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Is Your Brand ‘the Best’? Maybe It Shouldn’t Be

Source: Brandweek, 22 September 2009 by Robert Klara

Recently, this writer stopped into Starbucks for his usual venti vanilla iced coffee and, retrieving the beverage at the pick-up counter, was greeted with a jarring exaltation from the on-duty barista. “If that’s not the best venti vanilla iced coffee you’ve ever had,” he boomed at me, “I’ll make you another one!”

Wow. Did he really mean the best I’ve ever had—ever? After a few sips, I decided that, while the coffee was probably not the absolute best of my life, it was a decent enough cup of joe that I wasn’t about to ask him to try again. Besides, he was so busy promising everyone else in line that they were about to get “the best” coffee of their own lives, the man clearly had his hands full. (Later that same week, in a different Starbucks location, I heard another barista deliver the same line, so it was clear that this promising of “the best” was a revelation that had probably come straight from the marketers at HQ.)

Which got me thinking. Is using the superlative form as a marketing claim really such a good idea?

Certainly, it’s not a new one. In fact, in the annals of advertising, saying you’re the best (or an equivalent form, such as “We’re No. 1”) is among the oldest brags going. And why not? It’s quick, bold, easy to understand, and leaves no ambiguities to ponder. (After all, who doesn’t want the best for his money?) This is, perhaps, why so many brands have used the claim over the years. A quick Google search will show you the countless ones that still do. RMS Reprint Management Services (“We’re the best”); a shop in Green Bay, Wisc., called the Camera Corner (“We’re the best!”); Professional Carpet Cleaning of New South Wales, Australia (“Why we’re the best!”); Teigan Management (“We’re the best. Period”)—and on it goes. According to Katherine Jones, who runs the U.K.-based consultancy AdSlogans, the superlative form is “the most over-used type of slogan in [our] database.” A quick look at that database revealed 17 companies that currently claim to be the best at what they do. The only variation was the occasional use of an ellipses (“Simply… the best”) or an exhortation (“The best!”)

One has to wonder if Tina Tuner is sorry that she ever recorded her song “The Best”—which most people know as “Simply the Best”—back in 1989, given the song’s merciless reincarnation in marketing land during the 20 years since. For example, Tina can be heard belting out “The Best” in a 1993 commercial for, of all things, rugby’s Winfield Cup. Most recently, the song showed up as the backing track on a feel-good spot for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, “The Best,” was actually chosen by popular vote. (The song was also picked over write-in suggestions that included Beck’s “Lost Cause” and Southpaw Jones’ “Communist Girlfriend.”)

I have to suppose that, in some cases, brand marketers might opt for the superlative form by default. Believe it or not, the comparative construction is actually risker to use. In 2000, Pizza Hut won a ruling from a federal court in Dallas that prohibited rival Papa John’s from using the word “better” in any of its advertising. The trouble started with Papa John’s slogan: “Better ingredients, better pizza.” Pizza Hut said the claim was misleading because it suggested its ingredients were inferior. Since then, marketers have confronted the curious legal paradigm that prohibited Papa John’s from claiming its pizza was “better,” but gave Pizza Hut blanket permission to boast that its was the best—which is exactly what the chain did. “Best pizzas under one roof” emerged as the Hut’s slogan in 2001.

I doubt that a multibillion-dollar brand like Pizza Hut would sink its money into a total dog of a slogan, but would it be too much to ask if all these claims of “the best” are really, well, the best that today’s marketers can come up with? It’s a question that occurred to Jones long before it did to me. “It is still a mystery to us,” she says, “why so many creatives consider using generic slogans when an original catchy tagline proves time and again to be more successful.”

Why, indeed. Of the 100 most influential tag lines since 1948—a list compiled by San Mateo, Calif.-based The Byline Group—not one contains “the best” as a claim. In fact, only two even get close: Budweiser’s “The King of Beers” (if you’re the king, one can presume you’re the best, right?) and Lexus’ “The relentless pursuit of perfection.” In the latter case, the brand is merely claiming that it’s trying to be the best, a promise that connotes the engaging image of engineers slaving away for nights on end at the drafting table in a quest to bring you the finest set of wheels on the road.

And maybe that’s where the lesson lies. According to tagline veteran and Byline Group president Eric Swartz, “Consumers are impressed by a healthy dose of humility. Those companies claiming to have made it to the pinnacle don’t appear lean and hungry; they’re fat and happy. Companies that strive to achieve have pluck—and our undying admiration.” Witness one of the most effective taglines in history: DDB’s “We try harder” for Avis. Brands, Swartz adds, use the superlative form out of two reasons: laziness and lack of imagination.

Which brings me back to Starbucks. Next time I walk in there, instead of guaranteeing me that I’m about to sip the best coffee of my mortal existence, maybe a quick, “We hope that’s even better than yesterday’s!” would be just fine.

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