Death of the slogan
Sep 5, 2017

Photo: ST

A quick look at the best and worst slogans shows that the Singapore variety is hitting the dark ages. The Singapore slogan does not meet most of the criteria in the branding guru’s tick-off box: elegance, brand positioning, memorable and, as a report in The Atlantic says, a pinch of good luck. The worst nightmare for a slogan—like Singapore Tourism’s Passion Made Possible — is when it becomes the butt of many cruel and crude jokes. One below-the-belt (pardon the expression) reaction is that it is an advertisement for a city inviting tourists to have sex. Online and social media are already on overdrive with condom ads being placed next to the passion slogan.

I set out by asking 10 people which slogans strike them most. Here is the list I gave them: Just Do It (Nike), Red Bull Gives You Wings, Don’t Leave Home Without It (Amex), A Great Way To Fly (SIA), Incredible India, Make America Great Again (Donald Trump). Most of them remembered a majority of the slogans.

Then I asked them if they could remember the slogans for some of the more recent taglines for heavyweight companies like OCBC, DBS, Singtel, SPH, Capitaland, Starhub… Sad to say, only the DBS tagline evoked a memory. It's Living, Breathing Asia campaign hit a memorable note with a few. Singapore’s love affair with slogans is a torrid one with its worst experience being the one when the government wanted a name for the Budget Terminal. After spending lots of money on branding agencies, it was decided to open the contest to the public. A 17-year-old teenager hit it with a simple no-brainer: Budget Terminal.

So the question to ask is this: Do slogans have a place in a world that is being drowned by noise from so many companies trying to differentiate themselves with propositions that they hope are unique and memorable. That is a tall order as attention spans are incredibly short and amnesia has become the latest fashion trend. Add to these the multiple choices available and the vanishing loyalty to a product or organization and you can see how slogans can become meaningless.

When I was with the Today paper, I was pressured to find a slogan for the paper. I resisted because I did not believe slogans were really necessary. I would have let it die a natural death if not for a casual phone conversation with a reader. I wanted to pin him down on why he enjoyed reading the paper. The chat went round in circles until finally, out of exasperation I suspect, he said: “Because it makes me think.” He might not have realized it then, but it was an inspired moment as it gave birth to a slogan that has stayed on for 17 years: We Set You Thinking.

I have heard AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes tell of another such moment. He was waiting to be ushered into the office of the then Malaysian PM, Tun Datuk Mahathir Mohamed, for a meeting. The personal assistant told Fernandes that Mahathir was suffering from a cold and he had to keep the meeting short. Fernandes thought: How do I get him to buy my idea of an airline in such a short time?. He walked into Mahathir’s office and told him: I want to make every Malaysian fly. How could the PM reject such an audacious and politically-attractive proposition? And so we have the AirAsia slogan, Now Everyone Can Fly.

Those are rare cases, unlikely to be repeated. And unless organizations and countries can stumble on such moments, it is time to forget slogans and give them a long-delayed and decent burial.

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