All posts by Peter Kerr

Inspired, or rather uninspired by the use of the world ‘solution’ in a brand name or tagline, the thought came around what other words should be given the big miss.

Without too much trouble, superior, excellence, committed, unique.There’s two good reasons to steer well clear of such terms.

  1. They mean nothing – and, in actual fact draw attention to the fact it is probably what your company isn’t (i.e. superior, committed)
  2. It is wasting the opportunity to really describe your point of difference, the reason a potential customer might use you


So, while your company might actually come up with answers to their own clients’ problems, even in this particular can using the word solution or solutions is wrong, wrong, wrong.

In fact, thinking about it, the only time solutions could be used is if you’re a chemical company, but even then you’d need to make sure such answers are, literally, liquid-based.

Is is also obvious with many taglines and brand names that it has been an ‘everyone’s’ ideas thrown into the middle and let’s vote on what we think is best’.

The best in this case is invariably bland, boring, beige.

It results in a generic nothing, it doesn’t differentiate you.

It results in using a word like ‘Solution’.

David Heitman, of The Creative Alliance, has a great blog article on ‘How NOT to write your next Company Tagline. Check out some of his ideas

Taglines should not be overly long, in fact, they should be as short as possible.

A tagline is shorthand for your story – and everyone who reads it, should be able to get it.

That’s why I use Punchline – Messages that Matter

It is also some of the premise of Secret SAUCE – How to pack your messages with persuasive punch. You can download a free copy here.

If we’re being persuasive with our messages, we must make it easy for our readers.

One of the keys to this is making your idea, or whatever it is that you’re selling, easy to picture.

No matter how abstract your concept, unless someone can see it concretely in their mind’s eye, you’ll never get them to ‘buy’.

A pictureable image, well described, is a shortcut to understanding. It subconsciously allows a person to think “I see what you mean”.

But how do you make ideas, especially abstract concepts easy to picture?

The answer is that it requires simplification. That is, reducing the product or service to its central truth. This in itself may be pictureable.

If not, you have the theme to be described – as a picture.

And don’t be afraid to use a metaphor as the describer. If it was good enough for Aristotle to describe the use of metaphor as a sign of genius. In his view a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.

The following extract, from Secret SAUCE, pages 14 and 15, gives a brilliant example of the power of a pictureable message.

“Social psychologists Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson were asked by a local power company to help sell the advantages of home insulation. The utility offered householders a free energy audit. A trained auditor would go through each consumer’s house identifying the requirements to make it more energy-efficient. The utility even provided an interest-free loan.

The benefits seemed obvious. Energy savings of 40 percent were common and power savings following the installation of insulation would quickly pay for the cost of the loan.

The puzzle was while large numbers of home owners requested a home audit, only 15 percent of them actually followed the advice of the auditor – even though clearly it made excellent financial sense.

Why? Researchers interviewed several home owners and discovered that most had a hard time believing that small cracks under a door or the lack of insulation in an attic could result in such a large energy loss.

To solve this problem, Pratkanis and Aronson trained the auditors to communicate their findings and recommendations with words that could be pictured. They advised the auditors to tell this to the homeowners.

“Look at all the cracks around that door! It may not seem much to you but if you were to add up all the cracks around each of these doors, you’d have the equivalent of a hole the circumference of a basketball. Suppose someone poked a hole the size of a basketball in your living room wall. Think for a moment about all the heat that you would be losing from a hole that size – you’d want to patch that hole in your wall wouldn’t you? That’s what weather-stripping does.

“And you attic totally lacks insulation. We professionals call that a ‘naked attic’. It’s as if your home is facing winter not just without an overcoat, but without any clothing at all! You wouldn’t let your young kids run outside in the winter time without clothes on, would you? It’s the same with your attic.”

When homeowners heard this speech they signed up in droves. Where previously only 15 percent of the householders signed up, now 61 percent signed up to have their houses insulated. Vivid, pictureable language had turned barely visible cracks into holes the size of basketballs. The idea of running around naked in winter also grabs attention and strongly encourages you to take action.”

Show me someone who knows it all – and I’ll get them to run for god.

Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your point of view) no one knows everything.

No writer, no matter how intelligent, can know the ins and outs of a particular industry or sector.

No business person, in spite of a depth of knowledge about their sector, can also be superb with words.

That is why, most especially when it comes to uncovering and refining a message’s one central truth the only way it can be done is TOGETHER.

The notion that a writer can (or should) go away to a darkened room and come up with the essence of company’s story, on their own, is folly.

Such a distillation of message can only be done by at least two people – one of them a writer, a wordsmith, one or more of them with deep understanding of the business.

This is because shooting for simple takes a willingness to punch ideas around, propose and discard notions, look at key descriptive words from alternative angles, be willing to start at square one, again. And perhaps again.

Just as new business, product and social enterprise ideas are created in the space between people (ideas have sex and create a new idea!), so does the creation of the first few words of a company’s story which must ring true.

This is why Secret SAUCE’s (currently available for free download) recipe for crafting persuasive messages starts with SIMPLE – and the essence of simple is defining the soul of a message as one central truth.

But a writer alone cannot do this. Neither can a business person alone.

Together they can.

Together there is a synergy that allows 1 + 1 to equal 3.

A recent Quartz article compares The Economist magazine’s style book for writing to Bloomberg’s.

Across a lot of differences – including one major one on how much you should ‘interfere’ (my term) with or edit a writer’s words – the style books both agree on one thing.

That is, that  George Orwell’s six timeless rules for writing still apply. Both styles guides reference him throughout. These rules are from his 1946 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
  2.  Never use a long word where a short one will do
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word or jargon is you can think of an everyday English equivalent
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous

Obeying those rules won’t necessarily result in persuasive words however.

Messages that matter need SAUCE – an acronym for Simple, Appealing, Unexpected, Credible and Emotional.

The Secret SAUCE book is presently available for free download – its a diagnostic and recipe for persuasive messaging.

If nothing else, it will forever alter the way you look at messages and what they’re trying to say.

Look at the following picture outside Trade Aid’s central Wellington shop.

A tagline that hits the spot

Then check its tagline (which indeed is the first thing you see)

Hand made change

Three words that combine to make a distinctive, different and desirable message.

Not only does it reflect the change that Trade Aid is helping to bring to under-developed economies, and more importantly the individuals and families that make up any nation.

But it also alludes to the (small) change required to purchase many of the products in the over 40 year old New Zealand business.

Trade Aid’s a member of the World Fair Trade Organisation, and imports over 3,000 products to go into 30 shops dotted around New Zealand.

And it has nailed its tagline, its promise.

It is one I’d love to have on my own CV, so the least I can do is praise it.

Or, why your tagline needs to nail your company’s promise

If your company name doesn’t indicate what you do, then the tagline, sometimes known as a slogan, is especially important.

It needs to be distinctive and different; and that’s what makes it valuable.

That’s because it is the start of your conversation with your customer.

It also usually forms the opening line for you or a company representative, whether at a formal or casual function (like a BBQ). It provides the basis for the rest of your story.

As the headline – if someone reads nothing else – it lets people know what you’re about.

It is therefore surprising the number of websites that, after the company name, DON’T have a tagline.

It needs to be the first words someone sees on your homepage, and on every other page – also seen on the printed out version of the site.

And just as Secret SAUCE (with its acronym Simple, Appealing, Unexpected, Credible and Emotional) can be used as a diagnostic tool and recipe for any persuasive message, so can its metric be applied to a tagline.

Freelance copywriter Kimberley Freeman, writing in the advertising section of considers a tagline to be the most important ad you’ll ever create.

Her guest blog shows what makes some taglines more effective than others, and includes:


  • What makes them tick and what makes them stick
  • Taglines as brand builders
  • It’s never too late to improve


She gives a (at least) a couple of great pieces of advice when it comes to taglines.

If you left your business card somewhere, could someone glance at it and know exactly what your company does?

She’s also especially anti an exclamation point (one of these !) after a tagline.

To quote her:

“This is the mark that tells consumers to RUN AWAY! You might as well put on a bad suit and sell cars if you’re going to paste an exclam on the end of a company slogan.”

What do you think the billboard pictured below in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, is ‘selling’?

141021 - Call Active sign (2)

You certainly can’t tell from its tagline – defined at as “a slogan or phrase that visually conveys the most important product attribute or benefit that the advertiser wishes to convey”.

Well, if “Delivering exceptional customer experiences since 1975” is what CallActive wishes to convey, it is missing a heck of an opportunity to tell or remind people what it does, or promises.

Now, CallActive is a Melbourne, Australia headquartered business, with an offshoot lured to New Zealand by a then Wellington city-councillor in 2013.

John Morrison, a former test cricketer as it also happens, is now CallActive’s business development manager.

As he was quoted by writer Dave Burgess in a 17 September 2014 business section piece in the local Dominion Post newspaper, the confusion about CallActive’s offer seems to be pretty widespread.

(Apologies here, I can’t find an internet link to the actual article, and went to the local library to find the quote below in its online collection).

The past year has been a strong one for contact centre CallActive, New Zealand business development manager John Morrison says.

“We are a service company doing all sorts of things, from Facebook and Twitter to technical support. People think we just sit here and answer phones. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We even have a couple of teams that do door-to-door.”

Considering that thousands of people a day either drive or walk past its prime Victoria St location, and that such billboard advertising costs at least $3000 – $5000 a month, wouldn’t it be a clever thing to get the tagline right?

Not that would be easy to craft the two, three, four, five or six words that would crystallise its message – but it certainly would be better than wasting money on a meaningless term.

Just a thought CallActive, and John.

To use a cricketing analogy, it would be a bit like using John Morrison’s superior batting skills by putting him in at #11 (the last one to bat for those who don’t know anything about the game)!

In other words, a wasted opportunity.

Simplicity thrills, complexity kills.

And, somewhat paradoxically, the shorter the message, the more effort it takes to refine it to simple.

(That’s why an organisation’s tagline – the two to five word description, promise, ‘story’ after its brand name – can be so tricky to distill).

But what must a message contain to be considered simple yet profound?

The first and most important element is one central truth.

No matter what you’re selling, what idea you’re pushing, what cause you’re promoting, if it isn’t encapsulated in a sound-bite (verbal or written) that has a reader or listener thinking “ah, I get it, tell me more”, then you’ve immediately lost them. That is, assuming they have at least a passing interest in what you’re talking about in the first place.

One central truth is the nub of what you’re talking about, rendered in such a way that a relative stranger can tell another relative stranger pretty much what your message is.

This one central truth needs to be stated in terms that are easy to grasp, and preferably easy to picture – and be able to create an image in your own mind.

It is a trade-off between being brief and being clear. It means having just the right amount of detail for the circumstances.

This is where the paradox of message length comes in – the longer the message; say content marketing or native advertising – the easier it is to write mainly because you have more words to play with.

The Secret SAUCE book, at the time of writing this blog still available as a free download, has a diagnostic tool that allows you to gauge the three criteria relating to simple:

  • One central truth
  • Easy to grasp
  • Easy to picture

This allows you, and your friends or colleagues to objectively decide whether your message has the necessary characteristics that embody simplicity.

However, it may mean you have to go back to the drawing board to achieve such a message outcome.

Keep in mind that from a message point of view (and much of the rest of life and business for that matter), getting to simple can be difficult.

After all: complex is easy, simple is hard.

Many people are scared to use metaphors. Sometimes rightly.

An over-used, too familiar metaphor is brushed aside and quickly ignored by a reader.

But done correctly, a metaphor is like the first sip of a cold beer on a hot summer’s day…hitting the spot perfectly.

And don’t think their use is a recent phenomenon necessitated because of today’s skim and scan reading in a digitally-oriented world.

Aristotle, way back in 322 B.C. Made the following observation of when a comparison is made between two seemingly unrelated objects without using “like’ or “as”.

“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.”

Metaphors are also much more popular that you might imagine. (As stated in James Geary’s e-book by Harper Collins, 2011, I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and the Way it Shapes the Way we See the World).

“Researchers have discovered we use a metaphor every ten to twenty-five words. That adds up to about six metaphors a minute.”

Our minds, our language, our craving for a good story is embodied in the use of metaphor, and this is why they should be used in any persuasive message.

The scientific reasoning is shown in brain scans while people listen to descriptions, with and without the use of metaphors.

Among many studies is one by neurologist Krish Sathian of Emory University. His findings clearly show that, as expected, our brains can interpret the literal meaning of an expression. When that expression is also a metaphor it triggers the sensory perception part of our brain.

Using a metaphor is therefore like getting two bangs for your buck – the abstract meaning, reinforced by our brain translating the metaphor. We also have a neural lighting-up response in the touch, taste, hearing or seeing parts of our brain that respond to that metaphor.

What is means for persuasive messages to maximise their potential is that you or your copywriter should hunt down, play with, break apart and put back together word combinations that create a pictureable image.

It means you have to really use your brain-power and be more than prepared to scrap the first and second and third good idea for a metaphor that comes to you.

After all, complex is easy, simple takes some time.

However, from a message, from a story-telling point-of-view, the metaphorical effort is worth it.

It is exactly like that first sip of beer, after you’ve worked really hard, when you sit down to enjoy it.

The problem with many messages, from taglines to web home pages, is they try to say too much.

Instead of presenting one clear argument, a proof, of what’s on offer, you get mixed messages.

For our relatively straight-forward minds, which are always attempting to sift and categorise information, this is really confusing.

Indeed, such is our ability to sort useful from non-useful, it is often about this point that we turn off – go to the next webpage, ignore, not bother.

Any piece of written persuasive message (or spoken for that matter), no matter how long, must have one central truth at its core.

Our brains process information and make a judgement pretty quickly.

By definition, any persuasive message has to get its point across even more quickly.

You only get one shot, preferably loaded with one central truth.

However, getting to your one central truth, the nub of your argument, is increasingly harder to capture and deliver the higher up a company’s story chain you go. That is, a tagline for example is much more difficult to create than a letter advising about a new product line.

One of the main things you want from a message’s one central truth is that is ‘rings true’.

And luckily, it is a relatively simple thing to test among work and non-work colleagues whether the encapsulating idea you’re playing with, actually works for them. Ask them and gauge their reaction.

Want an example of a tagline that possesses one central truth?

Look no further than Las Vegas.

Prior to 2004 the city attempted to position itself as a great family destination, a bit like Disneyland.

Anyone who has, or hasn’t for that matter, been to Las Vegas, knows this is rubbish.

What did the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority do – it created the following tagline, which reinforced peoples’ image of the gambler’s paradise, and tourists returned.

What was, and still is, its tagline?

What Happens Here, Stays Here