The Case for a Performing Tagline

Katrina Glerum

[Katrina Glerum wrote this squib while working for Barclays Global Investors. She writes by way of introduction:

"....About a year and a half ago, when I arrived at Barclays Global Investors, my boss, the head of US Marketing, was working on a expensive, beautiful positioning and advertising campaign. Gorgeous stuff. Totally unique, intelligent, approachable.

In that work was a tagline, "Performance as planned."

It's an excellent tagline for BGI. It speaks of the industry. "Performance" alludes to finance. Planning captures the company's philosophy. Quantitative investing. BGI thinks that theoretical approaches to investing can consistently out-perform people. Plus, it's alliterative, balanced, catchy, punchy and all the rest.

The only problem is, you're not allowed to use promissory language in advertising in this industry. The chief counsel for BGI pronounced, "Performance as planned" is promissory, and she even staked her job on it.

The Chairman herself backed down. "Perfomance as planned" was killed.

How annoying. The problem was, Counsel was absolutely correct. There is at least one possible causative interpretation in which the performance which was achieved was both what was planned for and was achieved as a result of the planning.

When I heard about the chief counsel killing this tagline, I was disappointed for all the reasons I've given, but I figured she was right. Leaning in the doorframe of my colleague's office—who was the person most responsible for putting this campaign together—I pondered for a moment. I kicked the door and wrinkled my nose and furrowed my brow in irritation. And then I laughed, "Well, how about 'Performance is planned'?"

"That's not promissory. It's not causative. It's descriptive. It simply declares that performance is planned, not that planned performance is achieved. And it's certainly true that BGI spends a lot of time planning for performance." (I didn't speak quite so eloquently at the time.)

Everyone liked it but were too weary to fight for it. So I promised I would write a semantics paper about the topic. I used to do this all the time, after all.

So I woke up early the next day, and introducing myself as a person who used to be a theoretical linguist (theoretically used to be a linguist?), I wrote something intended to serve as the basis of legal defense in case "Performance is planned" ever got challenged.

It was all part of my master plan of becoming a thorn in as many powerful corporate feet as possible."]

Given that the phrase, "Performance is planned", has been proposed as a tagline for Barclays Global Investors, the purpose of this paper to explore possible interpretations of this phrase, with specific attention paid to the aspect of promissory intent.

As this is part of a wider discussion that has ensued for the past several months, we will refer to the work that has gone before on earlier proposals, namely "Performance as planned" and "Performance. Precision. Partnership." This, we hope, will establish our position that "Performance is planned" is different from previous suggestions in a slight but significant way that is both logically definable and legally defensible as not promissory.

As a side note before entering the semantics side of this argument, we feel it is important to mention a few key points about the proposed tagline that don't pertain to its legal defensibility per se, but are strong arguments in favor of its adoption nevertheless, and should not be discounted lightly. That is, "Performance is planned" (which shares all the advantages of "Performance as planned") is a great example of what a tagline should be. It is the product of months of focused research, debate and effort, distilled into a single phrase that is perceived as powerful and memorable, inside and outside the firm. It captures the essence of our brand, our core philosophy, our industry and our value proposition. Moreover, frankly, its alliterative and prosodic qualities make it quite catchy.

What is promissory?

First it is useful to analyze "promissory". What exactly is it that we are enjoined against advertising? This is important because in fact, we are not proscribed from all promissory messages. Promissory simply means giving some sort of promise or guarantee. Well, we are allowed to promise some things. We can promise to be trustworthy. We can promise to treat our customers like partners. We can promise to plan carefully and execute precisely. What we are not allowed to advertise is a promise of any specific performance—good, bad or indifferent.

Performance is a feature of our industry. It is the underlying measuring stick for product value. So simply mentioning performance, such as in the phrase "Performance. Precision. Partnership.", is not deemed promissory, because we certainly are going to provide performance, as is every one of our competitors, whether it's a good year or a bad year. Sure, it's assumed that we are suggesting good performance, because it's a basic assumption that advertisers always promote themselves or their products, but the phrase "Performance. Precision. Partnership." doesn't say good performance (or bad performance, or any type of specific performance) so it's basically considered neutral.

The phrase "Performance as planned", is considered promissory, however, because there is at least one possible interpretation, in which we would be considered to be promising specific performance, namely, the specific performance that we planned for. Again, good, bad or indifferent, if we promise to deliver the performance we planned to deliver, that is promissory in the legally indefensible sense.

We argue that this promissory effect is delivered through the use of the word, "as". "As" in this phrase has a causative interpretation. This means that we are saying that past planning is what has, or will, cause obtained performance. Frustrating though it was to lose the option of using this tagline, we feel the argument against it was quite right.

How does the replacement of "as" with "is" change anything then?

To examine this question, it is useful to explore the elements of this sentence carefully. As we said earlier, "performance", in and of itself, is not promissory, because everyone in this business is going to obtain performance of some sort. "Planned" is the past participle of the verb plan, and is used as either a completive adjective or a past to present continuous state. It is descriptive, and may be true or false, but it is not promissory.

The most interesting word here is the copula, "is". The copula has several possible meanings, including existence ("I think therefore I am."), equation ("2+2 is 4"), and adjectival assignative ("The grass is green."). There are many more, of course, but just a quick look will show that the third case, adjectival assignative, is the correct interpretation. To put it generally, this sentence structure is essentially "A is B-like." Existence would have to be said, "Performance is", and equation would have to be expressed by two balanced noun phrases, i.e., "Performance is planning."

The key question then is what is the logical or possibly interpreted relation between the subject, "Performance" and the past participle "planned" as expressed by the word "is".

Logically, in this sentence structure "is" assigns a quality to the subject, in this case the aspect of completive planning. When we say, "The grass is green", there is clearly no interpretation that makes the grass' existence the result of its greenness. Or in other words, the grass would still be grass even if it wasn't green—albeit different grass. But this is not the point. "Is" assigns a quality of greenness to the grass, but it doesn't change the grass, affect the grass, or imply that the grass would be any different, in any aspect but color, if it hadn't been green.

Grass and green are rather simple concepts however, and performance is much more complex. For a more comparable phrase consider the sentence "Solidarity is desired." Here we have a rich, conceptual noun, "solidarity", which is described by a past participle adjective "desired." As you see, this sentence does not say that solidarity is caused by desire. It does not even say that solidarity has been achieved. It just says that one of the qualities of solidarity (in the context of this sentence) is that it has been desired, or is in the state of having been and being desired, with "by someone" presupposed.

The same rules apply to "Performance is planned." This sentence assigns the quality of planning or having been planned (by someone) to the concept of performance. It does not say that performance is caused by planning. Nor—and this is key—does it say that any specific type of performance has been achieved by planning. What it says, is that performance is something that people in some sense plan for—not something that they necessarily achieve as they have planned it.

The possible interpretations of this phrase then are:

  1. The way to achieve desired performance is to plan for it. (Not promissory, this is the statement of an investment philosophy, which happens to be our own.)
  2. People somewhere—presumably at BGI—are planning so as to achieve specific performance. (Not promissory as it describes an empirically provable action or state.)

The essential difference between "Performance as planned" and "Performance is planned" lies in the fact that we cannot prove that we will get the performance that we are planning for, and therefore to suggest that we can is to be promissory about specific performance, which is illegal, or at least non-compliant. But we can prove, and therefore promise, that we are planning for performance, because we do this every day. More to the point, this is the fundamental belief that drives our entire business philosophy, so we should be proud of promising it.

Can we defend it in bad times?

On a related note, we'd like to address another argument that was made against "Performance as planned", with respect to "Performance is planned", namely, how do we defend the tagline in times of underperformance. When the word "as" is used, as we noted, there is a causative relation between performance and planning. This means that if we have a bad year we have to say, either, we got the negative performance we planned for, or our tagline is false. When we use "is" we are saying that we planned for performance, and we planned for risk, and we may have hit our targets or we didn't, but while we may have to change our planning, we did our best.

In other words, it's basically the same argument that we must use as a firm to defend periods of underperformance anyway, and therefore we should be no more constrained by our tagline than we are by our sales efforts in general. To put it more bluntly, if, as a firm, we can't defend our performance, it means that our process has failed and we shouldn't be worried about a tagline.