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Clever Phrases Woo the Ear, Stick in the Brain

‘Just Do It’ is the iconic slogan for Nike. Clever phrases are common in marketing, but less so in public affairs where they could help simplify complex issues with words that woo the ear and stick in the brain.

‘Just Do It’ is the iconic slogan for Nike. Clever phrases are common in marketing, but less so in public affairs where they could help simplify complex issues with words that woo the ear and stick in the brain.

Word JazzThe Curse of CashLord of the Flies. Each of these catchy titles evokes a mental picture by wooing the ear.

Through startling juxtaposition, clever alliteration and logical incongruity, these titles have become earworms that reinforce the resonating power of carefully crafted phrasing.

While we live in a visual world where visual communications dominate, clever phrases still have a place in earning valuable mindshare with target audiences. Nike has the swoosh, but is defined by its catchphrase, “Just Do It.” KFC says all you need to know about what it serves with its tagline “finger lickin’ good.” Taco Bell’s invitation to try something different is summed up with “Think outside the bun.” 

Brand marketers definitely appreciate the value of clever phrases, but strangely public affairs professionals have been slower to embrace them. In truth, it is no harder – or easier – to simplify a complex public issue than it is to project an image of a brand personality.

The Willamette Valley Wineries Association is asking the 2019 Oregon legislature to approve a suite of three bills that deal with wine labeling. Like most legislative issues, there are lots of details. But to capture the reputational importance of the legislation, WVWA says, “What’s on the label should match what’s in the bottle.” Simple. Direct. Unarguable.

Clean Water Services has earned awareness for its advanced water purification technologies through its clever Pure Water Brew Challenge that invites brewers to create tasty beers literally from bath water.

Clean Water Services has earned awareness for its advanced water purification technologies through its clever Pure Water Brew Challenge that invites brewers to create tasty beers literally from bath water.

Clean Water Services sponsors the Pure Water Brew Challenge to highlight its water purification technology – and remind people of the value of water re-use. The idea has caught on as water agencies in other states are staging similar bathroom-to-beer fests. 

The Oregon State Treasury wanted a name and tagline that instantly described its new state-sponsored retirement savings program for workers whose employers don’t offer a plan. Treasury’s PR team came up with “OregonSaves” and the tagline “Work hard. Save easy,” which conveys the convenience of saving for retirement through automatic payroll deductions. 

This isn’t glibness for glibness’ sake. Clever phrases do a favor for target audiences by condensing meaning to a memorable few words – an earworm that wiggles deeper into their brains. More important, an ear-worthy description of a measure is the best defense against opponents who will try to smudge up the situation.

Voice talent extraordinaire Ken Nordine, who died last week, created the phrase “Word Jazz” for his 1957 album of beat poetry and then turned it into a defining title for a radio program that lasted for 40 years. The phrase accurately described his legendary voice, which included coaching Linda Blair for “The Exorcist,” the Grateful Dead and David Bowie. Word jazz emerged as more than a title and has become an emblem for a kind of evocative speech. The phrase is too rich to die. 

The Curse of Cash” author Kenneth Rogoff used his provocative title to entice readers to consider why large-denomination bills cause more trouble than benefit. Bills larger than $100, he says, are more likely to be used in drug deals and tax evasion than everyday commerce. Rogoff’s title piggybacks on the common phrase “cash is king.”

Sometimes clever phrases pop into mind, seemingly out of nowhere. More often, they are the product of hard thinking, creative collaboration and trial and error. [Nike’s slogan grew out of a brainstorming session and was a takeoff on the last words of a convicted murderer.] Whatever the route, clever phrases can mean the difference between wowing an audience and making an audience yawn.

A clever phrase isn’t a substitute for a good idea or a worthy cause. However, a clever phrase is an effective tool to plant that good idea or worthy cause into people’s consciousness. The clever phrase can produce a shared understanding and respect for an idea or cause. The clever phrase can serve as a call to action, turning a listener into an advocate. The clever phrase, as the saying goes, can “win the day.”

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.