart.

So will this advice get the client to change his mind? Time will tell!

Want more?
For more advice on how to choose (and not choose) a tagline, visit Eric Swartz’s site:

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Interesting perspective – and makes perfect sense. I would add one caveat – the tagline selected should also be so memorable that it could stand alone and 90% of a brand's audience would be able to conjure up the brand name. That plus, make sure it looks good on a t-shirt!

    Comment by Ron Callari — June 13, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

  2. I note that "Just do it" is three words and three syllables. If you look at song lyrics, of the top pop songs, carefully crafted for people to easily remember them, you'll find almost only single syllable words, too. And song titles? Amazingly short.

    Comment by David — June 13, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

  3. Yes, Ron! Good thoughts. If it can't go on a teeshirt, it will probably be too long to be useful.

    David, that is a good point. There is much to be learned from studying pop song lyrics as well!

    Comment by Roger — June 13, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

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