Insights
3 min Read
June 6, 2013

A great tagline’s secret sauce

Creating a great tagline for your organization is no small feat. Whether you do it yourself or work with professionals, finding those few perfect words that explain, reinforce, or balance an organization’s name… Well, it’s just hard.

We were recently reviewing some of the taglines we’ve written for nonprofits over the years. There are some we’re particularly proud of, like “Equal play” for the Women’s Sports Foundation, “Get behind the cure” for Fight Colorectal Cancer, or “Community by the cabinful” for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Great taglines seem to have a little something special. They get you to think. They evoke real emotion. They inspire action.

So we asked ourselves: What do all of the great taglines have in common? The answer surprised even us.

All of the taglines we do distill an organization’s positioning down, incorporating some of the personality for artistry, to as few words as possible. Likewise, most of them accomplish one of three things (and we’ll use some examples from organizations we haven’t worked with to demonstrate what we mean):

  1. Explain what the organization does. NRDC uses “The Earth’s Best Defense.” It says in four easy words that they defend the earth. Answering the “what” of your organization is a great option if your name doesn’t say much about you.
  2. Express why the organization does its work. UNCF adopted “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” in 1972. It’s a classic. And it still works. Note that it says nothing at all about what they do. It doesn’t matter. It gets you to think and feel. “Why?” can be a powerful question to answer.
  3. Inspire an audience to take action. New York Foundling uses “Abandon no one” as a great call-to-action. Simple. Effective. Affecting. Nike’s “Just do it” is the quintessential for-profit example.

So if you create a tagline that distills down your positioning, feels like your personality, and does at least one of these three things, you’ll be well on your way to a successful tagline.

But that doesn’t quite answer why some of them are great and others just work. So, then, what is it? What’s the secret sauce? The answer is in two parts.

The first part is that these great taglines have represented some form of risk for the client. Maybe they’ve been a serious departure from how the organization communicated before. Maybe it’s aspirational enough that the organization isn’t sure they can live up to it. Maybe the tone is just bolder than makes them comfortable.

The second part of the answer is that a great tagline also takes a champion.

Without a champion, these taglines would never have seen the light of day. (Some beloved taglines don’t make it out of committee, which is the nature of the process.) Each of our favorites had someone at our client’s organization that took what we’d developed together and shepherded it through all of the various hurdles it may have faced along the path toward approval.

And how these great taglines have been shepherded through the process varies a great deal as well, depending on the organization and its culture:

  • If the champion is a key decision maker (such as a President or Executive Director) and they love the tagline enough, they might just make a unilateral decision, completely undemocratically.
  • If the champion doesn’t have the ultimate decision-making power, they might have private conversations with key individuals, winning over the right people at the right times.
  • If the champion has a forceful enough personality—whether they’re the ultimate decision maker or someone who needs to get buy-in—they’ll just keep arguing in favor of the tagline they love until everyone is convinced or until everyone gets tired of arguing with them.

Sometimes, champions have asked for our help getting taglines through the process, and sometimes they haven’t. But either way, we love our champions. And here are a few more of the taglines we love best, in case you’re looking for inspiration. There is a great champion behind each of these taglines (and, of course, there are some great champions not represented here as well):

  • Auburn: Trouble the waters. Heal the world.
  • Brooklyn Community Foundation: Do good right here.
  • New York City Charter School Center: It’s about great public schools.
  • New York Peace Institute: Let us get in the middle.

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