This is the age…of the senseless slogan

Boastful, jargon-filled slogans are out and Nike-style brevity is in for techie brands as they seek to imbue their products with emotive value. But are their brand values at risk from these curt messages?

Marketing Week is pleased to forward a message from Microsoft to Canon “Yes, you can”… use your new slogan with impunity.

The new slogan in question is “You can” (MW last week), which is confusingly similar to Microsoft’s motto for its recently launched Windows XP: “Yes, you can”. Informed about Canon’s move last week, Microsoft made some hasty inquiries and discovered it had not, in fact, registered its words as a trade mark.

So, no juicy legal spat but Canon’s move is no less interesting for that. The photocopier-to-digital-camera giant has jumped on a bandwagon that appears to be gathering steam: the trend, especially among technology companies, for ever-shorter, ever-snappier slogans. Think Apple (Think different), IBM (Think), Sony (Go create), Hewlett-Packard (Invent), Microsoft (Yes, you can!) and now Canon (You can).

Why are these techies taking their inspiration from the likes of Coke (Enjoy!) and Nike (Just do it!)?

One answer is that we’re moving into a post-technological age. Or rather, an age where technology is so prevalent it ceases to be interesting in itself. It’s a bit like the moment when car companies stopped advertising electric windows as a luxury optional extra and began including them as standard. These days, cars hardly feature at all in car ads – it’s all about lifestyle, emotions and humour.

Canon’s soon-to-be-replaced slogan “Imaging across networks” was considered too anoracky for these post-technological times. Consumers don’t want to know what’s “under the bonnet”, no matter how impressive. In this respect they are fundamentally changed creatures from even two years ago, when the Internet was still casting its spell and companies were deeply in love with the word “network”.

Today’s consumers simply want to know what technology can do for them, hence the new breed of empowering, enabling, streetwise slogans. Nike’s “Just do it!” is the role model, and it’s notable that Coke has also made the journey from “It’s the Real Thing” (admire the brand for what it is) to “Enjoy!” (feel enabled by what our brand can do for you).

“Go create” was created two years ago by Saatchi & Saatchi to showcase Sony’s new generation of interlinked products. “Quite some time ago we used to have the slogan ‘It’s a Sony’,” says Sony Europe senior manager of advertising Karen See. “But when we decided to reintroduce one it became more important to stress our networking future and show that you can get more out of a Sony product by combining it with other Sonys. We wanted to highlight the fact that we are an entertainment company.”

Unlike Canon, the more consumer-savvy Sony wisely chose to leave the “n”-word out of its slogan – a strategy which appears to have paid off. In research by Millward Brown last October, Sony was rated a company “whose products you can do more with” by 52 per cent of respondents, up from 40 per cent a year earlier.

Today’s enabling, empowering slogans apply to many sectors but their impact is most marked on the technology industry. The pace of change and speed of innovation means even the biggest technology brands feel insecure. Today’s hot product is tomorrow’s embarrassing has-been. By taking the spotlight off the technology, these companies are trying to buy themselves greater longevity.

The other driver behind this trend is a blurring of the divide between the business and consumer markets. Business-to-business advertising used to focus on function, with emotion and humour considered the domain of consumer marketing.

But as Peter Shaw, director of brand consultancy Corporate Edge, argues: “There’s been a realisation in recent years that everyone, no matter what the context, is more likely to respond to a human strapline than a cold, hard, jargon-filled strapline. We’re no longer blinded by technology or impressed by show-offs.” Corporate Edge helped break the mould of financial services advertising with its invention of the irreverent Egg brand for Prudential.

Chris Wall, executive director for Ogilvy & Mather New York, IBM’s US ad agency, recently told the Chicago Sun-Times: “This stuff is kind of dry. Even for the most serious business person, the topic [server consolidation] makes your mind hurt. You have to engage people with the story and boil it down to a simple benefit…we’ve got this collision of worlds so we try to engage people with empathy…[and] to present IBM as a brand that gets it.”

The desire to humanise technology also applies to a third market – technology company employees. Carly Fiorina, whose meteoric rise through the marketing ranks at AT&T and Lucent took her to the helm of Hewlett-Packard, introduced the “Invent” slogan soon after her arrival. It accompanied a folksy, back-to-basics style of advertising designed to rejuvenate a very mature organisation. Fiorina wanted H-P employees, as much as H-P customers, to be imbued with the entrepreneurial, innovative spirit of the company’s founders.

Interbrand managing director Tony Allen believes technology companies are coming full circle. “Back in the Twenties, the chief executive of IBM used to say “Think” was a key word for the company, and for many decades IBM employees felt an incredible sense of purpose and status.” Somewhere along the line that got lost and is now having to be spelled out more explicitly – and publicly. “Today’s huge corporations have seen the power of having a large consumer following, even if they are business-to-business vendors. Reaching out to the wider public helps answer the ultimate corporate question ‘what are we here for?’.”

Humanising slogans are one thing, but brevity is another. Canon still enjoys strong recall by many consumers for its long-defunct tongue-twistery slogan “If anyone can, Canon can”. The new “You can” slogan continues the useful pun, but is clearly intended for today’s short attention-span society.

You have to wonder, however, whether these ultra-succinct slogans are in danger of becoming too snappy for their own good. “I would say clarity is more important than brevity,” says Gordon Douglas, managing director of brand development specialist Presight. “Brands can only stand for one thing, so a short but vague slogan is not the answer.”

If, in a couple of years time, a branding expert suggested to Canon that “You can” become, simply “Can” would anyone at Canon be brave enough to can the idea?

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