Great political slogans leave something to the imagination

It’s difficult to boil down broad issues into a few words, but the best slogans offer promise while letting the public form their own interpretation.

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Ever tried to write a slogan? Or judge one? It’s one of the many tasks in marketing that turns out to be a great deal harder than it looks.

The underlying problem is the seemingly impossible tension between commercial breadth and semantic brevity. A brand is a sprawling, complex, multifaceted thing, with its matrix of claims, its fusion of product and service, its personality, its reasons to believe, its different nuances of meaning to different customer strata. It takes a brand model with umpteen boxes and a liberal spray of bullet points just to set it down in chart form. How do you do justice to that in a few words? Its like being asked to cram your entire worldly goods into a thimble.

Would-be creators of brand slogans will be dimly aware of the various formats and devices employed in the thousands that have come before, some still remembered, most long forgotten. Is it good to rhyme? What about alliteration? Do facts help? Are seven words too many? Is it OK if grammar goes out the window?

But the crudest divide is the choice between a phrase that seeks to summarise the practical utility of the brand in people’s lives and one that just gives a flavour of the way the brand makes people feel. There is potential crossover, of course, as there always is, but in essence we’re talking about a prosaic ‘what’, versus a slightly more poetic ‘how’.

An example of the ‘what’ genre of slogan is the FedEx tag, ‘When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight’. Marketers had done their homework, knew what really mattered to the business-customer base, and hammered it home. ‘Kills all known germs. Dead’, for Domestos, works in much the same way – an unequivocal reassurance that you will get what you paid for.

The most famous example in the ‘how’ box is Nike’s ‘Just do it’. No reference here to even the category the brand is in, let alone any factual claim. It’s all feel. Almost 40 years after its creation it’s hard to imagine the thrill of first being on the receiving end of this uncompromising imperative form, which was as fresh then as it is common now. It captured the spirit of the brand, the unchanging essence that transcends products, tactics, trends and personnel. It still does.

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Slogans and elections

If great slogans of either kind are rare and hard to come by, imagine the difficulty faced by those trying to conjure them up not for mere commercial brands but for political parties. Communication during an election cannot reside solely at the party level, but needs to elevate sufficiently to encompass the entire nation and its future. Self-evidently, a nation, compared with a brand, is a vastly more complex and multilayered thing; and the future is boundless. How does a slogan put its arms around all that?

The Conservatives have opted for the ‘what’ approach, which they summarise in six words – and here I really do have to check my notes as they are not exactly trip-off-the-tongue material. ‘Clear plan. Bold action. Secure future.’ Labour, conversely, has leaned into ‘how’, with its one-word slogan, ‘Change’.

There’s something about seeing these in combination that makes me think they read like a recipe. The Tory one comes across like the list of ingredients: ‘Chicken thighs. Olive oil. Herbed tomatoes’, while Labour hits you with the method: ‘Simmer’. What neither does is present an image of the delicious, finished pollo alla cacciatora, to make it all seem worthwhile.

The underlying problem is the seemingly impossible tension between breadth and brevity.

Nor do the other parties add much. ‘Real hope. Real change’, say the Greens, who have fallen for the trap that some seemingly promising English words fail to live up to their hype, and that ‘real’ is among them. The Liberal Democrats offer ‘For a fair deal’, as though anyone would be for an unfair one. ‘Britain is broken. Britain needs Reform’, meanwhile, is a longer way of saying ‘change’.

For a decent shot at an effective political slogan, you probably have to look across the Atlantic, and it’s instructive that they tend towards the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’. True, ‘Make America great again’ is something of a hybrid, but it’s that word ‘again’ that tips the balance to the emotional side of the equation – the aching sense that something has been lost, and that it can be recovered. Barack Obama’s 2008 soundbite, ‘Yes we can’, is pure ‘how’, and served as a nexus for the disparate messages of hope that powered a famous electoral victory.

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Three principles for greatness

The most illuminating slogan operating at a country level is a rarely quoted gem from the early 1960s. It underpinned the advertising campaign in the UK to promote the £10 assisted passage for those who might consider emigrating to Australia – the so-called 10-pound Poms.

The line was, ‘In Australia, I will…’, with the punctuation – those leader dots – doing some of the work. This is a thoroughbred ‘how’ slogan, imparting no substantive information about the country, but evoking a beckoning sense of opportunity for those living at the bottom end of society under Britain’s bleak skies.

For anyone attempting to generate a slogan now, whether at a national, political or brand level, it offers glimmers of insight into how to go about it. Not rules – there are none; but principles to consider.

First, it’s short – just three syllables plus the brand name – yet charged with emotional power. This is not to say that longer lines can’t work – as evidenced by Ronseal’s ‘Does exactly what it says on the tin’ – but brevity is normally on your side, all else being equal.

Second, the brand name is a natural part of the slogan, to the extent that it wouldn’t make sense without it. See also: ‘Say it with flowers’; ‘A diamond is forever’; ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’.

But it’s the third virtue that is the most telling, and especially in the context of a countrywide electoral process. It leaves a door open. It invites the receiver to complete the meaning, whether consciously or subliminally, according to their own proclivities and on their own terms. In a similar way, Nike’s ‘Just do it’, and Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ owe some of their ubiquitous appeal to the same device, with the final word of each left uncircumscribed.

In that sense, this verbal form has a kind of democracy built into it, since we all get to insert our own interpretation. If I could offer just one piece of advice to those seeking to communicate with the populace the next time an election comes along, it would be to emulate the process by which this kind of rhetorical brilliance is born. Don’t start with the party. Don’t even start with the country. Start with the person on the receiving end, and work back from there.