The Power of a Great Brand Metaphor

by May 18, 2022Branding, Resoundcast

The Power of a Great Brand Metaphor

by | May 18, 2022

There’s any number of highbrow ways to kick this article off. 

Where to start? 

In going with a splendid example of a no-frills metaphor, I’m torn between: 

William Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage.” 

Vincent Van Gogh: Conscience is a man’s compass”

Dr. King: We will transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.”

Eminem: “You don’t get another chance / life is no Nintendo game.” 

Simon and Garfunkel: I am a rock. I am an island.”

And finally, assistant to the Regional Manager Dwight Shrute: “Always the Padawan, never the Jedi.”

Decisions, decisions…

Intentional and Artful

Whatever you pick, an artful metaphor can prime our minds with a clever, inventive shortcut. If the comparison is clear, obvious, or something we use every day, we don’t even think about it.  Although there’s no harm in slowing down to ponder the fact that an elephant in the room—an ultra-obvious, overriding fact or secret no one wants to talk about—weighs down the atmosphere, and creates the same claustrophobic tension as a seven-ton mammal wedged against the walls.

Of course, metaphors aren’t literal. 

Ones that try too hard, make no sense, or get their wires crossed end up on internet lists of ‘worst metaphors written by high school students.’  

Take THAT to the bank and smoke it! 

It was one peach cobbler of a tax audit. 

The backyard oak tree was a proud, brown, twelve-foot column… with branches and leaves.

I could do this all day…but I’d rather pivot to how B2B companies, national brands, and pretty much everyone presenting themselves or their services to the world can, (and should), use metaphor to help people grasp their remarkable identity.   

Built thoughtfully, and with the truth in mind, a good brand metaphor fleshes out an organization’s qualities, strengths, values, expression—everything that helps someone resonate with that brand’s story. 

Metaphor Brings Clarity to Your Brand’s Story

In previous articles, I discussed all the components of building an authentic brand identity. I followed that up with a series on understanding your brand’s story through the lenses of a brand’s history, location, and archetype

Assuming you’ve done the work of pinning down those aspects of your brand, how do you go about actually composing and narrating your brand’s story? 

Lots of ways, actually. 

But the one way I’ve found especially helpful is the brand metaphor.

The literal story of your brand, after all, is often not something that most people can grasp on an intuitive level…even if you’re able to see how your pest control company is the hero of a grand epic tale about termites and roaches. When you try to tell that story literally, the focus is going to get stuck at just killing bugs. 

Nothing wrong with killing bugs. 

But your brand story should be told in a way that resounds outward in distinctive visual and verbal expressions—something that can be uniquely expressed by a logo, a choice of typeface, or a company name. “We kill bugs” is not unique or distinctive. So, instead of a brand story that ends at what the brand literally does, in most cases, I try to work with a brand metaphor.

Like a College Basketball Coach

Metaphors work because they help us understand something unfamiliar through comparison to something familiar. Ditto for something abstract; we understand it better because a metaphor makes it concrete. 

Most of our language is metaphorical at its roots… and even the word ‘roots’ is a metaphor from plants. So a brand metaphor is a tool for understanding a brand’s story through a comparison— one that makes me feel the same way that people should feel when I interact with your brand.

A Metaphor is Not a Perfect Analogy.

Not everything in a brand’s metaphor has to correspond to something in the real company. Rather, the similarity is in how the metaphor makes me feel. My experience with your company should remind me of how your company’s metaphor makes me feel.

For instance, my own company, Resound, uses a college basketball coach as its metaphor. 

This doesn’t mean everyone in the company shares an interest in basketball—some of us like hockey better, or even improv comedy—and it doesn’t mean that the ‘net’ or the ‘scoreboard’ or the ‘court’ in basketball somehow correspond one-to-one to something in the operations of our business. 

What it means is that we want the feeling that we have towards a college basketball coach to be the same kind of feeling that our clients or audience have when they interact with Resound. We want to guide and educate, and we coach out of a love of the pureness of the game rather than the glory of an NBA franchise. 

We’re not teaching the fundamentals like a high school coach, but we’re also not interested in coaching professionals with ulterior motives that pull them away from the team. We want the team to be successful—to provide strategy, and call out points of weakness and strength. 

At the same time, it’s on the team, not the coach, to execute. 

We’re not there to take over our client’s business, because it’s their business. We’re there to coach them, and provide guidance and encouragement from the sidelines.

Finding Your Brand Metaphor

Your company’s brand metaphor should be something several steps removed from what you actually do. The metaphor won’t be effective if it is too similar to reality. 

For instance, a Veterinarian’s office wouldn’t want the metaphor to be “a doctor’s office” or “a zoo” or “a farm”, because those things are too similar to the reality. Any of those metaphors would distract us from the reality rather than illuminate it. On the other hand, it might work to say that the brand of your Veterinarian’s office should feel like a cruise, or a carnival, or a superhero, or a military base, because each of those gives us a clear and distinct picture of what interactions with your brand should feel like. 

Finding the right brand metaphor takes some creativity, but once you’ve found it, you’ll recognize that it “feels right.” Having found it, you’ll probably find that your brand’s metaphor can then go on to inform everything else your business does to express itself, from advertising and copywriting to interior design.

Easy Does It

I always emphasize that your brand metaphor should be under the surface, not overt. 

Your customers should not know what your brand metaphor is, but your employees should. 

If your Veterinarian’s office is supposed to feel like a military base, that doesn’t mean that you all wear uniforms; if it’s supposed to feel like a cruise, that doesn’t mean you have to put seashells on the walls and label the walls ‘port’ and ‘stern’. 

Rather it means that the way a customer feels when they interact with your website or read what you write or look around your waiting area should produce a similar feeling in them as they might get relaxing on an ocean liner… or in boot camp, if that’s your ticket. 

A Brand Metaphor =/= Theme

The metaphor may guide your choice of imagery, but it should be subtle. 

A metaphor is not the same thing as a theme, which looks more like the literal decorations and suggestions found in parties or gatherings… or in every Christmas episode of ‘The Office.’ 

A theme occurs when your Veterinarian’s office literally does call itself “Camp Paws”, lines the walls with sandbags, passes out ‘dog tag’ dog tags, and calls the doggie treats “MRE”. Themes can work for a certain kind of business… that is, if they’re in line with the definition of that business.

But much of the time themes look like amateur branding. 

If you can’t answer the question “why?” in response to a theme, then please, don’t. 

Even a themed business would need a distinct metaphor, removed from its theme, to help guide decisions about how the brand expresses itself. An Italian-food-themed theme park, for instance, might have “family gathering” or “first day of summer” as a metaphor, rather than “pasta sauce.”

Good metaphors fuse connections without drawing too much attention to themselves, it’s a good bet you’re trying too hard if your brand’s metaphor comes with party decorations and designer napkins. 

Appreciating What’s Remarkable

I dig metaphors because they’re often underappreciated. 

Along with brand story, brand archetype and a few other tools, they help frame things for those responsible for articulating and illustrating on behalf of the brand. Designers, copywriters, and even employees going about their day-to-day business all know how the place should feel and what feeling they want to leave with customers who interact with them. 

It gives any team a powerful picture of the emotions and experiences that somebody should leave with… and reminds them of just why their B2B company, or organization, is remarkable. 

If you’d like some help crafting a few metaphors of your own—or better yet, a subtle, compelling brand metaphor that will help a wider audience resonate with your brand story—then drop me a line. 

Resound is all about building brand expressions with the help of a stellar metaphor that embodies an organization’s unique identity, purpose, and story. 

Give us a call, or check out my detailed, step-by-step branding book  ‘You Are Remarkable’ out now on amazon.com.

Until next month, happy brand-building! 

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