Brand Clock, by Tanner Woodford, chronicling some of the 1,035 brand identities he encountered on October 14, 2008
Three words. Billions of dollars. If you look at Nike revenues, the big money set in consistently after 1989, the year of the great "Just do it." Did the words define the moment, or did they then drive the machine?
"There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard." Without question, these twelve words reversed the fortunes of the brand. "Think small," "A diamond is forever," "Got milk?" Words you could take to the bank.
When a company makes a brand promise in a tagline, it's committing to a relationship. With accountability. It's a bit like saying "I do." But to really understand what's going on, you have to think about what a company is.
Companies start life with a birth certificate—incorporation. Growing up, they can fool around—Yahoo and Facebook are swapping corporate fluids right now. They can marry—a Comcast and NBC wedding is in the air. They can divorce—as Time Warner and AOL recently did. And they can have children like Virgin or adopt them like Diageo.
A company can violate human rights and be tried for fraud and manslaughter. And it can manipulate people's emotions as Lever Brothers did when it invented BO to induce us to wash. In lots of ways a company is just like you and me, but with one big exception. As long as it turns a profit, it's immortal.
Where else have we seen a society whose daily life was controlled by immortal beings? Beings whose terrifying mystery sent people scurrying to Wall Street, errr, the soothsayers? That's right, Ancient Greece! But ask yourself, where would Zeus have been without his stated field of expertise, "King of the Gods"? Or Aphrodite, her "Goddess of Love"? Exactly. Without their taglines they would have been mere mortals.
Corporations, the modern Gods of Olympus
I recently read Fareed Zakaria's excellent bestseller The Post-American World. It's about the meteoric "rise of the rest." I'm afraid my copywriter training kicked right in. So here are ten taglines in search of new American companies to take back the 21st century. Of course I've trademarked them, but my lawyers tell me I'd be willing to talk.
1. "Oceanic potential"
Food, minerals, power. The U.S. has not one but a couple of big-time oceans conveniently on hand. Not to mention the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, an A-list celebrity in the world of water.
2. "The glass floor"
In the next few months women will become the majority of the U.S. workforce. In several rich countries they're already the majority of professional workers, and the college pipelines are primed. Surely there are market opportunities here? Gentlemen?
3. "Beyond media-obesity"
It's the era of Big Entertainment. We have a glut of content and ways to network it. As with Big Food, we gorge ourselves. We can, so we do. But what happens when the consumption disorders set in? Maybe now's the time to monetize healthy media habits?
4. "The human mine"
The U.S. didn't invent psychotherapy, but it sure understood the applications. Therapy has become a way of life with its own dialect. Now here comes Neuromarketing, which plans to brain-map consumption. Sounds like a job for House.
5. "Unlocking the cell"
While the U.S. struggles with the separation of church and state, the rest of the world is more pragamatic about the benefits of stem cell research. Surely the nation of enterprise can find a way to connect with this market.
6. "Diamonds in the rough"
Online microlending allows you and me to help someone with a name, living in poverty, to fund something real. It doesn't take a Malcolm Gladwell to work out that among all those people, there's a Bill Gates or two. Shouldn't someone be looking for them?
7. "Out of this world"
This year NASA's Challenger fleet will be mothballed, and the President could opt for a replacement from a commercial company. How about a commercial division, Mr. President? Let the markets do the heavy lifting?
8. "News that's not afraid to go there"
TV coverage in Taiwan of the recent Tiger Woods scandal broke new ground. Computer-generated avatars of Woods and his wife showed what you might have seen if you had been a third wheel on that fateful night. With Bollywood and gaming exploding, maybe Hollywood could find a market in "reporting"?
9 "Better than sex"
Of course, nothing's better than great sex. But maybe there's a product—a fantasy experience, a food—that is genuinely better than the routine kind? Maybe for the luxury-hungry elites of the emerging rich markets? We should at least research this.
10 "The art of money"
This tagline is specifically for Damien Hirst. Not a new American company, I admit, but it's probably time he had one.
Diamond Skull by Damien Hirst
In his roast of contemporary culture Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace suggested a world of untamed sponsorship. "The Year of the Trail-Sized Dove Bar." "The Year of the Adult Depend Garment." The tagline run amok. Nobody wants that.
But it's worth remembering that limited liability companies are voluntary. Nobody has to invest, take employment, or buy. After bloodlines, they're the most popular human groups on earth. Flags, priests and manifestos just can't compete.
According to The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, in 2000 there were 5.5 million corporations in the U.S., and zero in North Korea. Now there's a tagline.
Graham Button is a writer from London who worked in advertising for more than twenty years. He took the scenic route to Genesis, passing through agencies in Hong Kong, Toronto, and finally New York, where he was a creative director and executive vice president at Grey Worldwide. He has created advertising in most media for every kind of brand and all sorts of companies, including Diageo, Kaiser Permanente, Molson Breweries, GM, and South China Morning Post Newspapers. Beaver Creek, one of the Vail Resorts brands, chose to follow him to Genesis from Grey. Work he originated as a copywriter or championed as a creative director has been recognized in awards shows in Los Angeles, Toronto, New York, London, Cannes, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sydney and has been featured on America's Funniest Videos and Larry King Live.