Marketing Innovation: The Metaphor Tool

by | Apr 4, 2011 | Attribute Dependency, Consultants, Culture of Innovation | 0 comments

The Metaphor is the most commonly used – and abused – tool in marketing communications, especially in western cultures.  It is a great way to attach meaning to a newly-launched product or brand.  But some approaches are more effective than others.

The tool is one of eight patterns embedded in most innovative commercials.  Jacob Goldenberg and his colleagues describe these simple, well-defined design structures in their book, “Cracking the Ad Code,” and provide a step-by-step approach to using them.  The tools are:
1. Unification
2. Activation
3. Metaphor
4. Subtraction
5. Extreme Consequence
6. Absurd Alternative
7. Inversion
8. Extreme Effort

The Metaphor Tool takes a well-recognized and accepted cultural symbol and manipulates it to connect to the product, brand, or message.  The trick is to do it in a non-obvious, clever way.  The process is called fusion, and there are three versions:  Metaphor fused to Product/Brand, Metaphor fused to Message, and Metaphor fused to both the Product/Brand and Message.  Here is an example:

This commercial evokes the famous TV star, Lassie (a dog), to symbolize loyalty, courage, beauty, and grace.  It fuses these attributes to the Chevy Silverado by having the truck do the same heroic things that Lassie did.  This is an example of Metaphor-to-Brand fusion.  The tag line at the end says, “Chevy Runs Deep,” which connects to the idea of “loyalty runs deep.”  Interestingly, the ad never mentions or shows a visual of Lassie.  You would have to know the character and TV show to understand this ad.  Perhaps this is intended to target certain age demographics.  Also missing is fusion to the ad’s message, “Motor Trends’s 2011 truck of the year.”  The message has no connection to the “Lassie” metaphor.

Here is a print example fusing all three – Metaphor-Product-Message.  Do you see why?


To use the Metaphor Tool, start by defining the message. Then create a list of symbols (objects, images, or concepts) that are directly related to the message (a metaphor).  Next make a list of the product’s components or components near the product (Closed World).  Finally, choose a symbol and a component and fuse them together.  Create various combinations of metaphoric symbols and components to find candidates that have that element of surprise or cleverness.