Book review: Battlecry

BY Mike Barber

Thoughts on what makes an effective slogan from author Laura Ries.

This issue, we’re reviewing a one-two punch from Laura Ries, co-founder of Ries & Ries with her father, Al Ries. Catch up on our review of Visual Hammer.

Quick: Can you communicate what makes your brand different from the competition in 10 words or less?

If you can’t answer the question easily, you’re not alone. Coming up with a good slogan is one of the trickiest parts of the branding business.

Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries (the other Ries is her dad, Al Ries, one of the 20th century’s most influential branding experts), offers up a few guiding principles in her latest book, Battlecry, for putting together taglines and slogans to help distinguish your brand while getting customers to remember what makes your product or service better than the rest.

Ries targets the book toward marketing professionals and executives; while a good copywriter would be familiar with many of her points, I suspect copywriters and editors could probably skim Battlecry for a refresh on the core concepts of good copy.

According to Ries, the best strategies are the obvious ones that no one else is using—and she repeatedly makes the point that abstract writing doesn’t work when you’re trying to sell stuff. Armed with ample evidence of how our brains process words and concepts, Ries contends that people remember specific concepts—think physical objects, active verbs, and not too many adjectives— far better than they do vague claims of being “innovative,” “unrivalled” or “dynamic.”

The auto and tech sectors of late have been particularly egregious offenders here. In their attempts to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, they’ve overlooked the specifics that help make their brands stand out among a very crowded field. Ries’s takedown of the use of the word “innovation” in recent years—ASUS, Bosch, NEC, Siemens, Nissan, Ford, Firestone and Toshiba have all used it—alone makes Battlecry worth picking up.

Once you’ve settled on a few concrete descriptors of what sets your brand apart, Ries offers five techniques to make your “battlecry” more memorable: rhyme, alliteration, repetition, reversal and double-entendre.

Think of the M&M’s slogan: “Melts in your mouth. Not in your hand.” Simple, specific nouns? “Mouth” and “hand,” check. Alliteration? “Melts” and “mouth,” check. Reversal? It’s melting in one place, not the other; check.

Or “A Diamond is forever,” the slogan that convinced millions of boyfriends to fork over thousands of dollars to put a tiny stone on their significant others’ fingers. Ries considers it the prototypical double-entendre slogan, referencing both the durability of a diamond and the commitment to “forever” signified by marriage. Those four words singlehandedly changed the diamond industry, and de Beers has been smart enough to avoid mucking around with it too much over the past 70 years.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Battlecry is Ries’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of slogans from the past 100 years—for every piece of advice Ries offers, she provides a smattering of slogans that either follow the lesson in question or stray from it, with predictable results. Writing about writing often ends up drowning in details relevant to only professional scribes, but Ries manages to supply dozens of real-world examples to demonstrate her (somewhat) technical points while keeping the text simple and breezy.

One minor concern is that the book doesn’t say much about digital advertising, instead devoting its pages to television and print campaigns. This leads to the question of whether slogans and taglines have the same effect when read on a Twitter feed, on Facebook or on a banner ad as they do when heard on television. For that matter, are slogans and taglines still useful when brands are engaged in a continuing, more fluid conversation with their customers via these same channels?

For certain, Ries’s advice on the kinds of words and literary devices to use hold true across various media, in advertising and beyond. Good writing is good writing, regardless of what surface it’s written on. And while I’d be keen to hear her thoughts on how the concepts presented in Battlecry can be applied to the digital world, Ries has done the copywriting world a real favour here by distilling just what it is that makes a slogan work.