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The Secret of Creating a Great Catchphrase

Mary writes copy for a wide range of clients and their products. She has a master's degree in English literature and is a prolific blogger.

An example catchphrase.

An example catchphrase.

Art and Craft

Product catchphrases fill the commercial world, phrases so ubiquitous and sunk in folk memory that many people merrily recite advertising jingles created for products that they have never even used.

Consider the following phrases: “finger-lickin' good”, “because you’re worth it” and “the wonderful everyday”.

One, curious thing about the above phrases is that none of them name the company or even—directly—the product they are touting. This is because successful catchphrases have a quality that I will explore later on.

All well-known catchphrases are different, yet the same universal devices go into their creation. Creating one is a craft, which in time rises to an art. This article explores the common devices and brings you through a fantasy catchphrase creation exercise.

Supposing a client has created a range of spicy sauces, based upon olives, and wants a great slogan to spearhead an extensive marketing campaign?

The Fantasy Exercise

The first challenge is to render the phrase short and sweet.

Remember that the catchphrase is not a vehicle for Byzantine poetry. It should always be short and simple, three to five words being the general rule.

Among other matters, this makes the phrase easy to remember.

Word Gathering

Bearing this in mind, the next task is to assemble a collection of words and choose those that most powerfully evoke the sensations desired by the product marketer.

For the purpose of my notional olive-based sauce, I provide the following list, though you can add many more words: crunchy, salty, robust, tasty, green, delicious, food, nutritious, flavour, sauce, stylish, super, spicy, bite, blend, classic, healthy.

Work through the alphabet and write down every word, from the most obvious words like “food” and “sauce” to those that—at first sight—might not seem to have a connection with the product, for example, stylish.

I added this word to the list because I reckoned that all of those advertisements portraying fashionable young people holding glasses with one, well-chosen olive bobbing in the liquor had universally imprinted the notion of the olive as a style accessory.

When you are happy with your list—and do spend much time on this—pull out three or four words that express most powerfully what is exciting and special about your product.

Special and Timeless

The majority of products develop from a concept, a single idea that stakes them out in the crowded marketplace—think of an actual market-stall vendor crying his wares.

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In the broader commercial world, this is called the USP or unique selling point.

It is highlighting this USP that will render the catchphrase as unique as the product.

Remember that the catchphrase should not date easily.

Many of the most memorable phrases have been around since the 1950s, the herald of the consumerist age. The political and the topical may be fine in daily newspapers and magazines, but it rarely works in the world of branding.

I am selling a sauce, so my first word is “sauce”.

I decided that my sauce was going to sell on taste, so my next word is “tasty”.

The taste of my sauce is spicy, so I pulled out “spicy”.

And I have already explored my rationale for choosing the word “stylish”.

So, the word group I select for my fantasy sauce is:

“sauce, tasty, spicy, stylish”.

No, I wasn’t impressed, either.

At this point, do not panic if your words do not seem to make a jingle.

And even if they seem to run into a jingle, now is not the time to get excited; like so many man-made plans, a seemingly suitable set of words can land on the rocks.

And it is not yet time to discard your original word list; if you have ever tried to create a catchphrase, you will understand why.

I reorganised the words and came up with “stylish, spicy, tasty sauce”.

Give It Time

This phrase seemed close to the mark, so I began to feel excited.

My jingle with its alliterative opening “spicy, stylish” seemed to have it all sewn up.

Yet, the next morning, I could not remember the phrase without referring to my notes—always a signal of a poor catchphrase.

This is why the time element in creating a phrase is so significant.

I needed a new idea or ideas to finish it off, so I called in the logo.

As part of my fantasy exercise, I had already created the image of a green olive against the background of a red bottle. As I looked at the logo, the words

“cool olive, hot bottle” came to mind.

This is because of colour association and how we regard blue and green as “cool” colours, and orange and red as hot.

Two problems: this jingle seemed a million miles from my earlier word lineup.

And the second phrase, despite its reference to the logo, just did not look right.

My catchphrase is meant to sell sauces, not bottles.

It was time for another night’s sleep—and a little wordplay.

Playing With Words

Next session, I compared my original effort “stylish, spicy, tasty sauce” with

“cool olives, hot bottle”.

As I did so, a word association came to mind.

The word “cool” is the universally acclaimed colloquialism for fashionable, in other words, “stylish”.

So, it seemed appropriate to replace my original word “stylish” with “cool”.

And since I was selling a taste or flavour, rather than actual olives, it was appropriate to change “cool olives” to “cool taste”.

Nor did “hot bottle” sound right, so I looked once more at my original ensemble of words and there it was, jumping off of the page, “sauce”, ergo the “cool taste, hot sauce”.

In other words, the product is based on olives, a “cool” product both in the sense of its green colour and its desirability, in a “hot” or spicy sauce.

Eventually, I reversed the clauses to end up with "hot sauce, cool taste".

Incidentally, this linguistic device of placing two words or ideas that seem to contradict one another, in the same phrase or sentence, is called an “oxymoron”.

It is a device often used in poetry and copywriting—for example, “bittersweet” to puzzle the listener, adding interest to the phrase—and making it memorable.

Talking Point or Puzzle

Ikea has pushed this technique to the edge with its slogan “the wonderful everyday”.

Put simply, the company makes wonderful products for everyday use.

Now, the phrase has become a catch-all for every wonderful, everyday product, while acting as a glorious advertisement for IKEA.

Making It Memorable

“Easy peasy, lemon squeezy,” shouted a young girl, as I walked past a playground.

The creator of this jingle for a US washing-up liquid employed a glorious linguistic device known as “head rhyming”, that is, all of the word beginnings in the jingle echoing one another, with one maverick word “lemon” in their midst.

Fifty years following its creation, we still use this phrase. The rule is that if the kids can remember it, then the adults can too, children having an ear for rhyme.

Where possible, employ the linguistic devices that make your catchphrase memorable. Other devices include alliteration end-rhyming and onomatopoeia.

Employing Ellipsis

One linguistic device common to the catchphrase is that, while it is memorable, it sounds curiously incomplete, for example, “I’m lovin’ it” and “finger-lickin' good”.

In creating these phrases, the branders have employed a linguistic device known as ellipsis, a phrase that works fine on its own but will fit snugly into complete sentences, for example, the wonderful everyday bookcases look good.

I checked out “hot sauce, cool taste” and it ticked that box.

The Correct Target

Another quality of the memorable catchphrase is that it does not directly mention the product, for example, “I’m lovin’ it”.

This is because the catchphrase refers to what the product does, not what it is.

Every product has a purpose, and your catchphrase must reflect this—are you appeasing hunger, killing thirst or appealing to emotions like vanity, fear or loneliness?

Significant also is the target market. When Kentucky coined “finger-lickin' good”, it had in mind the type of consumer who would buy a take-away meal and lick his fingers afterward.

Testing Won’t Hurt

Before setting out a full-scale marketing exercise involving a newly-created catchphrase, do test it first.

Create, say, three variations on one theme.

Mine could be

“hot sauce, cool taste”

“cool taste, spicy sauce”

“delicious taste, hot sauce”

Ask people—customers, suppliers, colleagues—which phrase they like the best.

Or you can write three similar blog posts, each incorporating one of the phrases, and check your hit counter to see which one wins the most hits.

Or ask a group of very young people—with their parents’ permission—which phrase delights the most—remember the young girl reciting “easy, peasy”?

The Final Checklist

When I checked my phrase “hot sauce, cool taste” against the full list of criteria, I decided that I was on to something.

Brevity: It is short, only four words long.

Unique: The phrase did not pull out one hit on Google—or maybe I’m just not good at search engine-ing?

Timeless: I reckon people will always long for great-tasting sauce.

Tie-in with product logo: See above.

Embodies at least one linguistic device: In my phrase, ellipsis and an oxymoron.

Targeted: The phrase hints at certain qualities in the product rather than directly touting the brand name—which I haven't decided on yet.

Tested: As mine is a fantasy exercise, I haven’t tested it yet. However, if a brilliant chef creates a sauce to match my phrase, I will certainly put it into use.


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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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