Will Metaphors Kill Your Marketing?

A photo shows an art project that comprises a pink wall covered with pink toy plastic soldiers.

The metaphors you use to describe your products and services can bring your marketing message to life, but be careful how you use them.

Metaphors are powerful. By creating connections between seemingly unlike things, we can trigger a true aha moment, whether the metaphor is designed to bring clarity or create an emotional impact.

And that’s why they need to be handled with care. Metaphors (and their less courageous cousins, similes) are striking. They stand out. And they’re intellectually demanding, forcing the audience to evaluate two seemingly unrelated things and connect the dots. These qualities can be a force for good or a recipe for disaster.

When Rebecca Lieb wrote that “content is the atomic particle of all digital marketing,” it helped to elevate content, positioning it ahead of distribution channels as the core of every marketing campaign. It’s a statement that has been repeated many times since to make the case for content quality. Metaphors shift perceptions and capture imaginations.

But choose the wrong metaphor and you’ll do your brand more harm than good.

Metaphors shift perceptions and capture imaginations. But choose the wrong metaphor and you’ll do your brand more harm than good.Click To Tweet

Death by metaphor

For insight into how powerful metaphors can be, look at the military language that’s commonly used to describe cancer treatment. People are urged to “fight” cancer, “declare war” on the disease, or “attack” it, and people with cancer are “fighters” who either “lose the battle” or become “survivors.”

But that prevailing metaphor could be costing lives. In one study, describing cancer as an “enemy” reduced people’s intentions to limit risky behaviors, such as consuming excessive alcohol or red meat. Another showed that war metaphors encourage people with cancer to make poor decisions about treatment, including opting for aggressive treatment that erodes the quality of life and refusing palliative care that can improve it—or even lengthen lifespan.

Marketing missteps

In a marketing context, the stakes aren’t life or death. But they can be sale or fail.

Recently, a B2B email reminded me of the importance of choosing metaphors wisely. It was from a sales enablement platform that promised to help sales reps “quarterback the campaigns needed to penetrate your most coveted accounts.”

If the company’s target market is predominantly male and American, “quarterbacking” may be the perfect way to describe the platform’s capabilities. According to a 2011 Adweek/Harris Poll, 73 percent of American males watch football compared to only 55 percent of females (although that number has grown in the years since).

But chances are, their audience is both global and evenly distributed across genders. In this case, the mechanics of “quarterbacking” will only mystify a significant number of their prospects, including those in hockey-loving Canada, soccer-obsessed EMEA, and the Distributed Republic of I-Don’t-Care-About-Sports, a thriving nation of which I am a proud member.

Marketing pratfalls

A poorly chosen analogy doesn’t just inhibit comprehension, it can have a negative emotional impact as well. For example, I received an email from a marketing technology company with the personalized subject line: “Hayden, hit your targets like a sniper.” This would arguably be in poor taste even if the sender was a paintball adventure company: in a B2B context, it’s simply not acceptable.

In addition to potentially offending its prospects, this company also demonstrated a basic lack of insight into the motivations of their target market. In a world where marketers are increasingly focused on personalization strategies that humanize buyers and support authentic connections, why would a marketing technology company choose a sniper—impersonal, remote, and antagonistic—to characterize that relationship?

Tips for mending metaphors

Think carefully about the way you present your information. Be intentional about your language. Military and sports metaphors may be the perfect fit for you if your brand is unapologetically macho or if your audience is made up of weekend warriors and adrenaline junkies. The key is to align the language with the core elements of your content strategy—the messages, the brand voice, and the personas that define it.

If you don’t think it’s that important, know that “metaphor designer” is an actual job—one that many organizations rely on to create analogies that successfully communicate complex ideas or promote new or misunderstood products.

Ask and listen.

Listen to the way your audience communicates on social media or in online forums. If you interview a customer for a case study, pay attention to the similes, metaphors, and analogies they may use to describe themselves, their challenges, and your product. Ask your sales team whether there are any effective analogies they use during demos. Metaphors that emerge organically in this way are more likely to resonate with your audience. (There’s a great Fast Company article by Daniel Pink on this topic.)

Be consistent.

Metaphors take intellectual energy to process, so use them sparingly and consistently. Use your metaphor palette the way you use your color palette for branding purposes. Just as you wouldn’t try a different logo color on a whim, don’t play fast and loose with metaphors. If your healthcare app is a “pocket-sized doctor” one day, don’t call it “the Wikipedia of Wellness” the next. Choose the best and richest analogy and stick with it.

Build it out.

If you’ve found a metaphor that resonates, consider building it out to include different product features, services, or marketing campaigns. For example, if your healthcare app is a “pocket-sized doctor,” maybe your weekly newsletter could be called “Housecalls.” Building on a central metaphor can create a pleasing coherence, but remember that a light touch is best. Pile the metaphors too high and you risk creating something precious—or downright tedious.


About the Author

Hayden Jackson

Hayden is DemandLab's Director of Content Strategy. She has 20 years of in-house and agency experience in marketing communications and content marketing. Her areas of focus include content strategy, content creation, and content performance. She helps clients deliver content experiences that engage the company's target audiences and align with its business goals.

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