would “just do it” still cut it?

I noticed an interesting juxtaposition of taglines the other day — actually it was during the Super Bowl, but don’t worry, this isn’t yet another piece about Super Bowl ads (I’ve already said my peace, as I hope everyone else has.)

In some markets, the University of Phoenix ran several spots from its a new campaign during the big game

— the ads featured U of P students talking about their experience with the school and how they feel having completed their studies there — the spots closed with one student saying, “I am Adam (or whatever their name is) and I am a Phoenix.”

Then there was the ad from Toyota, promoting its new Venza crossover —

the spot drew parallels between African art owned by a good-looking man in an upscale home and the features of the Venza, closing with the announcer asking, “Are you VENZA?

The juxtaposition between the two taglines — one a declaration by a customer, the other a question by what is essentially the voice of the brand — got me thinking about the nature of taglines.  There may be a subtle difference between the two, but it seems significant.  Both of the examples I mention reference the identification a user has with the brand, but one seems to be a positive self-affirmation while the other comes off more like an elitist challenge.

I realize my reactions to the taglines are affected by the ads in their entirety (I found the U of P ads quite inspiring and the VENZA one boring, despite me having no more interest in attending classes at U of P than buying a new car) — but even if I consider the taglines in isolation, “I am a Phoenix” seems more appropriate for our culture at this time.  I hypothesize this is because we, as Americans living in 2009, want to decide for ourselves whether or not we want to identify with a brand enough to call ourselves by its name (something that the featured U of P students have decided to do) — we don’t want some brand copping an attitude and implying that we should identify with it if we’re rich and beautiful and have good enough taste.  The VENZA approach might have been more appropriate in the status-a-go-go 1980’s — but now it seems elitist (which we know is not good — case in point:  Obama worked so hard to shed the label after being accused of seeming like he was elitist, as you may recall.)

Clearly there’s been an evolution in taglines over the years.  A look at historical taglines from Coke and Pepsi reveals some trends:

1903  Pepsi — Exhilarating, invigorating, aids digestion

1904 Coke — Delicious and refreshing

1913 Pepsi — Drink Pepsi-Cola.  It will satisfy you.

1929 Coke — The pause that refreshes.

1934 Pepsi — Twice as much for a nickel

1961 Pepsi — Now it’s Pepsi for those who think young

1963 Coke — Things go better with Coke

1969 Coke — It’s the real thing

1973 Pepsi — Join the Pepsi people, feelin’ free.

1976 Coke — Coke adds life

1982 Coke — Coke is it!

1984 Pepsi — Pepsi.  The choice of a new generation.

1993 Coke — Always Coca-Cola

1995 Pepsi — Nothing else is a Pepsi.

2001 Pepsi — Joy of Pepsi

2006 Coke — The Coke side of life

2009 Coke — Open happiness. / Pepsi — Every generation refreshes the world.

Examining these taglines, it seems in the first half of the 20th Century the lines mostly simply described the product benefits.  Beginning in the 60’s, Pepsi moved to taglines that referenced user identification with the brand, while Coke adopted a more declarative stance about its brand.  Then in the 90’s, Pepsi joined Coke in employing a brand statement approach and both brands used lines that hyped brand uniqueness.   Now in 2009, both brands’ taglines are more like commentaries about the times we live in.

It seems the most effective taglines capture the spirit of the time in which they run.  Nike introduced “Just Do It” in 1988 — a time when people were pumped up on power and status (Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was published in 1987.)  Apple‘s “Think Different” line launched in 1997 — a time when most Baby Boomers were hitting their 40’s and adopting a socially acceptable, yet still free-thinking, challenge-authority mindset.

In my opinion, “I am a Phoenix” is a more culturally-right tagline for 2009 — and therefore a more effective one — than VENZA’s.  What do you think?

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