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Metaphors in Marketing: The Power of Uncovering Your Core Metaphor


What is the core metaphor of your business?

I’ve consistently seen that the thoughtful use of metaphors in your marketing can make a huge difference in terms of clarity and impact.

In this, likely lengthy, post you’re going to learn about a number of ways you can use metaphor and symbolism in your business. And you’re going to be encouraged to figure out what might be the core metaphor for your business as a whole.

trGround level: a metaphor is when you say that something is something else. And, for the sake of this post I’m just going to lump similes into this. You’re just going to have to deal. A metaphor is of a real, physical thing in the outer world that people can relate to. A metaphor is NOT a feeling, sensation or concept.

Why would we even want to pay attention to this?

  • clarity: our brains aren’t made to understand jargon, widgets and technical things. Our brains are designed to understand story, symbolism and imagery. When we communicate what we do in these more abstract ways, ironically, the heart of it is often more clear for people. Our metaphors provide a container for the technical side of what we do later. If marketing were like baseball (a metaphor) then clarity is first base. And the right symbolism can help you get there.
  • metaphors and symbolism can allow you to talk about the most intense of human experiences without naming them. If you were abused as a child, you might not want to speak to details but you could say it felt like you wer trapped in a dungeon ruled by an angry and violent ogre as a child, and we’ll understand what you mean. We’ll feel it.
  • having a metaphor for what you do and the journey you take people on (my metaphor) makes it a lot easier to hone in on the right moment for you to work with them
  • they can be expanded and explored as your work grows and shifts.
  • you can have a metaphor for what you do and call yourself
  • makes it easier to express your core point of view.


Examples of Metaphors:

Let’s jump right into some examples of metaphors to really get the clarity and power they can bring to things:

I speak of marketing using a metaphor I owe to my colleague Bill Baren. The idea that our clients are on a journey from Island A (where they’re struggling with their problems) to Island B (where they have the results they’re craving). And our business is a boat that can take them from one island to another. Our point of view is the map and route we take. And the bright Sun in the sky is the deeper cause behind our work.

One of the things I love about identifying a core metaphor for our work is that it is so rich. There always seems to be more to explore. We could explore you as the captain of the boat. We could talk about their fears of an island even worse than Island A they’re scared they’ll end up on. We could talk about Island C – an island that’s even better than the one they are craving.

There’s just so much to explore.

And the power of metaphors is that, instead of clients feeling overwhelmed by more and more information, they actually feel clearer and clearer as you add more and more details to it.

I lead dozens of free intro workshops over the years where I tried so hard to share everything I knew about marketing. I tried to give the best overview. And it always felt fractured, jangled, and a bit all over the place.

But the second I started telling the story of the boat and the islands (such a simple story!) everyone ‘got it’. It made so much sense of their experience, even (importantly) when the information wasn’t new.

Peggy McIntosh wrote a seminal essay on racial privilege called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. She built her entire thesis around this image of an invisible backpack full of invisible privileges. She pointed out all of the things that white people enjoy simply due to their skin colour that they assume are true for everyone. Their privileges are invisible to them. But rather use academic speak about how the current hegemony systemically takes agency from oppressed (say wha?) she had us imagine it like these privileges were things we might carry in a knapsack.

Speaking of invisibility – Tolkien’s ring! Rather than lecture on and on about the perils of centralized power to corrupt, he told one of the most amazing stories ever told. In fact, his drive to write Lord of the Rings came from his seeing the lack of soul in Europe due to the war – the lack of an overriding, indigenous mythology that gave people a sense of place, pride and healthy connection to their land and people.

And speaking of that era of European history and dark things – Carl Jung’s work on ‘the shadow’. Carl Jung believed that we often repressed parts of ourselves due to shame. And that these parts of us become like a shadow self. We pretend to be happy only to cry ourselves to sleep. In public we eat healthy, only to binge at night. Politicians slam homosexuals as hurting family values only to be exposed as being gay later or having cheated on their spouse. You could write books of theory, or you could simply evoke the image of a shadow – always attached to us and following us no matter what we do. Powerful.

John Gray, seeking to share his understanding of why the differences between men and women were something to be understood and celebrated (and why things so often went wrong in relationships) came up with the metaphor that it was like, ‘men are from mars and women are from venus’. He wasn’t saying we were actually from different planets, but rather that it was like we were. And people, instantly, got it.

And the Mars/Venus metaphor is actually a perfect illustration of a central question to ask yourself about your client’s experience of their problem: “What does it feel like to them?” What is a metaphor they might use to describe their experience that would capture the essence of it?

A single mom might feel like she’s sinking and that the harder she struggles the more it sucks her under

Someone else might feel like stuck in their career like they’re hitting their head against a wall. It might feel like when they get to the office they have to put on this 100 lb back pack.

Their persistent problem might feel like a stone in their shoe and they can’t get rid of it.

What does it really, honestly feel like for your client to be struggling with the problem they’re struggling with?

If you can use the perfect metaphor that captures their exact experience so that they say, ‘Oh my God. It feels just. like. that.’ you will be amazed at the increase in response you get.

In my last Niching for Hippies program, I asked the participants to share what they imagined it was like for their clients. Here’s what they came up with. As you read them, consider if any of these might be true for your clients.

  • Prison. Walking in the dark. in the shadows. Scraps eater. Hungry tummies for acceptance and love.
  • Falling through space, flailing.
  • Stranded and helpless.
  • It was like being a scared little girl and just wanting someone to hug me and tell me everything is okay, but everyone is too scared to come close to me.
  • The grass is really greener on the other side of the fence.
  • They feel they are in a barren dessert.
  • Trapped inside a tornado of activity taking them nowhere but into more chaos.
  • Living in Fog.
  • Falling apart, disappearing, free falling.
  • Being on an inner tube with constant leaks.
  • Being trapped in a haunted house with no exit.
  • Stuck at the bottom of an empty well. Lost at sea, with many maps but no shore in sight. They feel like they are in a dance which they know none of the steps, its all going wrong but they dont know how to stop, or how to get in sync. Stuck in a marsh pit, mucky, scary Being in a classroom when everyone else understands the teacher except you.
  • Like a fine mist being whisked around by the wind, uncontained.
  • Like they are moving through molasses (I have felt this in the past….thank God I’m past that..)
  • It’s like chasing after a shiny object and always felt disappointed when you don’t get it.
  • Lost at Sea.
  • Trapped in a small dark hole, feeling the diminishing oxygen.
  • A salmon that can’t get upstream to spawn…a need to get higher, always swimming against the current, unable to connect to their life cycle.
  • Walking thru a city changing much for the better but they have a direction they want to go but their map is folded into a spiral and they can’t use the tools available to get on there way.
  • Like being trapped in a nightmare I’ve had that I’m supposed to take a math test and I didn’t even know I was enrolled in the course!
  • Feeling like a pearl drowning in poop.
  • Being stuck behind a plexi-glass wall where you can see and here but you can’t reach the warmth of life.
  • Like scuba diving and having your gear ripped away from you.
  • Surrounded by insurmountable mountains, always seeking to see the big picture from the top but unable to get there.
  • Holding a puzzle and not knowing how to start solving it.
  • Life is moving by them and they feel stuck in slow motion.
  • Miscarriage of the soul
  • Standing in what was once heaven and suddenly it looks like hell and then thinking maybe I was deluded and I was never in heaven.
  • They feel like Voldemort looking in the mirror in the morning.
  • Like they don’t know when to jump into the game of jump rope.
  • Like they’re trapped in a labyrinth where each new way out leads to no way out.
  • They go for a target and the target keeps moving.
  • Freezing, lost in a fog with no name. Trapped by invisible walls. And no-one knows they are there.
  • Lost with too many maps and feeling overwhelmed like you’re potentially bleeding out everywhere.
  • Lost in a maze of your own smoke and mirrors.
  • Stuck in the mud and needing a hand to be pulled out or standing on the edge of a cliff–can’t go back have to cross the canyon to the other side but can’t see how. Picture the Indiana Jones movie where he is going after the holy grail. There’s a rock bridge there but he can’t see it, but he steps out based on his father’s journal and he is able to cross.
  • Like the scattered debris after a car accident.
  • Like a discarded teddy bear on the side of the road.
  • Like the rain that everyone wanted to go away.
  • They thought they were playing Hide and Seek, they are hiding, and they realize no one is looking for them.
  • It’s like chasing after a shiny object and always felt disappointed when you don’t get it, and I help people realize they’re the shiny object they’ve been searching for.
  • Like they are lacking a gene that everyone else somehow got.
  • In the dark with a candle and a match, but don’t know how to light it.
  • Getting swept off the ground where they want to stand.
  • Compass without magnetic north.
  • Like being an ignored crying baby.
  • They feel like a tornado is chasing them, yes them specifically.
  • Like they are being buried alive.
  • Now feeling compassion for my mother who said she felt like she had been “left bleeding in the street”.
  • They feel trapped, uncared for, lonely and in need of support.
  • Like they are a leaky collander, energy being lost, no boundaries, no container.
  • Standing on the edge of the cliff and need me to guide them across the abyss.
  • Being a good girl is like being buried alive in a pit of vipers. You want to get out, breathe, move but the minute you do the vipers will strike and you’re dead. Being a good girl is like having a short karmic leash – one baby step off of perfection and I’ll be strangled.
  • Feeling like Mikey mouse in Fantasia, where he disobeyed the Wizard and used the Wizard’s wand before being given permission to and all hell broke loose.
  • Like trying to hold a lighted candle in a 100 mile an hour wind.
  • My client feels like she lost in the desert on an eternal day…there is nothing but her, the hot sun and the hot sand – no one to talk to, nothing to quench her thirst, but she keeps draggin her weary body throug, hoping.
  • Having taken the wrong turn on the highway and now having no exit for another 1000 miles.
  • BEING a puzzle and not knowing how to start putting it all together.
  • Driving in fifth with handbrake pulled up.
  • Being a treasure nobody is looking for.
  • Spent years washing gold only to find it was all just fool’s gold.
  • Like falling in a never-ending rabbithole to nowhere land.
  • You are lined up at the starting line of a cross country car race. Your car is the top of the line, just like every car on the starting line. You’ve got all the goods. The race starts and you are right out there with everyone but slowly but surely your car, for no apparent reason, falls behind. You’ve got everything that everyone else has but you can’t win!
  • An ant with legs stuck in honey.
  • You have the heart, inspiration, energy and brain to make things happen but you are stuck in the mud and a huge hand keeps pushing you deeper and deeper into the thickest, stickiest mud. The hand only let’s you come up for short gasps of air. The worst part is that you know you have the potential but it is being squandered. A racehorse tethered to a pole.
  • You start our on what looks like a shiny yellow brick road but it turns to a brown, grey road of rubble and bristle. So you try another road. It too is shiny and yellow. . .for a while. Again you end up on a road of rubble.
  • You know for certain that you are on the road to THE fountain of youth and minutes away. Excited with anticipation, you turn the final corner. The clouds part, the heavenly music begins and you are presented with not one but two hundred fountains of youth. One as sparkly as the next. Which one are you supposed to choose. What if the one you choose is just a normal aquifer of water. Even worse what if the one you choose is poisonous and do harm.


Metaphors in Describing What You Do:

Once you’ve established the core metaphor for their experience, it’s important to ask yourself – who are you in this metaphor?

In the Mars/Venus metaphor, John Gray is clearly a translator helping the two alien races better understand and communicate with each other.

In Carl Jung’s shadow metaphor, he’s clearly an illuminator helping to bring light to the darker places in his client’s psyches.

But of course, you could reverse engineer it. You could start with how you see yourself and then move into what that means for the broader landscape.

I recently asked some clients (many of whom were holistic practitioners or life coaches) how they would describe what they do. What is it like?

  • Fire-poker: this might imply a larger metaphor of a fire going out that could blaze again with some prodding. It might imply a cold and dark experience for their clients.
  • Trail guide: such a rich metaphor. It tells me that it’s like their clients are lost and needing help finding their way. It might mean there are wild animals to be aware of. 
  • River guide: maybe the river of life scares them and they’ve fallen out of their boat one too many times and are now sitting on the shore scared to get back in.

And there are so many more: Midwife for the soul. Illuminator. Grandmother (in the Native American sense). Witch doctor. Best Supporting Actor. Angel with mud on my feet. Holder of sacred space. Mirror. Bridge builder. Soul Whisperer. Protector. “Back country” guide for extreme adventure. Plum Line. Eyeglasses. Emotional Midwife. Lifeguard. Wind shield Wiper. Coach. Alchemist. Cave Guide. Window opener (when the door has closed in your face). Taxi driver for lost souls. A health farmer in disguise. A “warrior in monk’s robes”.


Using Metaphors to Show the Journey You Take People On:

One client who worked with couples fighting about money issues said her work was about turning it from a battleground into a playground. Wow. What a powerful metaphor. You can viscerally get it and see what the difference would look like.

I also heard of http://www.selfmarriageceremonies.com/ where the core point of view was this: If we really want to express our love for ourselves, it’s like we need to marry ourselves. So  she helps people create these ceremonies. Amazing.

My colleague Cat Zavis is running a teleseminar series called Parenting With Your Ex: Keep Your Kids Out of the Emotional Crossfire. Crossfire. Like you’re in a warzone. You don’t want your kids to get hit.


What’s been your experience with metaphors?

Do you have a core metaphor for what you do? What is it? Please share below, I’d love to learn from your experience.  

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