Straplines. Saying nothing much to no one in particular . . . fast!I had a 10am meeting in London the other day. I didn't want to be late, so I caught the 7am train - due in to Paddington at 8.40. Just outside Reading, it stopped and didn't move for half an hour. Then it trickled forwards half a mile or so, and stopped again for 20 minutes. No announcements were made, and no member of the on-board team showed his or her face. Eventually, we limped into Paddington at about 10.20, a symmetrical 100 minutes late.
So I had plenty of time to ponder the rail company's corporate strapline:
ABC Trains. Transforming Travel.
Gobsmacking, really. What were they on what they came up with that? How, conceivably, did a highly paid team of communications professionals convince themselves that such a ludicrously overblown claim could - in the context of a rail company desperately struggling to bring its services up to a barely acceptable standard - be anything other than an insult to their poor frustrated and furious passengers?
Transforming travel? For me, that morning, they would have been pushing their luck if their strapline had read: “Trying Very Hard to be Slightly Less Crap”.
Of course, not every strapline is as breathtakingly ill considered as "Transforming Travel". But the vast majority are pretty dreadful, and there’s a simple reason why. Straplines, by their nature, are unable to observe the two most important principles of good persuasive writing: know who your reader is; and what result you are trying to achieve.
Designed to be plastered everywhere - on ads, sales literature, staff induction manuals, promotional coffee mugs - a strapline addresses the entire world. And what is the entire world supposed to think, feel or do after reading the strapline? Er, nothing specific, really. The only real job of a strapline, in the vast majority of cases, is to fill that little bit of space below the logo.
Straplines say what the company (or brand) wants to say about itself, not what the reader may be interested to know or willing to believe. They try to be all things to all readers, and inevitably, they fail.
But at least they’re only three or four words long.