Monday, October 31, 2011

To Fly. To Serve. To Do The Absolute Minimum

Readers of HOTM know that as interested as I am in the branding of politicians, I'm also interested in the psychology and mechanics of branding generally. Which is why I was struck by an ad I saw recently for British Airways, which has decided to ditch it's current slogan, "The World's Favourite Airline," in favor of something it was using 90 years ago:

"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.


Dale said...

My favorite slogan is the one I just read. "Barry Eisler: I know my stuff and I work cheap."

Barry Eisler said...

Heh. Just came to me. :)

If you don't mind, I'm going to post here what you put on my FB page, because I think these are great examples and also like the way you've analyzed them:

"Car company taglines are often interesting. Here are three:

"Porsche: There is No Substitute. Very true! Porsche lovers say the Porsche experience is inimitable.

"Audi: Truth in Engineering. What does this mean? The other car companies Lie in Engineering? Or do the others offer Truth in Design, or Truth in Marketing?

"BMW: the Ultimate Driving Machine. Perfect. IMHO there is no better day-in, day-out driving experience than in a BMW."

Anonymous said...

To further your point, Barry, I thought the MSNBC "lean forward" was intended to mean "we don't lean left or right politically" (which, of course, is as true as Fox's "fair and balanced" slogan). That you missed that and took it to mean something physical (or vice-versa, you are right and I am wrong), is another thing that indicates a bad slogan. If it causes confusion, you failed.

karth said...

AT&T's "Rethink Possible"
Given their ability to screw up the easiest of things - this takes it a step further. If you didn't think it was possible for even them to F* up something so simple, rethink possible.

Barry Eisler said...

LOL... these are really good, people. Keep 'em coming!

Mark, you're right, I hadn't thought of that possibility, and agree that regardless, it's lame (not least because of ambiguity). Another possibility someone suggested on my Facebook page it that rather than a declaration, it was an exhortation to viewers, as in, "Lean forward and be fascinated by us!" Another example of an ambiguity problem, and also another limp slogan even if "exhortation" is indeed the correct interpretation.

Karth, good example and I like your analysis. Reminds me of Apple's "Think Different," which I have to admit I liked even though it was grammatically challenged (Unless it was supposed to mean, "Think, 'Different.'"

Jabez said...


I agree with you that most great slogans promise something unique that their companies can deliver, and do so in a memorable way. But I don't see why all great slogans must be promise based, particularly in the context of an oligopolistic industry like commercial air travel.

It seems to me that the only thing in common with all ideal slogans is that they are memorable, associated with their company of origin, and either promise __or suggest__ something that gets potential customers to consider the companies.

To use an example, the "Think Different" slogan you said you kind of liked doesn't explicitly promise anything -- it suggests something (I would say a different way of thinking, innovation, etc.)

And the British Airways slogan, in concept, is suggestive. BA doesn't need name recognition because they're already well-known. And, people that need to fly can't do it themselves and there are a limited number of airlines that will get you from Point A to Point B when you need to get there.

Perhaps British Airways was seen in the market as an old company resting on its laurels too much (as evidenced by the former "world's favorite airline" slogan). The new one, though it promises only the bare minimum, as you say, is suggestive. In its sparse language, it suggests a getting back to basics approach, a focusing on details and cutting back the fluff, that the company may have needed.

Certainly, a suggestive slogan is harder to pull off than an explicit promise-based on, given ambiguities and how different people will react in different ways. Maybe BA's new slogan doesn't have the same connotations to others that just occurred to me, and it's a failure (like "Lean Forward"). But it seems to me to at least be based on rational thinking.

Barry Eisler said...

Hi Jabez, I'm not persuaded by your take on the basis and merits of "To Fly. To Serve," but I agree that "promise" might be too narrow a word to use to describe the proper function of a good slogan, and certainly a suggestion can have value, too. Still, I think the stronger the implied commitment, the better, whatever we call it.

Jabez said...

"Still, I think the stronger the implied commitment, the better, whatever we call it."

I absolutely agree with that.

Kirsten Corby said...

I suspect the MSNBC slogan was originally supposed to be "Lean Left," which after all is what they do, but they chickened out and switched it to "forward." Truly a terrible slogan. Devoid of meaning.

Barry, how about "Where's the Beef?" Wendy's has brought that back lately. Should a slogan ever be a question?

Barry Eisler said...

Kirsten, great question, which, along with Jabez's earlier comment, makes me realize that "promise" isn't quite the right word, even though I'm confident about the underlying concept I was attempting to convey.

I think a question can make a great slogan, and the Wendy's line is a great example. The purpose -- and, I would argue, the effect -- of the Wendy's question is to distinguish Wendy's hamburgers from those of competitors by suggesting/promising that Wendy's burgers have more beef. Wendy's could have accomplished the same end by proclaiming, for example, "Our burgers have more beef," but, as in many things (certainly in fiction writing!), it's more powerful to show or to suggest than it is to tell. Here, the question's gently mocking tone, and the direct challenge it throws down, demonstrates a lot of confidence. So by being a little more subtle and indirect, Wendy's was also being more powerful. Bravo.

Really nice example -- thanks.

Jon Olson said...

I like Coca-Cola's slogans.

"Coke is it!" What is it, exactly?


"It's the real thing." An insult to everything else.

Unknown said...

barry - would like to extend an invitatin for you to speak at a meeting in DC in January. what is best contact info for you. thanks. sherry

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks, Sherry, here you go:

Barry Eisler said...

And Jon, Coke is it... doesn't do it for me, either, because it's so vague and grandiose, but what else are you going to do to promote dyed sugar water? I have a feeling that the less essential the product, the more bizarre the claims.

Anyway, agreed there's a subtle insult in there, just as in "Where's the beef?" But I think that's the point, and that this sort of thing can be quite effective if it distinguishes some positive quality of your brand.

Jon Olson said...


Yeah, I think insults are a part of all advertising, telling us we're not cool unless we have this or that.

This is off-point of slogans a little bit, but the latest series of ads from Miller -- the "unmanly" man series -- such a load of crap. It assumes we all want to be neanderthals. And now, of course, I've proved I've paid attention to them. Save me.

I've said this before, but I like your blog because it's one of the few that are actually about something more than how to format for kindle and what a great new eBook world we're living in -- though of course we are.

Save me from that, too.

Jon O.

Unknown said...

thanks for link - I have sent the invitation. sherry

Doug said...

I kinda like "To Serve"
Obviously they all fly, but do they all serve as they should?
Seems a dwindling commodity.
"To Serve" also sounds a proper British reserve and commitment to eternal verities.

Spirit to Serve

• Attention to detail

• Openness to innovation and creativity in serving guests

• Pride in the knowledge that our guests can count on Marriott's unique blend of quality, consistency, personalized service, and recognition almost anywhere they travel in the world or whichever Marriott brand they choose.

• A hands-on management style, i.e., "management by walking around"

Then again, I can be naughty or nice wrt salesmanship, depending on circumstances and my mood, so I'm far from being an expert in the field.

Doug said...

Forgot to mention:

I found you via the great Adam Carolla Show!

Always be closing!

The PAC Squad said...

What part of "To Serve" involves the radioactive naked body scans?

I always thought Nokia's "Connecting People" was an excellent, low-key, and essentially honest sort of advertising slogan, but that's the Scandanavians for you.

DaveG said...

Nice analysis of marketing psychology and wording gone wrong (and what is right, as well). (Have you considered copywriting as a sideline? ... kidding) Bob Bly and Kevin Kennedy have covered similar analyses with their books, papers, and blogs on copywriting. Thanks for the *thought piece* -- and I love the fact that you have similar and deeper thoughts in your novels.

JR said...

The comment about British Airways made me grin because it's been quite some time since it was the "World's favourite airline" if indeed it ever was. A couple of local radio stations in the north east of England (Metro Radio and Tees FM) used to use the following slogan "Have yourselves a great Metro/TFM (depending on the station) night out" as if they had some proprietory interest in the social lives of listeners, who presumably would not be listening during their own night out.

Your comment about "McDonalds we sell hamburgers" is not so far from their claim to lavatory behaviours such as "McWash." I've often gone in their for a McPiss.

Ken Preston said...

The hospital I work for recently ran a competition amongst staff for a new slogan/tagline. My favourite (which didn't win!) was "Dudley Group NHS: We know your arse from your elbow."