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Brand metaphors need terms & conditions

Blurred image of person in front of bright lights

Metaphors are scarily powerful.

In a nutshell

  1. Brand ideas expressed as metaphors is a powerful marketing construct.
  2. Because metaphors are powerful the users of them carry a responsibility to exercise integrity.
  3. Your metaphors should have their own T&Cs so that they bring ideas to life without creating a misleading frame.

As a tool for good, to help communicate complexity, to enable beneficial behaviour, to create mental images that convey a brand’s essence. A metaphor can short cut a thousand words and convey an idea in what feels like a telepathic form. 

For example, the Cloud is a metaphor for the way our data floats into the atmosphere, invisible to the eye and benignly amorphic. Clouds are white and fluffy with no hard edges and far away, but still visible to many eyes. No one owns them, as we all have sight of them and they clearly don’t adhere to national borders. The reality of course is that our data is stored in steel and glass structures with high carbon energy use that are firmly on the ground or even under the ocean. These mega servers are most definitely owned and they are geographically located in specific countries, so potentially governed by their laws. Were we misled or simply aided in our understanding of a complex concept?

Richard Dawkins’ metaphor of the ‘selfish gene’ was an inspiring way to communicate the survival strategy of biological organisms. Yet we know that genes work in concert not in isolation and that the human species has a strong social drive toward cooperation. The selfish gene concept has given rise to many theories about the inevitability of deviant behaviour in some people. Psychopaths and successful entrepreneurs share very similar brain patterns – where is the role of the selfish gene in nature and nurture and the exercising of free will? Was Dawkin’s metaphor and aid to understanding or has it led to dangerous conclusions?

A metaphor is a linguistic or visual device that carries meaning over from one thing to another. And many brands have adopted a metaphor that floats under our consciousness or even beyond our knowledge. The word Nike is the word for the Greek Goddess of Victory and the swoosh mark is an image of the wingspan of the goddess. Who knows that? And does it matter? Amazon – the longest river in the world is an inspired name for a company that wants to dominate the world’s D2C delivery chain. But is it obvious to people? Probably not. Yet research has shown that “there is a unique way in which the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor are drawn closer to one another. It’s like a game of subconscious negotiation.” Metaphors work for brand names and it is just good marketing to create an emotional connection and a mental shortcut to the brand.

Imagine a metaphor like Aladdin’s Lamp applied to a pay-day-lending product. Would that be smart marketing and fair game? Or morally reprehensible? And who is to be the arbiter?

But not all brand metaphors are hidden or simply a ‘good’ name. What happens when we use metaphors that are more like the Cloud and Selfish Gene examples. Imagine a metaphor like Aladdin’s Lamp applied to a pay-day-lending product. Would that be smart marketing and fair game? Or morally reprehensible? And who is to be the arbiter?

When metaphors of nature are used to promote a brand by companies that have no policy regarding care of the natural environment in the way they operate – is that OK? When a company uses a metaphor in its advertising that does not reflect its internal culture – is that OK? For example a product that uses a metaphor of women’s role in society and freedom to live their life, yet has a gender pay gap in the organisation. I’ve avoided calling out the culprits, but it’s not hard to find them.

There is much talk of the construct of brand purpose at present, especially as regards transparency and companies being clear about what they believe in. We also know that brand ideas expressed as metaphors is a powerful marketing construct that will help build brand memories and mental images. But there needs to be more than a dotted line between these two constructs. Because metaphors are powerful the users of them carry a responsibility to exercise integrity. Your metaphors should have their own T&Cs so that they bring ideas to life without creating a misleading frame - or one that does not reflect your company’s underlying true intent. 

Read more in our Terms and Conditions series:

 

Nostalgia is What it Used to Be

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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