The five ages of brand by John Simmons

By Guest Contributor John Simmons

Author of We, Me, Them & It, John Simmons, explains how brands’ straplines changed over the last 50 years.

I’ve just been asked to create a strapline for an international charity. That prompted me to think about the changing perceptions of such lines in the world of branding. One of the changes is that now, well into the 21st century, we think differently about brands than we used to do at this point in the 20thcentury. Now a brand can be a charity, or a country, or a person, while the concept was previously rooted in products from the FMCG area of commercial life.

So, partly spurred by the inevitable retrospection that comes with the republication of my book We, Me, Them & It 21 years after its original edition, I have been seeing how straplines of my own creation have changed over the last 40 years. I wondered if they reflected a change in the commercial context. So I’ve looked at five straplines I’ve created, one for each decade. What movement do they reflect?

  • 1980s

At Newell and Sorrell, I was one of the team that worked on a new identity for Royal Mail Parcels. Royal Mail, as a long-established nationalised business, needed to show that it could take on new international entrants into the UK parcel delivery business – UPS, FedEx, DHL. The infrastructure was there but did customers believe that Royal Mail had the will to take on the competition? I came up with the strapline “The Power to Deliver” to go with the bold ParcelForce name.

  • 1990s

Throughout this decade I was working with Waterstone’s on their marketing of every different kind of book. In contrast to the ParcelForce assertion of power, Waterstone’s took a more playful approach to reflect the sheer variety of books. We developed away from monolithic consistency and created a verbal system in which we associated quotations from books – eg “Only connect” – with a purpose drawn from that quotation “Books to make connections”. This allowed almost infinitely adaptable lines to be created. ”Books to make a point”, “Books for now” and so on.

  • 2000s

As described in We, Me, Them & It, my work with industrial gases company Air Products focused on its ability to solve problems for clients. The approach was based on Air Products people listening and building relationships. Conversations led to understanding and a problem-solving attitude, which I reflected in the strapline “Tell me more”. We were heading into an age of greater social engagement.

  • 2010s

The education sector became more and more competitive, and the need increased for differentiation between institutions that might previously have seen themselves as non-commercial believers in education as a social good. I was asked by Mountview, a theatre school that was moving from north to south London, to define them in a way that was true but caught the attention of potential students. “Dramatic training” was the result.

  • 2020s

Finally, can we take any clue for where we might be heading with the strapline I created last year for a small Irish publisher of children’s books? Perhaps not, but I like the line I created for Little Island, not least because it related well to the visual logo and proclaimed confidence in its product for the whole sector. A sign that small independents can still take on big corporates and not be afraid to take a leadership position. The line is “Books create waves”.

Perhaps not surprisingly that line is also one that reflects my own personal belief in the power of words and books.

My favourite strapline? It’s hard to neat Nike’s ‘Just do it’ – conjures up so many stories. What’s yours?


John Simmons is a leading writer in the world of brands, often cited as ‘the inventor of tone-of-voice as a branding discipline’. The book that set out his philosophy is now being republished by LID in a new edition, 21 years after its first publication. It’s become a cult book since first publication, as relevant today as ever. John went on to found two influential organisations for writers – 26 and Dark Angels – that continue to champion more creative writing for business. He’s the author of many books on brands and writing, as well as a novelist and poet.

Suggested Reading

It’s no good having a good idea if you cannot communicate it to someone else. We, Me, Them & It demonstrates how we can write and use words more creatively and persuasively in business today. From differentiating your company from another, to injecting life and vibrancy into your products and services, to writing everyday emails, this cult business book by the modern-day guru of business writing (now released as a new 21stanniversary edition) shows ways in which we can use words to gain competitive advantage in business life through “tone of voice”.  

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