Metaphors we market by: How deep metaphor imprisons and unleashes our marketing

This is the first of a series of articles looking at how deep metaphor patterns our thought in marketing. You will be able to find more articles in the coming weeks.

Time to read: 3 mins

Key take away: Metaphors structure the way we think at the deepest level. Understanding how our thought is patterned by deep metaphor can help us resolve recurrent problems and inspire new creative thinking. 

Deep metaphor
Marketing is full of metaphors. We live in a world of meercats and Honey Monsters and Jolly Green Giants. Esso used to tell us to put a tiger in your tank. Now Joan Collins tells us that you’re not yourself if you’re hungry, so have a Snickers. Advertising, like almost all communication, is inherently, deeply, inescapably metaphorical.
But have you thought about how we use metaphors to describe and understand the process of marketing itself? The language of marketing is a rich soup of metaphor. We develop and launch <campaigns> that are <targeted> at <segments>. We <drive> customers (who are sometimes <kings>, but in this metaphor, closer to cattle) on a <journey>. We strive to <earn> their attention, <win> their trust and <nurture> their <loyalty>. (<Highlighting> metaphors using typographical <devices> is initially quite fun, but quickly gets irritating, so I will use this <approach> sparingly).
Now, in some senses, the metaphorical language of marketing says more about language than it does about marketing. Almost all language is metaphorical, <deep down> in its <core structure> (okay, okay, I’ll stop). There are theorists out there who suggest that we cannot see anything without seeing it in terms of another thing, which is the essence of metaphor.
Thinking about thinking about marketing
But by turning the telescope the other way round, we can use metaphorical analysis to reveal some of the deep structures of thought used by marketers to make sense of what they are doing and why they are doing it. We can’t not use metaphors to help us explain and understand our work. But we can use them knowingly, and avoid following them blindly. Crucially, we can choose our metaphors carefully, ditching unhelpful or irrelevant models for more apt or insightful analogies.
This is important because many of the current disputes and arguments in marketing are down to a clash of metaphors rather than a difference in data. Very intelligent, and very eloquent, people get very annoyed with one another not because they disagree on the facts but because they use different metaphors or models to make sense of those facts. From important controversies such as the relative importance of brand vs direct comms to more Lilliputian disagreements about ‘distinctiveness’ vs ‘differentiation’ (wtf?) are frequently a dialogue of the deaf, with each side stating their case and rehearsing their facts without engaging with the premises of their opponents – or understanding their own assumptions. And so the fight goes on, Oceania vs Eurasia. Perhaps they like it that way.
Short circuiting debate
Metaphorical analysis is one route to short circuit these debates and open up new ways of thinking. It helps us realise that the terms of the debate are not <given> but are instead <made> by us: we get to choose the metaphors we use to explain our work. It reveals the hidden logic that patterns our thought and leads us from one assumption to the next. And in helping reveal the mote in our opponent’s eye, it may help us discover the beam in our own.
  • What? Language is made of <deep> metaphors
  • So what? We use metaphorical thinking to understand the process of marketing, too
  • Now what? Be aware of other people’s metaphors, and your own