How to Write Taglines That Double Sales

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Two Customer Types

Taglines for products and brands are everywhere, but often they don’t get the attention they deserve. A variety of research shows that one phrase slogans can have a profound effect on how customers see the product. One key factor in crafting that phrase is matching its content to the customer’s mindset, and in particular to two important consumer motivations: prevention and promotion.

Promotion vs. Prevention

Not long ago we looked at the power of marketing using “loss” as a motivator in How “Loss” Can Be a Winning Strategy. Highlighting risks your customer faces isn’t the only way to market, of course, and an interesting blog post at the Harvard Business Review focuses on the question of promotion vs. prevention. While prevention-minded consumers are concerned about the possible loss of what they have, promotion-oriented consumers are more positively focused on opportunities to improve their life. The former are more pessimistic and risk averse, while the latter are optimistic and more likely to take a chance on something new.

In my earlier post, some of the reader comments wondered how to frame a particular product or service in terms of a “loss.” The HBR post shows how minor the differences in wording can be:

The nuances in description can be subtle. If you are selling cars, you can choose to talk about “better mileage” (promotion) or “lower fuel costs” (prevention). You can emphasize the “bonus” features customers get if they buy the Limited Edition, or what they’d be missing out on if they didn’t buy it. If you are offering a loyalty program at your coffee shop, should you offer 10% off each cup, or tell them that after buying nine cups they get one free? What the customer gets in the end may be the same, but how they get there – through the promotion-focused strategy of seizing opportunities to gain (e.g., better mileage, bonus features, a free cup of coffee) or the prevention-focused strategy of avoiding losses (e.g., high fuel costs, an inferior product, having to pay full price for their morning joe), can be the difference between psychological night and day. [From Use Motivational Fit to Market Products and Ideas by Heidi Grant Halvorson and Jonathan Halvorson.]

Which Approach Is Best?

So which approach should you take with your product and its primary tagline? It’s simple if your product is obviously in one category or the other. If you are selling term life insurance, you will be dealing with prevention-motivated buyers; high-return but risky investments, conversely, will be purchased by promotion-motivated customers. Of course, many products fall into a broad middle ground and can be presented in either way. Toothpaste, for example, can provide “whiter teeth and fresh breath” (promotion) or “stop cavities and kill bacteria that cause gingevitis” (prevention). In these cases, the correct way to market depends more on the customer than the product.

If you can determine the motivation of the majority of your customers, that will dictate how you craft your pitch. Prevention-motivated customers mean you should adopt the “loss prevention” approach, with appropriate imagery and language. Naturally, if your customers are mostly opportunistic, you can focus on the “promotion” approach and emphasize potential gain.

Segmenting Your Customers

It’s likely that that you have BOTH kinds of customers in your target base. One safe approach would be to include both loss and gain elements, hoping for broadly based appeal. If you can, though, it would be far more effective to segment your customer base. A financial firm, for example, might find that younger investors are strongly gain oriented since they have relatively little to fear in the way of loss of existing wealth. Older investors with substantial assets who are nearing retirement, in contrast, would tend to be far more protective of what they have. Hence, direct mail or Web ads targeted at younger customers could emphasize gains and long-term growth potential, while ads for older customers would stress safety, particularly in terms of avoiding losses and preventing a reduction in future income. While that seem like common sense, understanding the motivations of each group can lead to optimal choice of wording, as we’ll see below.

Product Segmentation

Companies with many products are able to tailor individual product pitches at their likely audience. Angela Lee and Jennifer Aaker, in their paper Bringing the Frame Into Focus: The Influence of Regulatory Fit on Processing Fluency and Persuasion, provide an excellent example of this approach from an auto accessories website:

In promoting their Steel Horse Revolution Swing Away Bike Carrier, the persuasion claim focuses on “great looks and exceptional engineering. This bike carrier does it all” (, 2001b). However, when promoting their Deluxe Emergency Road and Safety Kit, a different approach is taken: “Don’t be stranded with a disabled vehicle without an emergency road and safety kit” (, 2001a). One distinction between the two persuasion claims is the focus on the desirable end states that would result from benefits gained (i.e., acquiring great looks and exceptional engineering by getting the bike carrier) versus the undesirable end states that would result from benefits lost (i.e., getting stranded by not having the emergency road and safety kit).

Match the Message

In one experiment, Aakers and Lee tested ad slogans that were expressed in four ways. Promotion and prevention taglines were used, and each one was tested in two forms: a “gain-framed” version that expressed the benefit in positive terms, and a “loss-frame” version that emphasizes the possibility of missing out on the benefit.

Promotion-oriented, gain-frame: Get Energized!

Promotion-oriented, loss-frame: Don’t Miss Out on Getting Energized!

Prevention-oriented, gain-frame: Prevent Clogged Arteries!

Prevention-oriented, loss-frame: Don’t Miss Out on Preventing Clogged Arteries!

The most effective messages were those in which the gain/loss framing matched the message: gain for promotion and loss for prevention (see chart). It’s particularly interesting in the “prevention” tagline test that the more awkward, wordy version outperformed the seemingly more direct and punchy one. I’d guess that few copywriters would choose the longer wording (unless they are Neuromarketing readers).

Dramatic Price Effects

Another paper, Transfer of Value From Fit, asked subjects what they would pay for a coffee mug after describing it in either promotion or prevention terms. When the product pitch matched the style of the individual, the price was much higher. In fact, when eager/gain-oriented subjects were willing to pay almost twice as much for the mug when it was described in promotion-oriented terms. Matching a prevention-oriented message with “vigilant/loss” subjects caused a 50% increase in the perceived value of the mug.

To put this research in prevention/loss terms, choosing the wrong message for the recipient could cause the acceptable price for it to be cut nearly in half.

Put it all together

The takeaway from all this is that you should maximize the match of your tagline to the nature of your product and the orientation of your customers. Your message should build on that, with promotion-oriented messages expressed in positive, gain-oriented terms and prevention-oriented messages framed in terms of loss. If your marketing style permits and if you can identify customer segments with different promotion/prevention orientations, craft different messages for each group. Similarly, companies with multiple product offerings can determine which products will perform best with each motivation strategy. Well-matched taglines will make your products more attractive and drive more sales.

More Examples

Do you have a tagline that you rewrote based on this research? Or do you see one from a major advertiser that could work better? Or are you stumped on how to fix your tagline? Leave a comment and share your ideas (and problems) with the rest of our readers! Here’s my contribution, in the form of two ways to pitch my new book, Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing:

  • Promotion: Be The Company Hero: Read Brainfluence, Create Explosive Sales!
  • Prevention: Don’t Waste Money, Read Brainfluence for 100 Ways to Make Your Marketing More Effective!

Over the top? Probably! Feel free to suggest your own Brainfluence tagline!

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