The Incredible Power of Metaphors in Marketing

by | May 11, 2012 | Marketing

Once you’ve sorted out your company’s roots (purpose, values, style, etc.), you’ll find yourself faced with the challenge of trying to hold all that information in your head when making a decision.

One of the best tools for dealing with this situation is a metaphor: a concept that ties these elements together in a memorable way, helping you remain focused and consistent.

For example, if your values include loyalty, tradition, and performance, you might choose a “baseball team” metaphor. Elements drawn from that metaphor — words, textures, colors, etc. — can inform the experience you create for customers, which in turn triggers associations that remind people of those values.

However, a metaphor typically shouldn’t be obvious to the person experiencing it. They work best at a subconscious level, where it can be accepted for what it is instead of being seen as a gimmick. An obvious baseball theme would probably be overkill, but subtle elements borrowed from the metaphor could help customers feel a company’s values without having them be explicitly stated.

Stay on target

Aside from providing a powerful way to communicate intangible value, metaphors are a fresh and proactive approach to keeping a company aligned across a wide range of executions.

Instead of the negative (“thou shalt not…”) and overly visual approach of most style guides, a metaphor can successfully convey to an employee, partner, or vendor the approach and philosophy they should keep in mind. They’re more likely to keep the organization going in a consistent direction over time because it teaches the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Plus, the applicability of metaphors to almost any context means they’re not as constrained to visual or verbal execution as a traditional style guide might be. An executive might use the underlying metaphor to feel out whether a new category is a good fit. A middle manager could use it to help her understand how to handle a problem employee. The janitor might use it to change his approach to taking out the trash.

As a whole, the company’s culture can (and should) be deeply affected by the metaphor. It’s not marketing schtick. It’s about understanding what a company is really about and then explaining it in the most concise, compelling way possible.

How metaphors work

A metaphor explains the unfamiliar (the target) in terms of the familiar (the source). They take the form “X is Y,” even when the comparison isn’t actually that direct.

We use metaphors all day every day to understand the world around us. It isn’t just a literary device. It’s a shortcut for understanding, and a basic part of our mental model.

For example, we understand argument in terms of combat:

  • She attacked my point.
  • I found the weak point in his claims.
  • You’re right on target.
  • Their position is weak. He’ll wipe them out.
  • He shot down all of my arguments.
  • She’s been blowing up my phone.

Once you start looking for them, metaphors are absolutely everywhere, including individual words we use. We talk about “branding,” for example, a term that originally referred to the act of marking livestock to signify their owner. Even the word “metaphor” is a metaphor (coming from a Greek term meaning “to carry across,” as if it were a physical object).

Metaphors work by mapping the attributes of a familiar source onto an unfamiliar target. For example, if you’re trying to convey a sense of adventure and discovery, you might look to sources like Lewis & Clark, Indiana Jones, or the moon landing. They’re a rich source of creative inspiration that you can use to create a memorable experience, effectively communicate your message, and set you apart from competitors.

Consumers accept metaphors easily

Metaphors require less mental processing and resistance than explicit descriptions because they’re built upon ideas and experiences you already know about. It’s like saying, “You know that one thing you love and trust already? This is like that.” This means companies that use metaphors do a better job at getting their customers’ attention because they make a deep impression quickly.

An effective metaphor is far from being a one-shot gimmick. It’s a well you can revisit as years go by, providing a nearly endless source of depth and creativity for an organization.Thinking with metaphors leads to a variety of interesting juxtapositions that unlock new ideas about the customer experience. (For example, a business that adopted a metaphor of “a baseball team” could revisit that idea as they get ready to redesign their website, using it as a tool to understand what kind of information they should include on the site.)

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