Choosing good metaphors
This is part of a series of articles looking at the way deep metaphor patterns our thought in marketing. You will be able to find more articles in the coming weeks
Key take away: apt metaphors are a combination of an enlightening image that makes sense to your audience
Good, better, best metaphors
We think in metaphors. Good metaphors simplify problems helpfully and help us make predictions about the future that come true. Bad metaphors simplify problems unhelpfully and lead us to make inaccurate predictions about the future. Good metaphors are more apt than bad metaphors. How do you tell them apart?
I don’t know.
There is an endless variety of things that can be seen in terms of other things, and no so metaphor can be perfect. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? No, because thou art more lovely and temperate. The map is not the terrain: a good metaphor – and even a bad metaphor – takes one bit of a one situation and fuses it with another bit of another situation. It is always in pieces, never whole. As a result, there can be no rule for choosing which bits or which situations you fuse to create your metaphors. We gain some freedom by seeing the mechanics of this process, but we have to make up our own minds about the results.
But what I do know is this:
Making a good metaphor doesn’t just depend on what you say, but also what your audience hears. Its value is not a function of its isomorphism with the situation, but also its intelligibility to the listener.
Metaphors that make sense
Take, for example, one of the most powerful metaphors of futility we have in Western culture: the image of medieval monks debating the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. This seems hilarious to us: how could full grown men take such a question seriously? But if anyone did in fact debate the issue (and that is debatable), the real question at issue is the corporeal nature of spiritual beings. If angels exist – and that is, admittedly, a big if – do their take up space and time or do their exist on a different <level> of reality? When seen from this perspective, the terms of the question at least make sense. We don’t understand the power of the metaphor because we don’t understand the context from which it came. Metaphors are only as powerful as they comprehensible.
(And perhaps the incredulous condescension of history is what awaits modern marketers too. Pity the future historians who have to wade through reams of powerpoint and <positioning> papers, brand <architectures> and <manifestos>, trying to piece together how adult human beings could believe this bullshit. “They sat around in meeting rooms,” these future investigators will say with a barely suppressed laugh, “and debated whether a <brand> could fit into an <onion>!” “And the people who did this,” another will add, “were paid more than <essential> workers!”)
For contemporary marketers, the value of the <war>, the <journey>, the <relationship> and the <exchange> is that they are all (still) really easy to understand and use. We can all transpose the logic of one situation (that we find easy to understand) over to another situation (that we find harder to understand) with ease – though for some at least the self-evident sense of this transfer is beginning to fray. There are other ways of thinking about marketing, that talk about ‘brand chemistry’ or ‘brand ecosystems’ or ‘brand navigation’, but because so few of us took Chemistry or Biology or our Yachtmasters sailing certificate we find it hard to make sense of these logics.
And there may be new, emergent ways of conceptualising marketing. My current favourite is the idea of <attention economics>, building on Bagozzi’s work as a theorist of marketing as <exchange>. But for this metaphor to have any power, it won’t just need to be internally logically consistent. It won’t even be enough for the metaphor to be practically successful. It will have to <make sense> to everyone else. The audience I am speaking to will have to <see> the process of marketing as an exchange too, for them to <get> what I am talking about. As a wise man once said, if a lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand him.
Metaphors are, therefore, always a negotiation between the speaker and the audience. There can never be a perfect metaphor because, firstly, all metaphors are necessarily incomplete and, secondly, all metaphors have to be understood by a physically and culturally embodied audience.
And so long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ so long lives this, and gives life to thee.
· What? Metaphors are only as powerful as they are comprehensible to your audience
· So what? The big four metaphors are all easy to understand and so easy to use
· Now what? If you are looking to create a new metaphor, aim for something that we all understand