Dec 10

Searching for Mr. Goodtheme

For the marketing addicts amongst us, a great theme line is like a work of art. A crappy one is like that car accident you can’t stop staring at.

Some do such a great job of distinguishing a company from its competition, they last for decades. They might even work so well, they ultimately make themselves unnecessary. Others are left twisting in the wind until they die of malnutrition.

Some relatively recent changes in the world of theme lines are worth noting.

UPS. For me, a great theme line and a great campaign is enough to make me completely forget past sins. I’m easy that way. What can brown do for you? gave me hives. Yeah, I know, brown is the official color of UPS. It’s just a downer in real life. It’s so bad, Microsoft thought it was good, launching Zune with a brown model that quickly bombed. Of course, this shows how much I know — the UPS Brown campaign was apparently a big success, running for years. But now we have We (heart) logistics, and it gives me a whole new feeling about UPS. Just as the previous theme line tried to turn a boring color into a positive, this one turns a boring topic into a passion. I want my package delivery company to see glory in logistics. Add to this line a great launch commercial, and UPS has a campaign to be proud of. Thankfully, with a minimum of brown.

Dell. Poor, hapless Dell. Even when they rise above their dubious marketing history and attempt to unify their divisions with a common theme line, they manage to confuse things by unveiling two new theme lines at once. While the press covers the new You can tell it’s Dell campaign, the real theme line sits unnoticed under the Dell logo: The power to do more.

Not content to echo one company’s famous theme line, they shamelessly rip off two — including one that was once big in their own industry. They start with Apple (The power to be your best) and top it off with American Express (Do more). If you’re going to start with the words, “The power of” (only 428,000,000 Google results on that one, literally), you’d better be prepared to dazzle with what comes next. There’s little dazzling going on here. Worse still, the line just doesn’t reflect reality. Can you really do more with a Dell than you can with an HP? Is a Dell more affordable than an Acer? This is the kind of line whose one major positive is that the whole committee could agree on it.

BMW. The ultimate driving machine has a place in the Theme Line Hall of Fame. It’s hard to imagine a line that better expresses the spirit of a company. Yet all good things must come to an end. At some point, the BMW marketing team decided — rightfully or wrongfully — that they needed to appeal to a different kind of driver. And so we get Joy is BMW. Not nearly as manly, it tries to tap new into new emotions in both sexes. A couple of problems with this line. First, it sucks. I’m sure it comes as a shock to the global BMW culture, whose millions of members take pride in the spirit of the Ultimate Driving Machine. Second, BMW feels it’s necessary to keep the life raft handy. They keep the Ultimate line around, tucked in the corner, so they can point to it and say they still believe in it. Not very brave.

When a theme line works to the extreme, it can actually work itself out of a job. Its meaning is absorbed into the logo itself. Nike was able to drop “Just do it” from their ads, but the spirit remains. Apple has been line-less for about as long, with their “Think different” positioning well articulated by that simple apple shape. But this kind of branding nirvana is rare.

Other companies continue to search for their own Ultimate Driving Machine. A few will land on something truly authentic, as UPS did with We (heart) logistics — which serves as both a rallying cry for employees and a beacon for customers. The Dells of the world will continue to serve up lines like The power to do more, which sit quietly in the corner until one day they are put out of their misery.

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  • Drew

    @Ken – Do you seen any relation between the length of a theme and its effectiveness? I really like Nike’s “Just do it” and Apple’s “Think Different” because they are so short and to the point. Dell’s “You can tell it’s a Dell” doesn’t communicate anything to me about the company or their positioning. In fact, it just gives Dell-haters more fodder for their cannons.

    “You can tell it’s a Dell, because it sucks.”

  • ken segall

    I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules on length of the line. In general, the shorter the better, just because it’s easier to remember. An old UPS line, “We run the tightest ship in the shipping business,” was praised by many, but was pretty darn long. Content and meter go a long way to determining how memorable the line is. In the case of Dell’s line, you’d think that those in charge would have given lots of thought to the many ways others might screw with the line to turn it against them. Guess not!

  • qka


    How about “You can smell it’s a Dell”?

  • rd

    Latest BMW commercials seems to
    have changed their messaging to
    “Get the original”

    I don’t see anything original about BMW.
    Their engines are not impressive at all.
    no innovation period. just look at their racing
    All car companies are just shell of third party OEM
    made components.
    only thing distinguishing is their

  • Drew

    @rd: I actually disagree – I think the BMW 5 series is one of the most copied cars out there. “Get the Original” could pander to that.

    @qka: Lol, I like it.

  • Denzil

    Ha – I love how Dell just pile words together until they no longer make sense in any context.

    I just saw a banner ad for their Christmas sale where they claim that you can ‘Give it all’. It then gives suggestions of what you might give.

    ‘Smiles’, ‘Delight’, ‘fun’ and ‘joy’ – OK, I get those ones but there are 2 other suggestions, which Dell seem to be obsessed with putting into all their creative whether it makes sense to do so or not…

    ‘Value’ – do you really give value, surely anything given is the ultimate value – it’s free!

    ‘Mobility’ – My granny would be very happy if Dell could truly deliver this for her but I think it may have been lost in translation from Dell to English.

    Oh, Dell – whatever next? I’d suggest going back to the drawing board but I think the board is full of new product designs for the inevitable New Inspiron-Mini-Maxi-Mobile-Ultra-Slim-Studio-15-Adamo XPS

  • Denzil

    Perhaps their line should be simply.

    Dell. A bit confused.