Let us break the marketer’s monopoly on metaphors

‘What does this remind you of?’, is a powerful question. One group of people know how to use it all too well even as the rest of us don’t use it often enough.

A bar of Toblerone carries the picture of Matterhorn, one of Switzerland’s most celebrated alpine peaks. A bar of Toblerone is also shaped like a mountain range. All of this isn’t an accident.

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Toblerone is branded to remind us of the Swiss Alps in all their magnificence and glory. This metaphor leads us to associate Toblerone with the reputation for immaculate quality and craftsmanship that Swiss chocolate makers have nurtured over the centuries. That is part of the reason we are willing to pay more than twice as much for a 100g bar of Toblerone than we would for Hershey’s, Rittersport or Cadbury’s.

From using logos and package design to recruiting brand ambassadors, marketers are adept at using metaphors and analogies to manipulate our buying decisions. How can the rest of us put them to better use?

Take endurance cycling for example. One of its crucial aspects is cadence – the rhythm with which you pump the pedals on a bike. If you’ve watched the Tour de France, you have observed how, regardless of the terrain, the cyclists maintain the same cadence by adjusting their gear ratios.

Picture a cycling coach teaching her students about the principle of cadence while invoking the metaphor of a pendulum clock. The more regular the rhythm of a pendulum clock, the more accurate is its time-keeping. An imperceptible two percent error in its oscillation rate could result in the clock losing half-an-hour over the course of a day. Having heard this, her students would be reminded of clockwork precision whenever they work on their cadence.

Despite being powerful tools for instruction, several teachers shy away from using metaphors and analogies. They require additional effort and come with the risk of sounding inappropriate or loony. But think back on the lessons from school that you can recall. I can still picture my teacher sliding two books into each other to show us how tectonic plates form mountain ranges.

Douglas Hofstadter called metaphors and analogies the core of our cognition. Brand managers and advertisers harness them routinely to make a killing. As teachers and coaches, it would be a pity if we stood by and let those marketing types retain their long-standing monopoly.

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