Connecting with Consumers Using Deep Metaphors

By Martha Lagace - Senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge.

Think of famous brands you know: Hallmark cards and Coca-Cola soft drinks, for example. What do these products have in common for consumers?
An emotional meaning that taps into thoughts and feelings related to the positive aspects of transformation, according to Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman, authors of Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal about the Minds of Consumers (HBS Press, 2008).

Transformation is just one metaphor that finds expression in products that satisfy deeply held consumer needs and desires. Other metaphors they notice include balance, journey, and connection.

Gerald Zaltman, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, and Lindsay Zaltman, managing director of Olson Zaltman Associates, a research and consulting firm, believe that deep insights from consumers are essential for brands that resonate. In this e-mail Q&A, they describe the thinking behind Marketing Metaphoria and how insights about deep metaphors can improve brand success.

Martha Lagace: What are deep metaphors?

Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman: Deep metaphors are basic frames or orientations we have toward the world around us. They are "deep" because they are largely unconscious and universal. They are "metaphors" because they recast everything we think about, hear, say, and do. Because deep metaphors shape the way we engage the world, an understanding of them is necessary to explain why we think and act as we do.

While relatively few in number, much like core emotions, each deep metaphor may take many different forms. For example, balance may involve social, psychological, physical, and aesthetic themes. The small number of deep metaphors, each with many variations, and often working together, constitute a silent but rich and powerful language of thought and expression.
It is a language that marketers must learn to speak if they are to understand and connect meaningfully with their customers.

Q: How did you become fascinated by deep metaphors?

A: We noticed in study after study all around the world that deep metaphors were the most powerful predictors of what customers think and how they react to new or existing goods and services. It was as if we had identified a secret code of thought, one that customers were unaware they were using. For any given topic, two or three basic deep metaphors would be highly relevant no matter how varied the set of customers or consumers being studied were in other ways.
It was as if we had identified a secret code of thought. The seven deep metaphors discussed in Marketing Metaphoria are those appearing most often across a variety of products ranging from the choice of motor oil for trucks to baby aspirin to home computers to the meaning of quality health care.

Q: Why are these metaphors important for effective marketing? What happens when marketing does not give attention to them in branding and other efforts?

A: Most thinking occurs without awareness. Even conscious thought originates in unconscious processes. Growing recognition of this is one reason for the increased interest among marketers of the role of emotions in decision-making.

Deep metaphors, being a part of this unconscious language of thought, have three special implications for marketers. First, they are the best, and some linguists argue the only way, to learn about the content of emotions. Knowing the actual content of an emotion is critical. The right type of emotion might be activated but involve the wrong content.

For example, when an advertisement, brand name, scent, or some other stimulus produces a negative reaction, deep metaphors enable us to discover whether shame, guilt, or some other negative feeling is producing the aversive or negative experience.

Second, deep metaphors provide the basic foundations for the brand stories people create based on marketing communications. If managers are to influence the stories consumers create or their relationship with a brand or company, they need to know what deep metaphors are operating. These metaphor insights then allow managers to leverage them in advertising, packaging, product design, and so on. For this reason, they are fundamental building blocks for developing customer relationships.

Third, because deep metaphors are shared by consumers who may vary considerably on the surface, they become very powerful tools for developing new product concepts, communicating about them, restructuring market segmentation strategies, and simplifying product design processes. They are the way of answering the important question, "What is the common denominator around or about which consumers vary?" We can't say that two groups, for instance, are different without reference to a common yardstick. That common yardstick—or deep metaphor—is far more important to understand than the various positions taken on it, although those too are important.

Q: What to your mind are a few effective marketing campaigns that have utilized knowledge of deep metaphors? What did they do that was unusual or insightful?

A: Two classic campaigns come to mind. One is Coca-Cola's "I'd like to teach the world to sing," which invokes the deep metaphor of connection and the ability of the brand to bring diverse people together. It also engaged the deep metaphor of social balance by stressing with a music metaphor the concept of harmony. A second campaign is the Michelin tire ad portraying the tire as a container—another deep metaphor—of safety for one's family, especially children. The last version of the ad, which ran for many years, showed a child positioned within a tire on a wet surface accompanied by several pairs of animals. This invoked imagery of Noah's Ark, one of the most famous containers of all time that withstood a major catastrophe.

Q: How do you see the future of marketing? Is marketing becoming more or less responsive to consumer needs and desires?

A: Marketers in general have always tried to be responsive to consumer needs and preferences. The issue is whether they do so as well as they could by using the most appropriate or insight-bearing tools and techniques. The high failure rate of new offerings and the failure of existing offerings to achieve expected returns suggests that many marketers are not thinking deeply enough about their customers or consumers. And they fail to think deeply enough partly because they lack deep insights to think about.
Fortunately, recent advances in various disciplines are providing concepts and techniques enabling marketers to dig into what consumers don't know they know. As these advances in understanding human behavior are used by marketers, they will be able to serve their markets with greater success.

Q: What are you working on next?

Gerald Zaltman: I have had a long-standing interest in how managers approach messy or ill-structured problems. These are nonroutine problems with no clear solution. It may not even be evident what the problem is, only that there is one. I have collected considerable data on this topic and will be conducting further interviews to understand the qualities of mind that contribute to success in dealing with this important class of problems.

Lindsay Zaltman: I have been exploring new ways to leverage the power of deep metaphors in other research methods. For instance, I have been developing an applied ethnographic approach that allows us to see how deep metaphors influence the behaviors and actions of consumers by spending time with them in their actual environment. This may mean spending time with consumers by observing them in their homes, on shopping excursions, at social functions, or at their jobs. Insights from this approach can be used for improving product design, reengineering retail environments, or simply as a way to better understand one's customers.
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