At a loss for words: why don’t healthcare brands use tag lines?

If you were marketing a brand, would you not use a color palette?  Would you not select a type font in which your messaging would appear?  Of course not.  You would be robbing the brand of some essential assets it needs to get recognized and esteemed by your customers—not to mention giving the competition an unfair advantage.  So why is it that regulated healthcare brands almost never employ a tag line?

First, let’s settle the primary debate ensuing from my last question: is a tagline a branding asset or just part of the messaging?  It depends on whom you ask.  If one believes that a tag line should be considered an immutable part of the brand identity, only to be altered with considerable deliberation, then one would say it is a blood relative of the logo, icon, color palette and typography.  If, on the other hand, one feels that its particular marketplace is so dynamic and volatile that the tag line should be up for grabs at any given moment (especially when a new agency comes aboard!), then it becomes just another phrase in the messaging platform.  However, even those consumer brands that alter their tag lines do so infrequently and over the course of years.  So I contend that this practice tips the balance of the argument in my favor: tag lines should be considered a branding asset.

When I have posed my central question—Why don’t you use tag lines?—to marketers of healthcare brands, the usual answers are a) it’s a policy we have not to use tag lines, b) I don’t think the FDA allows it, c) whatever it would be, it wouldn’t translate well around the world, or d) I don’t know.  When I question further on “a” I get “d” as an answer.  When I point out that “b” is not the case and ask the question again, “d” comes up!  And as far as things not translating around the world, some very successful consumer brands have somehow figured out a way to consistently overcome that non-barrier.  I believe that healthcare marketers are simply at a loss for words.  That is, they’ve looked around the market, saw that nobody else seems to be doing it, conclude that it must be a bad practice and keep quiet.  First do no harm, right?

Let’s see if we can build a case.  Before considering a tag line, one should consider its role in the brand identity.  A tag line is supposed to reinforce the central promise of the brand—what I call the Brand Commitment.  It should not be a list of brand personality traits.  Remember Nuprin’s “Little. Yellow. Different.?  Neither does anyone who buys Advil, Aleve, Motrin or any other pain reliever still on the market.  It should function neither as a wish for continued commercial success—The number one glaucoma therapy in America—nor as a stage for pathetic bragging—the only hospital antibiotic that comes in pre-filled syringes.  Why not?  Well, one reason is that a move by competitors can effectively take away the right to make such claims.  Another better reason is that these tag lines should be working so much harder for the brands in ways that cannot be revoked.

Let’s do a small exercise: think of your favorite tag lines for consumer goods.  Here are some of mine:

Don’t leave home without it
Because you’re worth it
Drivers wanted
Come to where the flavor is
You can do it.  We can help.

Now what do these memorable tag lines have in common?  They are short and to the point, sure.  But more importantly they speak to the customer and not about themselves.  They are a careful warning (Don’t leave home without it); an encouraging cheer (You can do it. We can help.); a seductive invitation (Come to where the flavor is).  They connect with customers on deep emotional levels: on the road of life, there are passengers and there are drivers; Driver’s wanted.  Don’t just use any beauty product; use the one that understands you deserve the very best.  Because you’re worth it.  And if these tag lines were for healthcare brands, they do not constitute claims and therefore would pass muster with internal or governmental regulatory authorities.

As for working around the world, it is an issue every global brand faces every day.  While certain aspects of color are universal—e.g. blue evokes calm and trustworthiness—some colors have extra meaning in different cultures.  For example, in certain Eastern cultures, red is the sign of a married woman or the color of a wedding dress.  However, red shares a number of positive associations across cultures: excitement, passion, prosperity and so on.  Likewise, differences in languages may result in tag lines being interpreted differently.  So successful consumer goods companies don’t translate tag lines, they transcreate them.  That is, they go for consistency of strategic intent rather than a literal translation.  In some cases, transcreation and translation are one and the same.  Venga donde esta el sabor is close enough: Come where the flavor is.  But McDonald’s  ‘I’m lovin’ it’ becomes Me encanta in Spanish (I really like it) and ‘I just like it’ in China.  Not the same, but strategically consistent.

So if just one major healthcare manufacturer decides to go first and embrace the full-spectrum branding practices that consumer goods companies thrive on, my guess is that many more will follow suit.  If the first rule of medicine is First do no harm, it seems that the second could be Don’t miss the bandwagon.  And that’s my tag line for this piece.

2 Responses to “At a loss for words: why don’t healthcare brands use tag lines?”

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  1. Suzanne Goss says:

    Then there is E — “my competitor doesn’t have one” — leading me to transform into a stereotypical mother — and if your competitor jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge…?


  1. […] will make them up as they go along. So request more than a logo. (As a writer by trade, I also include a tag line as part of the branding as […]

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