The Power of Metaphors in Market Research

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Reporting, Tools & Techniques, Qualitative Research


Robert Relihan

Since my blog post on becoming better storytellers, I have been thinking quite a bit about metaphors. Having the ability to think metaphorically is crucial to our understanding consumers and brands. We ask consumers to talk about their experiences in metaphors because it enables them to give voice to feelings that might otherwise remain hidden. As marketers, metaphors enable us to encapsulate the many facets of a brand in a single image.

But I am not always certain that we understand metaphors and their power. Or, perhaps, what may be more the case is that we fear that power because it cannot always be controlled. So, it’s important for us to understand that power.

We all know that a metaphor is a comparison. In its traditional definition, a metaphor does not use like or as — that’s a simile. It’s also important to know that metaphors are figurative, not literal. We feel a metaphor; we sense the connection. It isn’t telegraphed to us.

A way to understanding metaphors is to consider two ways in which they are misused or underused.

  • We, as researchers, often ask participants in focus groups to express their feelings about a brand or activity in terms of something else — to create a metaphor. We believe that this activity will force them to take a fresh perspective and unlock perceptions they had not considered. But that is not what happens. We ask a classic qualitative question: “If Brand X were a dog, what breed of dog would it be?” Here is where things begin to go wrong. The respondent thinks, “Well, I like Brand X, and it makes me feel good. Golden Retrievers are friendly and make me feel good. Therefore, a Golden Retriever feels like Brand X.” Rather than expand her vision of the brand, the respondent has simply expressed a single dimension in different words. There is no expansion of meaning. But here is also where we go wrong. In the press of time, we let that pat answer stand. What we need to do is engage the respondent in an extended discussion about Golden Retrievers. There may be a meaningful metaphor there after all. What were the individual’s first memories of Golden Retrievers? What is it like to walk with a Golden Retriever? To sit with one? All of these answers enrich the respondent’s vision of a Golden Retriever and, through the logic of the metaphor, enrich our understanding of the brand.
  • As marketers, we often make the same mistake as we think about our brands. We want metaphors that capture the essence of a brand in a single, memorable image. That metaphor can energize and give focus to the brand team. So, after much research and brainstorming, we decide that our brand of ketchup or soup — or whatever — is a ‘hero.’ It rescues consumers from humdrum meals. It helps them conquer the adversity of routine meals. We use the metaphor in a limited, self-congratulatory way. It becomes static, but a metaphor is always active. Every time we return to it, it should enrich our understanding of the brand. This is possible only if the metaphor is specific. If our brand is a hero, is it Odysseus? Robin Hood? Jack Bauer? If we reflect on any one of these heroes, we might discover different qualities in our brand. That is the power of a metaphor. It does not express what we know; it illuminates what we do not.

That’s how to use metaphors. A good metaphor reveals insights, and it does so repeatedly. At C+R we are committed to helping you discover the metaphors that give life to the essence of your brands.

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