Slogans, straplines and the need for clarity

11 May 2020
Slogans, straplines and the need for clarity

In business, confusion usually leads to a loss of sales. For a Government in a Coronavirus crisis, it can lead to a loss of lives. For both, clear and meaningful messaging is essential.

“Stay at home” was crystal-clear. It was a surprisingly effective instruction. “Stay alert” is ambiguous and has been widely greeted with derision. Do we need to stay alert because Government communications are confusing? Of course, moving from a binary to a non-binary situation - lockdown to lockdown-easing - is challenging and sloganising the transition is fraught with danger. Slogans are good in binary situations and the Government’s advisers have previous form in simplifying complex messages into a simple strapline, like “Take back control” and “Get Brexit done”. But they have now fallen into the trap of trying to serialise the original concept; using some of the same characters.


From a brand perspective, a brand proposition should always describe the customer benefit in alignment with the brand’s purpose. So what is the purpose of the Government’s lockdown easing? Surely that’s getting us back to work, safely, so the economy can restarted. While we all understood what “Stay at home” meant, how can we go back to work, yet "Stay alert" to an invisible, microscopic airborne virus?

The sloganeer has fallen into the trap of trying to replicate the triple-whammy rhythm of the first slogan – “Stay at home, Protect the NHS, Save lives” – by reinforcing the prefix ‘Stay’ in its replacement – “Stay alert, Control the virus, Save lives”. This feels like executive tidiness taking precedence over meaning and has led to a woolly strapline. It would probably be more effective in communicating its purpose by saying "Keep your distance, Control the virus, Save Lives". The graphic presentation, too, is shabby and looks like it's been put together with Letraset and flooring tape.


But isn't something missing? It would seem that as soon as the NHS gets us through the first peak, the Government drops it from the cast. In brand equity terms this is madness. The NHS ranks higher in the public’s affection than any Government, and the chief medical officer is probably trusted more than cabinet ministers. Protecting the NHS to save lives was the clear purpose behind the first Coronavirus slogan, which led to emotional engagement with communities coming together in a time of crisis in their admiration for our national health service. This value is squandered in the follow up, implying it is now time for everyone to stay alert and look after themselves, while they avoid public transport to get to work.

We need clarity, and we need to be encouraged to take a little more personal responsibility. We know we must continue to wash our hands regularly and keep a safe physical distance from others, even if we are confused about wearing masks. We must continue to avoid doing anything that might lead to overwhelming the NHS. If this is correct, we need a more effective slogan for keeping R below 1 during lockdown easing and not an unintelible equation.

Ironically, it seems that the Government’s sloganiser-in-chief has been anything but alert to the value of the clarity and the emotional engagement imbued in his first Covid-19 slogan.

P.S. He could also do with a decent designer.

P.P.S. "Hands, Face, Space" is the latest slogan to be met with derision. James O'Brien on LBC and others have summed it up as "Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes." It seems the Government is running the communication strategy for the worst health crisis in recent history by slogan, and it's widely considered not to be working. Know the limits of soundbites, especially when things are deadly serious.

Peter Matthews
Nucleus Founder & CEO
11 May 2020

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