Words To Live By

A catch phrase conveys the vision of your business--to employees and to customers.
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7 min read

This story appears in the September 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

When Yoram Samets' employees show him a new press release, ad script or business presentation, he always asks them, "Where's the `wow'? What's the wow idea here?"

The query is a reminder of Kelliher/Samets/Volk's slogan, "Creating wow ideas for clients who want to soar," which is what the company uses to market itself to prospects. But the question and slogan are also tools for keeping the 25 employees of the Burlington, Vermont, advertising agency focused on the key elements Samets believes they have to offer. That's why he constantly keeps the slogan in the forefront of employees' minds through an internal newsletter, posters and even the giant red
W-O-W letters salvaged from a defunct Woolworth's sign.

"It's really a vision statement for the company," Samets says. "It's for all our customers, which includes employees and clients."

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer specializing in business topics.

Meaningful Mottos

Using corporate slogans to manage as well as market is common among America's corporate giants. For 17 years, Ford used "Quality is job one" to convince car buyers of its emphasis on quality and to remind workers of the importance of this characteristic.

Many other companies, including Avis ("We try harder") and Charles Schwab ("Helping investors help themselves") have made the most of the management value of slogans, according to Robert W. Keidel, owner of organizational consulting firm Robert W. Keidel Associates in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and there's no reason smaller companies can't do the same. In fact, he adds, the flexibility, low cost and high rate of effectiveness of slogans as management tools make them almost mandatory for companies of any size.

Samets agrees. "I don't know how you can operate a company without one," he says. The best slogans for management purposes are miniature vision statements, Samets suggests. When carefully crafted, they convey a company's key characteristics to a variety of audiences, from investors and customers to suppliers and job applicants.

In fact, this versatility is one of the primary benefits of a slogan. A brief, catchy slogan can be used in advertisements, on workplace posters and business cards, and even on uniforms and corporate stationery, providing a constant reminder of what makes the company special. Says Keidel, "The good slogans resonate on several levels."

Among Keidel's favorite management slogans are "You expect more from a leader" (Amoco) and "We help business do more business" (Sprint). He's especially fond of "We don't cut corners," used by Hartmann luggage. "Imagine what kind of statement that makes to employees," he says.

Slogans are particularly effective when you're trying to communicate a major shift in strategy. Keidel points to Nike, which is changing its infamously audacious "Just do it" catch phrase to the softer "I can," to try to market more shoes and apparel to women. Similarly, Xerox's new slogan, "The document company," describes its recent return to its roots after forays into financial services and other unrelated areas.

Slogans may also change to reflect societal shifts, Keidel notes. Ford, for instance, recently dropped its "Quality is job one" because of the widespread perception that today, high quality is a given and is no longer an important marketing variable.


An effective slogan should be brief. Keidel notes that many one-word slogans have been successful, such as Hertz's "Exactly." Six to eight words is the maximum number he suggests.

Short or long, a slogan should encapsulate the essence of the firm. "It should be unique to the company, and it should represent the company's cornerstone," says Paul Miesing, a management professor at Albany State University of New York.

One way to get some guidance when creating your slogan is to look at the slogans used by your competitors. Ideally, yours should say something different from theirs, staking out an area that rivals have ignored.

Slogan-crafting involves more than just developing a catchy saying, however. As a mini vision statement, your slogan should state exactly why your company is unique and how it will remain that way. For that reason, slogan designers use some of the same brainstorming tools, such as weekend management retreats, that vision statement writers do.

Soliciting input from employees is important, too. Don't let high-level managers come up with a slogan on their own, advises Andrew DuBrin, a management professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. "It's best if employees have some input," DuBrin says. "That will help you use it as a tool for team-building and motivation."

One way to encourage employee suggestions is through a contest. That was the technique Ford used to select its long-standing "Quality" slogan. However, DuBrin cautions, don't commit yourself to accepting one of the entries. "I suspect employees would probably come up with a nice slogan," he says. "But let them know that if they don't come up with something good, you won't use it."

What's The Catch?

It's important to choose your slogan wisely: Using a slogan as a management tool involves some risk. One danger is that you won't be able to live up to the slogan's promise. That's especially true if your slogan makes a quantitative claim, as does Embassy Suites' "Twice the hotel," referring to its claim of charging one-room rates for two-room suites. Although quantitative slogans can be very effective, if you make a promise and can't live up to it, you'll succeed only in looking foolish in front of your employees and customers.

You may also err by coming up with a slogan that focuses employees' attention on the wrong issues. For instance, it's probably not a good idea to have a slogan that deals strictly with financial matters. "Your cornerstone shouldn't be something like `Maximizing profit,' " says Miesing.

Another way to go wrong is to choose something employees can't believe in. It's easy to do this when you're trying to evoke a vision that will force your employees to stretch their capabilities. "The biggest mistake is coming out with a slogan they simply can't live up to," says Keidel.

Creating the right slogan can be inexpensive--or very costly. Large companies spend millions of dollars to have ad agencies and image consultants create new slogans. Communicating the new slogans can be expensive, too; Ford has budgeted $40 million for the corporate advertising campaign that will roll out its new slogan, "Better ideas. Driven by you." But you don't have to break the bank. Printing slogans on posters, memo pads and other visible places works well for smaller companies, says DuBrin.

Keep in mind that not every company is ready for a slogan. If your business is changing direction and you're uncertain about where it's going, you should wait until you have a firm strategy before trying to develop a slogan to express it. "You need a fair sense of where you're headed," says Keidel. "And you'd better be sure it's something you want to live with for a while."

Similarly, if you're experiencing serious business problems, you should delay creating a slogan until the issues are settled. "You can't use a slogan to paper over a crack," says Miesing.

At Kelliher/Samets/Volk, the only crack that's appeared is the widening gap between past and present performance. Samets credits much of a 20 percent increase in billings this year to the energizing and focusing effects of the company's 2-year-old slogan. And he's ready to subject his own performance to the "Where's the wow?" question.

"If I were standing in front of a board of directors today," he says, "I could definitely wow them with the caliber of work we're doing and the profits we're generating now versus 24 months ago." Wow.

Contact Sources

Kelliher/Samets/Volk, (802) 862-8261, ysamets@ksvc.com

Robert W. Keidel Associates, (215) 576-5823, fax: (215) 576-7881


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