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Creating a Theme Line That Works

I was recently privileged to be involved in developing a new theme line (tag line, slogan, whatever you prefer) for a world-renowned annual aviation event for a nonprofit association. The exercise provided some valuable lessons about tag line development that you can use in your organization.

The Backstory

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh is a gathering of Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) members and guests—aviation enthusiasts from all walks of life—that takes place for one week each year in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The event is the annual convention of EAA members as well as a world-renown fly-in and air show. It's a weeklong celebration packed with superlatives: 700,000 attendees, 10,000 airplanes, 5,000 volunteers, 2,000 show planes, 700 exhibitors, 500 forums and seminars, incredible daily air shows, evening entertainment, and much more.

Packaging an event as large and diverse as AirVenture (and explaining it to the many target audiences) is a complex task. For the past decade or so, the event depended on "annual themes" to create interest, build media buzz, and give members and visitors a reason to come back year after year. Sometimes, these themes played off of historical events, such as the centennial of powered flight in 2003, but in most cases, the themes were simply contrived, with attractions developed to tie into those themes. In the year 2000, for example, the theme was "speed," and air racers and other speedy innovations took center stage.

These contrived themes, however, were not building equity in AirVenture—a sub-brand of EAA. Further, they required that marketing efforts essentially start from scratch each year with a fresh expression of the new theme. The branding team at EAA explored the options. The lessons resulting from this process can be applied to any organization or branding exercise.

  1. Don't be afraid to change—even if it doesn't seem "broken."
    Although the annual themes were working—people seemed to like the special events built around them, and it gave the media something "new" to talk about each year—the branding team believed that a perennial theme line would help define the event for the uninitiated, help describe the breadth and scope of the event, and convey that this was not just a run-of-the-mill air show. A new theme line could help provide continuity to the AirVenture brand and differentiate the event.

  2. If it's possible, mirror what the market is already saying. We discovered that when the media, EAA members, the exhibitors, and performers at the event talked about it, several consistent themes kept popping up: "world's biggest," "greatest," "family reunion," "premier event." Although the team agreed that we wanted the new theme line to express passion, participation, immersion, innovation, and fun, it was helpful to see and hear what others were already saying about AirVenture. These themes were factored into our thinking.

  3. Ground it in truth, believability, and relevance.
    Like any tag line (see the box below), we knew that the new theme line had to be believable—based on truth, not puffery. In addition, our core markets had to care about what we were saying. It had to matter ... to them. Thankfully, AirVenture already had a reputation as a world-class event, attracting high-level politicians, Hollywood stars, famous sports personalities, and aviation enthusiasts from all over the globe. So in this case, superlatives were descriptive, not just puffery.

  4. Simple is okay; sometimes overly clever or uber-creative can actually hurt.
    As the team discussed and brainstormed these various objectives, we began furiously scribbling ideas. We arrived at more than 100 possible solutions. When we looked at the results and voted on our favorites, we were somewhat underwhelmed. Where was the cutting-edge creativity, the "wow-you-guys-are clever," eureka-type ideas? Then we realized that it didn't matter. One solution resonated with the group. Although simple, it met all our criteria from believability to relevance to descriptive:

    EAA AirVenture Oshkosh
    The World's Greatest Aviation CelebrationTM
Why was this phrase the phrase of the hundred or so developed?

  • "Celebration" speaks to participation and involvement.
  • It provided a simple, memorable definition of the event for newbies and the media.
  • We could begin to build brand equity with consistency.
  • It staked a claim—a true point of differentiation.
  • It's appealing, enticing, and inviting, making members of the association want to be a part of the event.
  • It's broad enough to appeal to diverse target markets.
  • It mirrors attendee perceptions.
The perennial theme was an unequivocal success. This past summer's EAA AirVenture Oshkosh was one of the most successful in the association's half-century history. It truly is The World's Greatest Aviation CelebrationTM.

Some Simple Tag Line Criteria

If your organization—or its various offerings—has no tag line, or you currently have a weak, uninspired, or un-aligned tag line, here are some questions to ask:

  1. Is your tag line memorable? (Think, "Just Do It.")
  2. Is your tag line original, and does it make a confident statement? (Think, "Breakfast of Champions.")
  3. Is your tag line easy to say? (Think, "We try harder.")
  4. Does your tag line allow your prospects to recall your name? (Think, "Always the low price. Always.")
  5. Does your tag line communicate your brand essence? (Think, "Diamonds are forever.")
  6. Will your tag line help move the brand toward its goals? (Think, "The real thing.")

Michael DiFrisco, BrandXcellence
© 2005, BrandXcellence

Michael DiFrisco is president of BrandXcellence, offering self-guided and facilitated brand strategy workshops and brand-driven marketing services to improve the accountability and ROI of your nonprofit's marketing and communications. Visit

Topics: Communications