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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Powerlines: Words That Sell Brands, Grip Fans, and Sometimes Change History (Bloomberg)

Powerlines: Words That Sell Brands, Grip Fans, and Sometimes Change History (Bloomberg)

1 rating: 1.0
A book by Steve Cone

Why do we remember slogans for Diet Coke from the mid 1980s, but not what we had for breakfast yesterday? In this exploration of the phrases, lines and expressions so well-written and compelling that we can't forget them-no matter how hard we'd like … see full wiki

Author: Steve Cone
Publisher: Bloomberg Press
1 review about Powerlines: Words That Sell Brands, Grip...

I'm really not convinced

  • Sep 12, 2008
Rating:
+1
The second half of "Powerlines" is a decent marketing primer on taglines -- how to recognize good ones and how to create them yourself. It's useful information for advertisers and marketers to know. But Steve Cone is trying to make the tagline into something much more: a "powerline" that achieves the great things described in his subtitle. I don't think his analysis and his examples support his claims.

Cone writes "Most companies that have been marketing leaders over long periods of time employed taglines that built their brand promise into a powerful motivator for consumers to react to and purchase their product" (p. 198).

But have they? In the many examples the author gives of powerful branding taglines, he never proves the tagline was an essential element in making the sale. As the number-crunchers say, he doesn't isolate the variable. Is the "ultimate driving machine" tagline really "a major contributor to BMW's success" (p. 188)? Or is it a crystallization of a host of things -- engineering, luxury, reputation -- that have made BMW a powerful brand? After all, Toyota is the world's leader in car sales and number two in the United States, but do they have a decades-old "powerline" driving their sales? It may be a chicken-or-egg question, but that's just my point.

Perhaps the clearest example of the author's failure to link "powerline" with sales is his mention, several times, of Ed McMahon's "Heeeere's Johnny!" call at the start of Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show." Yes, it was memorable and distinctive, but was it "influential"? Only if Cone is suggesting people tuned into the program, not for the guests or the music or the comedy or Johnny himself, but to hear Ed's invocation.

I guess what my hesitation comes down to is whether "being memorable" is enough. Certainly it's nice. But as a marketer, I'm not being paid to create memories. I'm being paid to drive sales.

I said above that the second half of this book is a good marketing primer. The first half is mostly the author's discussion of memorable "powerlines" from politics and the media. Unfortunately, his explanation or analysis of these were surprisingly often flawed. (Some of these examples may be nitpicky -- but enough nits gathered in one place suggest a serious health issue.)

For example, Cone starts (pp. 8-11) by telling the stories behind some famous nursery rhymes. But much of what he tells as straightforward fact is actually theory and can't be proven. Others, like "Three Blind Mice" being about Queen Mary I or "Ring Around the Rosy" being about the plague, are urban myths debunked on well-known reference sites like snopes-dot-com. In the section on political slogans, he cites "A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" as a Hoover campaign slogan in 1928 (p. 57). In fact, as political-writer and word-maven William Safire notes in his essential Safire's New Political Dictionary, the phrase (usually given as "two cars in every garage" or "a car in every back yard") was most closely associated with Democrat Al Smith, who used it as an attack on the incumbent GOP.

Finally, a trifecta in his discussion of Theodore Roosevelt (pp. 49-50), who did not order the navy to paint its ships white (USN battleship hulls were white well before the Spanish-American War, as contemporary photographs show); he did not coin the "powerline" "White Water Navy" (the "popular way to describe naval power" is *blue*-water navy); and he did not coin the phrase "The Square Deal" "during his second term" to describe a program including "the establishment of the National Park System" (again Safire, who shows TR first used the phrase in 1901 -- that is, in his first term -- and that "the Square Deal" always referred to trust-busting and other regulation of Big Business, not to things like the park system).

In a way, all this reinforces the question I asked above: is it enough to be memorable? As Cone writes about some great movie taglines, "These lines have struck a chord with our social conscience and live on and on -- the true test of any powerline" (p. 104).

But is that marketing?

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