Sticky Branding: Tagline Tips from an Olde Wordsmith

By October 18, 2017 October 16th, 2018 Branding, Marketing
Sticky Shakespeare

Knock knock! 
Who’s there? 
Will. 
Will Who? 
Will you please take taglines seriously! 

It was 1606 when Shakespeare wrote “Knock knock! Who’s there?”, and that catchy bit of dialogue from Macbeth has stuck in our collective English-speaking consciousness ever since. Sometime later it was co-opted for humor, and so began the silly “knock knock” joke convention we all know well.

Shakespeare did not write taglines for commerce as we know them today, but employing some of his formidable wordsmithing techniques can boost the fortunes of any brand or business. He had an extraordinary knack for writing short, memorable phrases in his 37 plays. Many of these snippets – most 2 to 5 words long – have been remembered for centuries and are now such a natural part of our everyday speech that few people are aware of their origins:

  • “Full circle” (King Lear)
  • “Good riddance” (Troilus and Cressida)
  • “Cold comfort” (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • “Devil incarnate” (Titus Andronicus)
  • “Foregone conclusion” (Othello)
  • “Heart of gold” (Henry V)
  • “In a pickle” (The Tempest)
  • “One fell swoop” (Macbeth)
  • “Wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet)
  • “Kill with kindness” (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • “Love is blind” (The Merchant of Venice)
  • “Break the ice” (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • “With bated breath” (The Merchant of Venice)
  • “Play fast and loose” (King John)
  • “Forever and a day” (As You Like It)
  • “In my mind’s eye” (Hamlet)
  • “Dead as a doornail” (As You Like It)
  • “Refuse to budge an inch” (Measure for Measure)
  • “Give the devil his due” (Henry IV)
  • “Too much of a good thing” (As You Like It)
  • “As good luck would have it” (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
  • “Eaten me out of house and home” (Henry IV)

That’s just a partial list of Shakespearean expressions we use often, there are many more. Most still sound current today despite their antiquated source.

It’s a remarkable feat of genius to write so many figures of speech that have lasted for centuries and remain relevant to describing human behaviors and emotions. Shakespeare intuitively understood the power of words and mixed them like a master chemist to create new combinations that were unexpected, evocative and quite possibly immortal.

Fast forward 400 hundred years, and we find ourselves in a world where the power of a few creatively chosen words is seriously underestimated. We’re swamped by volumes of verbiage, especially in the digital realm, yet most of it just washes over us with no impact. We remember little or nothing because we’re distracted, and boring words just don’t have the power to grab our attention.

The growing use of automated generators to create written website content reinforces the perception (or suspicion) that much online writing sounds like a machine wrote it: stilted, generic and bloated. Companies struggle to cut through the clutter, yet few invest in a great company tagline or even well-written web content headings. It’s a lost opportunity.

That’s because a creative verbal hook can make the difference between a brand that sticks and one that washes right off. Sticky branding. Can it be achieved without a lavish ad/marketing/web budget? You bet The Bard it can.

Shakespeare’s figures of speech usually employ one or more of several techniques that make them easy to remember:

  1. Visual word concepts. Example: “Jealously is the green-eyed monster” (Othello).
  2. Unexpected word combinations. Example: “world” and “oyster” from “The world is your oyster” (Merry Wives of Windsor).
  3. Appealing sound and rhythm. Examples: alliteration in “Catch a cold” (Cymbeline); the parallel construction of “Be-all and the end-all” (Macbeth); the melodious phrasing of “Brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet).
  4. Short phrase length. Between two and five words, no more than seven.

Many great taglines sport some qualities of Shakespearean word chemistry, which can make them valuable brand stickies. Here are some favorites – current and retired – that use words creatively to make the company or product unforgettable:

  • Democracy Dies in Darkness. (The Washington Post)
  • Food with Integrity. (Chipotle)
  • Obey Your Thirst. (Sprite)
  • Think Outside the Bun. (Taco Bell)
  • We bring Good Things to Life. (GE)
  • Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking. (Timex)
  • Think Small. (VW)
  • Solutions for a Smart Planet. (IBM)
  • Life is short. Stay awake for it. (Caribou Coffee)
  • The Ultimate Driving Machine. (BMW)
  • What’s in Your Wallet? (CapitalOne)
  • The Quicker Picker Upper. (Bounty Paper Towels)

So get your Sticky Shakespeare on. Words have the power to elevate any brand, and to overlook the potential of a great tagline is to give your company “short shrift” (Richard III).