To Fly. To Serve. To Do The Absolute Minimum
"To Fly. To Serve."
The ad I saw described the change this way: "It's not a slogan. It's a promise."
Well… let's be fair. It's actually both. And what makes this such a very poor slogan is precisely the minimalism of its promise. I mean, what does an airline absolutely have to do to be an airline? It has to fly customers. That's really it. It has to fly. It has to serve. If it doesn't do those things, it's not an airline. So it's no coincidence that every single airline in the history of the world has, at a bare minimum, flown. And served.
"So what?" you might ask. "It's true, isn't it? They fly and they serve. Just telling it like it is."
Yes, it is true, and alongside something like Fox's "Fair and Balanced," truth is much to be admired. There's also something to be said for under-promising and over-delivering. But a slogan, ideally, should do at least two things: (1) promise something more than the minimum customers already assume; and (2) promise something that distinguishes you from your competitors. Being memorable is also nice, so let's make memorable a #3.
Back in my Jersey days, I used to come across a radio news station called Ten-Ten WINS (1010 on the AM dial). Their slogan was, "You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world." That's a good slogan! Big promise, distinguishes you from the competition, and memorable. The British Airways equivalent would be, "Ten-Ten WINS… we tell you news."
So I hope it's now clear that AT&T, for example, shouldn't use a slogan like, "We let you talk on the phone." McDonald's should steer clear of, "We serve people hamburgers." The New York Times would probably be ill-served by, "We print news" (actually, "All the news that's fit to print" is a nice slogan -- big promise, distinguishing, and memorable, too. Not terribly accurate, IMO, but accuracy is a lot to ask of a corporation, and anyway I expect the Times' management believes it's true).
Now, none of this is terribly important, but the principles I discuss here are so fundamental and so obvious that sometimes I'm quietly in awe of not just at what these giant companies come up with, but also at the thought of what they must have invested in the exercise. How many employees and outside consultants, how many millions of dollars went into coming up with such a patently bad corporate slogan? I assume these companies understand how important branding is and how crucial a slogan can be to any branding effort. I assume that when they work to come up with a new corporate slogan, they bring their A game and their A dollars. And this is the best they can do?
I'm not sure if this qualifies as good news for British Airways, but they're hardly alone. Delta once thought it would be useful to promise customers, "Delta gets you there." In fact, one handy way of knowing if a corporate slogan is terrible is to ask of it, "Is anything else even possible? Delta leaves you stranded on the tarmac? Delta goes down in the ocean? Delta *doesn't* get you there?"
And look at MSNBC: "Lean Forward." Come on, what happens when you're leaning forward (or in any other direction)? Well, the first thing that happens is, you're not moving. You might even be in danger of falling, if you lean too far. So MSNBC paid millions of dollars to a bunch of branding consultants, who then came up with the equivalent of, "MSNBC. We're not going anywhere. And we might even fall down."
I think even MSNBC knows how weak this is, because, like those restroom electric hand dryers that come with their own propaganda ("This slow and noisy hand dryer is saving lots of paper!"), MSNBC wants you to know that, "To Lean Forward is to think bigger, listen closer, fight smarter, and act faster. To celebrate the best ideas no matter where they come from. To dare to dream of a nation that's better tomorrow than it is today."
Well, maybe that's what Lean Forward means to MSNBC, the executives of which have had lots of time and substantial motivation to convince themselves. But I think most people who come across the slogan will just imagine MSNBC leaning there, immobilized. And who even really cares in which direction you're leaning? I guess forward is minimally better than backward, because the latter is more tiring and more likely to make you lose your balance, but really, MSNBC… your identify, your value to your customers, it's all built on the fact that you lean?
Hey British Airways and MSNBC, if you're reading this: I know my shit and I work cheap (that's a promise, and also a slogan). Call me. And if anyone has examples of other particularly good or particularly bad corporate slogans, I'd be curious. Post 'em here -- thanks.
P.S. Forgot to mention earlier, for anyone interested in the question of why many authors fear a future Amazon publishing monopoly but are sanguine about the existing New York publishing monopoly, here's a guest post I did with novelist and blogger J.A. Konrath, The Bogeyman and The Axe Murderer.