The Power of Metaphor: Getting Inside the Minds of Your Customers

While relatively few in number, much like core emotions, each deep metaphor may take many different forms.

metaphor customers mind

Gerald Zaltman, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, and Lindsay Zaltman, managing director of research and consulting firm, Olson Zaltman Associates, believe that deep insights from consumers are essential for brands that resonate.

In their book, Marketing Metaphoria, they discuss the seven deep metaphors appearing most often across a variety of products ranging from the choice of motor oil for trucks to baby aspirin to home computers to the meaning of quality health care.

In an email Q&A with Martha Lagace, a senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge, the authors describe how insights about deep metaphors can improve brand success.

Martha Lagace: What are deep metaphors?

Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman: Deep metaphors are basic frames or orientations we have toward the world around us. They are “deep” because they are largely unconscious and universal. They are “metaphors” because they recast everything we think about, hear, say, and do. Because deep metaphors shape the way we engage the world, an understanding of them is necessary to explain why we think and act as we do.

While relatively few in number, much like core emotions, each deep metaphor may take many different forms. For example, balance may involve social, psychological, physical, and aesthetic themes. The small number of deep metaphors, each with many variations, and often working together, constitute a silent but rich and powerful language of thought and expression.

It is a language that marketers must learn to speak if they are to understand and connect meaningfully with their customers.

Q: Why are these metaphors important for effective marketing? What happens when marketing does not give attention to them in branding and other efforts?

A: Most thinking occurs without awareness. Even conscious thought originates in unconscious processes. Growing recognition of this is one reason for the increased interest among marketers of the role of emotions in decision-making.

Deep metaphors, being a part of this unconscious language of thought, have three special implications for marketers. First, they are the best, and some linguists argue the only way, to learn about the content of emotions. Knowing the actual content of an emotion is critical. The right type of emotion might be activated but involve the wrong content.

metaphorFor example, when an advertisement, brand name, scent, or some other stimulus produces a negative reaction, deep metaphors enable us to discover whether shame, guilt, or some other negative feeling is producing the aversive or negative experience.

Second, deep metaphors provide the basic foundations for the brand stories people create based on marketing communications. If managers are to influence the stories consumers create or their relationship with a brand or company, they need to know what deep metaphors are operating. These metaphor insights then allow managers to leverage them in advertising, packaging, product design, and so on. For this reason, they are fundamental building blocks for developing customer relationships.

Third, because deep metaphors are shared by consumers who may vary considerably on the surface, they become very powerful tools for developing new product concepts, communicating about them, restructuring market segmentation strategies, and simplifying product design processes. They are the way of answering the important question, “What is the common denominator around or about which consumers vary?” We can’t say that two groups, for instance, are different without reference to a common yardstick. That common yardstick—or deep metaphor—is far more important to understand than the various positions taken on it, although those too are important.

Q: What to your mind are a few effective marketing campaigns that have utilized knowledge of deep metaphors? What did they do that was unusual or insightful?

A: Two classic campaigns come to mind. One is Coca-Cola’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” which invokes the deep metaphor of connection and the ability of the brand to bring diverse people together. It also engaged the deep metaphor of social balance by stressing with a music metaphor the concept of harmony.