Research shows that metaphors in marketing are a double-edged sword

Audiences see metaphors as more innovative than literal marketing claims, at the cost of perceived social responsibility.

“Red Bull gives you wings.”

“The future of health is on your wrist.”

“Recharge your skin’s battery.”

We know that metaphors in marketing can be the sizzle that sells your steak but they also run the risk of poisoning the well. Why? Because it turns out that —depending on the context — using metaphors can be a slam dunk or a strikeout. 

New research published in Psychology & Marketing dug into the implications that using metaphors in your messaging can have on your marketing performance.

In a nutshell: Metaphors can make your brand seem more innovative, but using them might also make your brand seem less socially responsible. 


“The results of eight studies reveal that, compared with literal claims, metaphors can make products appear more innovative but also less socially responsible. A dual process explains these effects on product perception: consumers tend to view products promoted with metaphors as more unfamiliar and thus innovative, but also as more untrustworthy and thus less socially responsible. Metaphors are often ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and untrue in their literal meaning, such that they might be perceived as deceptive.”

Paint me a picture: When should marketers use metaphors?

Metaphors can increase product desirability and memorability of a marketing message. But they can also backfire: Because they are often ambiguous, open to interpretation and untrue in their literal meaning, metaphors can be seen as deceptive and untrustworthy. For marketers, understanding the conditions and context of your communications is key to understanding if you should be more literal or figurative.

And here’s how we think it applies to your next campaign planning session:

  • Read the room. Are you looking to get oohs and ahhs or awws? In other words, if your product is about building excitement, you might want to lean into metaphor use — but if it’s about building empathy, it might be better to be more literal. Likewise, understanding your audience’s sentiment by studying their media habits can highlight if your target consumer values innovation (imagine a hardcore reader of Fast Company) or social responsibility (imagine a passionate reader of Reason or National Geographic). 
  • To thine own self be true. Ask yourself this: Is your brand a game-changer or a dependable servant? Knowing your brand’s DNA is essential to understanding where you have permission to play — and how you might apply these learnings to your marketing campaigns. If you’re a new technology disrupting an old way of doing business, you may want to use metaphorical language. If you’re a nonprofit looking to solve practical problems, pragmatic language might be a better approach. 
  • Mix metaphors. Literally. These rules aren’t hard and fast, but the research does provide interesting food for thought (I can’t help myself). For instance, a bold claim delivered via metaphor (e.g., “Recharge your skin’s battery” for a skin cream) supported by literal claims (i.e., sharing the science behind the product’s ingredients) could be the right combination for some brands, depending on what aspect of the consumer journey (is that a metaphor?) you’re focused on.

TL;DR: While metaphors can be powerful in driving consumer perceptions of innovation, they can also have the negative effect of making your organization seem less socially responsible. Studying your audience’s sentiment and understanding your organization’s DNA will help you navigate these waters.


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