Podcast 24 Transcript: Powerlines

Create taglines that sell

Written by Ian Portsmouth

Ian: Welcome to the Business Coach Podcast, an advice-oriented series that tackles the hot issues and opportunities facing Canada’s small businesses. I’m your host, Ian Portsmouth, the Editor of PROFIT Magazine and we’ve developed this podcast in cooperation with BMO Bank of Montreal.

If you are like most small business owners, you need to make your marketing effort to work hard for your money. And one of the keys to successful marketing is to start with a well-conceived message that captures the essence of your company or product, is memorable and appeals to your target market. In other words you need a good slogan or tagline.

Of course, if you’ve ever tried to write a tagline for your company, you know that the process is a lot harder than it sounds. And that’s why we’ve invited Steve Cone to join us on this episode of the Business Coach. Based in New York, Steve is a thirty-five-year veteran and the author of a new book Powerlines, Words that sell brands, grip fans and sometimes change history. Steve welcome to the Business Coach.

Steve: Thank you Ian. Glad to be here.

Ian: Now that’s one heck of a tagline for the book Powerlines, Words that sell brands, grip fans and sometimes change history. So why did you write this book? What problem were you trying to address among the business community?

Steve: Ian, I had noticed over the past, really, couple of decades, the diminishing lack of slogans and taglines that really pull a punch and get remembered. In my view, it is truly a lost art both in the political world and the commercial world. And really, a huge opportunity loss for businesses of any size.

Ian: And what is a powerline? Is a powerline simply just a terrific slogan?

Steve: Yes, it’s my term for a strong slogan or tagline that can make the difference between a business getting noticed or completely unnoticed. I think today people just kind of slap words together and hope for the best. And they really don’t understand the principles that should go into taking a tagline and making it your unique selling proposition, making it a unique claim or promise that sets you apart from everybody else you’re competing with.

Ian: So before we get into some of those principles, why don’t you tell us some examples of your favorite powerlines?

Steve: I think one that everyone at least in United States can relate to and I would assume as well in Canada is the City of Las Vegas. Back about four or five years ago, Las Vegas was noticing a precipitous decline in visitors, as they were positioning themselves during that time as kind of the Disneyland of Nevada. And so, about three years ago they hired a local ad agency to come up with a whole new positioning to speak about the real genuine essence if you will of what Las Vegas is all about. And I probably don’t have to tell anyone who’s listening what that line is because everybody knows which happens to be “Las Vegas, what happens here, stays here”. And the minute they introduced that about three years ago with a very well-coordinated promotional campaign they have seen a dramatic rise in visitors ever since. So that shows you the power that a few words can have when they are your genuine claim, promise or point of distinction.

Ian: And that is certainly a great powerline because it’s been adopted by just about every other business industry that you can name. I know that my daughter has a T-shirt that says “What happens at grand-ma’s house stays at grand-ma’s house”. So it’s truly a cultural phenomenon. Now what makes that particular tagline such as great tagline.

Steve: I think the reason it works is because people believe it. They go, yeah, that’s what makes that place different. So you hear it and you say, that’s exactly what that place or that product or that service is and in fact you know that they are going to fulfill on the promise.

Ian: Now in contrast, what would you consider a bad powerline that we might recognize?

Steve: Well I think a bad powerline which unfortunately and most are today, is a line that has no distinctiveness to it and could be claimed by any company and therefore defines no company. Examples are all over the place today. For instance, the use of the word life in a line. In the States, I kind of lost count, but there are probably fifty companies that have life in their tagline including a few States. So for instance, nobody knows what Coke’s tagline is today. Well, that’s because it’s not distinctive, it used to be, they had a great line years ago, “Coke, it’s the real thing”. Today, they’re using “the Coke side of life”. What does that mean? The Four Seasons Hotel which is headquartered in Toronto I believe, they’re tagline is “When life feels perfect”. And I can go on and on and on. American Express “My life my card” and their major competitor “Life takes Visa”. Well last time I checked merchants take Visa.

So, if you’re going to use a word that basically describes everything, what really happens it describes nothing. Other popular phrases that mean virtually nothing or worst like, companies use “The power to perform” or there is a car company that, one car company today says “Moving forward”. Okay. Another car company “Reach higher”. I mean these are generalities that mean nothing. They don’t define the company, they don’t set it apart from anybody else and they don’t get remembered. Period.

Ian: Now creating a great powerline is a process that I would presume can probably take months and many people would be involved. Can you give us a very general and brief outline of the steps that would be involved in creating a great slogan?

Steve: Yes I can. Let me also, before I do that, just say very quickly that getting back to Las Vegas as an example. If you have a really good line, don’t hide it. What Las Vegas has done properly which most people don’t today, is they made it the headline of all of their touch points with the consumers. It is the first thing you see and it is the last thing you see but very large if it’s a TV ad. So all the great campaigns of yesteryears use their tagline as their headline, that’s not what happens today. Today it’s always a small type at the bottom of the print ad or not on the website at all or somewhere where it’s kind of like lost or can’t be found. If you’re going to use a tagline, and if you are going to create one with some power and “oomph” and make it what I call a powerline, then by all means, show it to people and make the headline, make it the starting point for everything you do in your marketing program.

I would say there are four basic guidelines for creating a great tagline. Number one, if you are different, say you are different, that’s exactly what Las Vegas did. That’s exactly what BMW has done thirty-five years ago with the Ultimate driving machine. We believed, BMW believed they were exactly that when they started promoting themselves back three and a half decades ago. If you are different say so, or if you have something that you think is succinctly different versus anybody else out there, say so. Federal Express did that with “When it absolutely positively has to get there overnight” and of course they did.

Number two, have some attitude and personality which of course means in an other context, don’t use generalities, say something that has some pizzaz to it and something that will get people to pay attention and go “Wow that’s right, or Gee, that’s clever”. We have a food service delivery company here in New York City called Fresh Direct and their tagline to my point is “Our food is fresh, our customers are spoiled”, kind of witty right? And gets remembered.

Number three, be everywhere or you’re nowhere. So as I said a few minutes ago, a tagline should be your headline, period and it should be everywhere on your website, on all of your promotional materials and all of your advertising. Everywhere where your company is facing a customer or an employee, it should be. And it should be easy to read and easy to say.

Number four and I know your listeners are interested in my fourth point once I say it, is creating a great tagline is an art not a science. I would say about 99% of the taglines created throughout the last fifty years which have really resonated with people were created by individual copywriters with a spark of inspiration, they weren’t created by focus groups, they weren’t created by long committee meetings or brainstorming sessions with forty people on them, they were created by and are created by individual creative writers. If you happen to be one of those people, have had it or find someone who is.

Ian: So Steve, tell me, if great taglines are often created by individuals without much external help, how should companies judge the quality of the taglines that somebody would come up with?

Steve: If you actually want to get some reaction ahead of time before taking it to the public, I would say the best folks you should talk to are your fellow employees or folks that work for you and see what they think.

Ian: That’s great advice Steve. Thanks for sharing your insights with the Business Coach.

Steve: Sure

Ian: Steve Cone, a New York based author of Powerlines, Words that sell brands, grip fans and sometimes change history. He’s also the Chief Marketing Officer at Epsolon, a leading provider of marketing technologies and services.

Well that’s it for another episode of the Business Coach Podcast. You can download other installments in the series from, or iTunes. I’d love to hear your feedback and suggestions for future topics which you can send them to

Until next time, I am Ian Portsmouth, Editor of PROFIT Magazine, wishing you continued success.

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