Four Steps to Encourage Metaphorical Thinking


By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

We often encourage consumers to think "metaphorically." In a focus group or interview, metaphors can be powerful. Those who use them open up. They move in new and unexpected directions. Ultimately, the metaphors put us in touch with the unconscious motivations and beliefs of the consumers who create them.

But, the process doesn't always work. You ask consumers to discuss a particular product, and they say it is "like a golden retriever." We have all heard the "golden retriever." The brand makes them feel good, and a golden retriever makes them feel good. This is stale, predictable. We are tempted to say that we have just gotten into a rut of convention. Ask people to name a dog, and most give the golden retriever.

From the perspective of interviewing technique, the problem is deeper and more basic. We have confused metaphor with simile. Not to be over pedantic, but let me define. Both are figures of speech; both are analogies. But, a simile uses like or as in the analogy. In a metaphor, the comparison is implicit.

The difference between an implicit and an explicit analogy is key in dealing with a respondent. When individuals make a conscious, literal comparison, there is no room for serendipity. You can see the wheels turning.

"Let's see. Brand A makes me feel good. OK. What else makes me feel good? Golden retrievers make me feel good. So, Brand A is like a golden retriever."

She has added nothing, and you have learned nothing. She might as well have told you directly that Brand A made her feel good. When consumers switch to "simile mode" they make a simple literal translation. There is no expansion; nothing is in touch with their motivations.

So, how can we encourage more genuine metaphorical thinking?


  • Use creative, projective exercises. Have your consumers draw pictures or cartoons. Create a category family. Write a brand obituary. Describe how a brand smells (even if the product has no smell). Do anything that confuses the terms of the explicit analogy the consumer might want to create between her emotions and that brand or product in which you are interested. You can do this by always shifting among senses. If you are interested in the taste of a product, talk about its color. If you want to understand the impact of a product's color, discuss its aroma.

  • Focus on the metaphor's vehicle. Traditional rhetorical theory distinguishes between the "tenor" and the "vehicle" of a metaphor. The tenor is the object or concept in which you are interested. The vehicle is what is compared to it. For example, in the opening of Dante's Divine Comedy, a life in error is the tenor described by analogy to a dark forest, the vehicle. If you have the consumer focus solely on the vehicle--the golden retriever in our initial example of a simile--and discuss only the vehicle--what it means, how it looks, how it feels--you will break the conscious connection the consumers might want to make between the tenor and the vehicle. In discussing just the vehicle, she will reveal her subconscious associations with the tenor.

  • Tell stories and discuss the images. If you have consumers tell stories about a brand, you will also break down the obvious, explicit connections. For example, I used to ask car owners about the most memorable event they remembered in their cars. And, I would ask them to tell the stories of that event. One woman described driving to the hotel after her first daughter's wedding. A young man described bringing his new car to show his father. In their descriptions of these events were images that ultimately reflected their sense of the significance of the makes of cars they drove.

  • Never frame your question like a simile. This is the basic rule. Never ask what a brand or product is "like."

If you follow these principles, your metaphoric discussions with consumers will be much more expansive and productive. I will save the value of allegory for a later post.

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