Theme lines: the tie that binds


Nick de Sherbinin

I was riding my bike through downtown Boston recently and saw a Dana Farber Cancer Institute tag line newly applied to the side of a Dana Farber van. It said “Discover. Care. Believe.” I don’t love it, I don’t hate it, but I know where it comes from and how it was developed, presented and sold in. Call me a forensic scientist of tag lines (or themelines, as they’re commonly called).

Dissecting Dana Farber’s new line, the first word describes the world-class research going on every day at “The Farber” and invites you to learn about it. Careis pretty obvious – it’s what every health care institution delivers, which carries an implication of emotional support, too. Believe is where the magic happens – Dana Farber researchers and caregivers — and of course, patients — believe in positive outcomes. I give it an A for effort, but a gentleman’s C for creative inspiration.

We at 360 are often involved in themeline development. Many of our branding and rebranding efforts focus on capturing a brand’s essence in shorthand, and that’s what themelines do. If we are successful, we have created a rallying cry for employees within and an inspirational message for various external stakeholders. Good themelines integrate well with all communications efforts. Great ones become nearly synonymous with a brand, its value and its values.

Chasing the “dream theme”

It’s hard to come up with a good tag line – really, really hard. Every day, thousands of creative teams, linguists and consultants boil down strategy statements, positioning presentations, value propositions and creative briefs, then put their minds to work in an effort to create the pithy, provocative, bang-on home run. The process is roughly akin to tiptoeing through a minefield. Many of the more obvious lines are already taken — by a firm in Omaha, Palm Beach, or Fargo.

So how do you develop a terrific tag line that has the potential to live a long, happy, productive life? Lines like Just Do It for a shoe company you may have heard of, an imperative that’s gotten millions out of bed at 5 in the morning when saner people are pushing the snooze button. Or We Bring Good Things to Life, a transcendent line that described GE’s reason for being for over a quarter century. Or #1 ball in golf – a themeline that remain familiar to golfers thanks to its consistent use by Titleist golf balls. Or For Tomorrow, two words that neatly summed up a sustainable investing mutual fund company’s commitment to investing wisely and making the world a better place in the bargain.

(Okay, I snuck the last one in. It’s one of 360’s taglines, and it’s something we’re still proud of 9 years after its introduction.)

If you’re interested in coining a new themeline for your company, here are a few pointers born of hard-won experience.

Don’t rush it

As Diana Ross sang, you can’t hurry love, and it takes time to sift through the chaff.

Be inclusive

We tell our clients, “Good ideas can come from anyone,” and we encourage contributions from all quarters.

Weed and feed

If you have an idea that’s not quite there, try subtracting words or finding synonyms that add personality, attitude or meaning.

Evaluate on the messaging continuum

Draw a line and write “literal” on the left end, “suggestive” in the middle and “fanciful” on the right, then place the themelines under consideration where they seem to fit along the line. Emotional hooks tend to gravitate to the right and rational lines to the left. This can help to determine the appropriate fit for your brand strategy.

Put it up against a competitor’s brand

Look at lines you’ve come up with under your competition’s logo. Does it work equally well there? Then it may be a good category line, but not a differentiating brand line.

Review and winnow down

Good themelines often rise to the top through pure merit, and there is general recognition that you have a winner on your hands. That said, if everyone likes — but doesn’t love — a selected themeline, you may be flirting with mediocrity. Evalute carefully. Take seriously objections which may reveal a fatal flaw. Get opinions from outside the conference room. And thoroughly check all legal or competitive claims to similar lines.  A web search and a check with the U.S. Patent and Trademark site will reveal issues quickly.  Lastly, anticipate tweaks in company direction and be sure that the line is future-ready.

Pencils down

When you have a line that’s credible, inspirational and memorable, you’re done. Congratulations.

Launch with purpose

While the virtues of a new themeline may appear self-evident, don’t miss the opportunity to introduce it thoughtfully and intentionally to all internal stakeholders before rolling it out to the market. Share why it is an asset, how it was developed, the logic behind it, and leverage the opportunity to draw attention to the main tenets of your brand strategy – your brand’s value and how best to communicate it to others.