Is it a Tagline or a Through Line?

It’s a little nerdy, I know, but for the longest time I wanted to have a personal mantra. My heroes all seemed to have them – little aphorisms that helped keep them grounded. My dad seemed to speak almost exclusively in mantra form. Trouble with my math homework? “Remember, numbers are a plaything.” Struggling with the conflict between want and need? “We are doers not havers.” Conflicted about my value proposition? “Above all things, Craig, be useful.”

I love a good mantra and over the years, I’ve experimented with a few, eventually settling on one that has helped me. It reminds me to be productive, informs the things I invest time, energy and emotional capital in and serves as a nice little reminder when I sit down to write my morning journal entry.

Focus. Forward. Free.

Pretty cool, right? You’ve got to love alliteration. I write it down to remind myself to FOCUS on the tasks at hand, not the ones creeping up in the future or the ones left behind; to not get stuck in the troubles of the past or too bogged down in the swirl of activity today but to think through consequences and results, to think FORWARD about desired outcomes; and to FREE myself from things I cannot control. Focus. Forward. Free. The triple-F that helps define and direct my ideal mindset.

If I were a brand, if my name – HEIMBUCH – were a logo, “Focus. Forward. Free.” would be my tagline; it would be the fade screen on the thirty second spot of my day. “Focus. Forward. Free.” is my ‘Just Do It,’ both mantra and personal branding.

I probably think too much about these kinds of things. But I work in an industry where language matters, where a tagline is often hung with the importance of a cure for cancer or nuclear launch codes. And because I think too much about this stuff, I find myself going down rabbit holes of consideration. I question whether or not a company or brand has a tagline or a through line.

Here’s what I mean.

Last week, I was in London to give a presentation to our office there and some of their top level clients. I was joined by a friend who works in the Obama organization and our presentation was on the connection between a brand’s mission and the relationships it builds with customers, users or audiences. The Obama camp is all about mission. While brands and politicians the world over think too much about demographics, the Obama group thinks ideas and priorities are a better way of connecting with people. Take a stand, ask people to participate, let them raise their hand for what they care about and design communications and experiences that allow people to get involved as deeply as they want.

It’s a powerful model- so simple, so human. And effective too. It’s hard to argue with how the President has been able to mobilize supporters en masse. And it gets me thinking about how often marketers – myself included – fall victim to the pursuit of messaging over the establishment of meaning; how prone we can be to a really good tagline instead of a clearly defined through line.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s take ‘Just Do It’ for example. The tagline was rolled out in the 80s and continues to be one of the most identifiable tag lines of all time. Why? Well, it’s catchy to be sure, but it is more than that. There have always been catchy messages. What makes Just Do It stand out is how completely it reflects and defines Nike as a brand. Bold. Forward-thinking. Never settling for good enough. Nike is the kind of brand that burns its laurels rather than resting on them. It’s the kind of brand that continues to push the limits of what’s possible. It doesn’t wait for the future. It creates it.

‘Just do it,’ therefor is imbued in all things the company does. It is not a tagline, it is a mantra, a call to action, a through line that connects diverse undertakings in a common spirit. It is a language, a shorthand to describe a mindset of performance, of movement, of action.

I won’t call anyone to the mat here, but it feels like the world can use more of these. People can use more of these. Brands can definitely do with more thinking like this. But it can’t be platitude and it can’t be borrowed. My personal mantra could neither be meaningless – ‘be nice’ – nor stolen from something my dad had said. It needed to be reflective of my priorities, my struggles, my aspirations, my ideal. The same goes for brands. Tag lines will remain just that if they are designed around aesthetic, if they are written by ear instead of crafted from vision. A mantra and a through line are reflections of imperfection and aspiration. When they are good, they don’t describe the present or the campaign, they establish it.

Like I said, a little nerdy and certainly overthought. But it’s so easy to fall into the trap of solving for now instead of setting the tone. At the end of the day, I guess I’m a Frank Lloyd Wright kind of thinker. I believe that form should follow function. And the function of a tagline – or mantra – is to be the scaffolding for decisions yet seen, not just some pretty words to catch people’s eye. Unless you are serious about your mantra, unless a brand is serious about its mission, it’s all just window dressing, smoke and mirrors, the language equivalent of a card trick. And I, for one, don’t like being fooled.

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