Brand Metaphors 101


Walter Landor, a leading pioneer in brand design, once stated, “Products are made in a factory, but brands are created in the mind.”

Today, that same principle guides the brand positioning efforts of Forty, a marketing agency in Chandler, Arizona.

Forty identifies three higher consumer needs that should be the basis for both brand-level and campaign-level thinking.

First and foremost, humans are social creatures. We cherish family and friendship, host dinner parties, play on sports teams and join book clubs to fulfill our undeniable need for affiliation.

Second, we strive to earn the respect of others, becoming self-confident individuals.

Third, we desire to discover our unique identity and become our true selves. Think Abraham Maslow and “self-actualization.”

Believe it or not, most marketing efforts fail to address these three higher needs, relying on a benefit-focused approach instead.

When devising your brand strategy, it’s important to recognize that branding is, at times, more about delivering the desired brand experience than selling the product or service.

According to Forty, “Brand experiences are almost always indirect. You don’t feel good because the brand told you to feel good. You feel good because the brand set up a scene that had the right feel-good elements.”

A brand is a constellation of values—including goodwill, perception, credibility and trust—that contribute to the character, style and purpose of your company. To create an effective brand experience, elements of the brand must be apparent in all aspects of your company’s daily operation.

Metaphors, a basic tool for human understanding, are often used to express a brand—explaining the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. “For example, if you’re trying to convey a sense of adventure and discovery, you may draw upon sources such as Lewis & Clark, Indiana Jones or the moon landing,” cites Forty. The marketing agency identifies three primary types of brand metaphors:

Deep Brand Metaphors

A deep brand metaphor is structured around an abstract concept that represents the relationship between the brand and the consumer. Oprah’s “O,” for example, invites viewers and readers alike to embark on a personal journey.

Brand Archetypes

From the book titled The Hero and the Outlaw, a brand archetype is based on the idea of a popular character, be it from a best-selling novel or a box office smash film. Forty compiled a comprehensive list of 20 universal brand archetypes, ranging from the Entertainer (Clown, Jester, Performer) to the Ruler (King, Leader, Father).

Harley Davidson (The Maverick) dares you to defy social conventions. Nike (The Achiever) pushes you to maximize your athletic potential. Victoria’s Secret (The Sensualist) inspires you to discover your physical pleasure. You, who consume all three of these brands, are sure to be quite the multidimensional character.

Cultural Brand Metaphors

A cultural brand metaphor references cultural icons shared by a brand’s consumers, but be careful not to cross the distinct boundary dividing brand metaphors from cheesy and more obvious themes. If the audience detects an “Old West” or “1960s” aura, you have most likely fallen into the great depths of “themeiness.”

For example, Coca-Cola has used the brand metaphor of an olive branch, a historic symbol of peace, in a number of campaigns to date.

Brand metaphors are most effective when they focus on specific and relevant attributes of the brand. A seemingly clever and interesting metaphor with little connection to the brand only confuses the consumer in an already clouded and crowded marketplace.

The implications of an effective brand metaphor are both wide-ranging and long-lasting. Among the many benefits, creative minds will discover a multitude of fresh ideas, management will gain insight when confronted with internal conflicts and staff members will answer phone calls in a tone consistent with the company’s brand.

“As a whole, the company’s culture can (and should) be deeply affected by the brand metaphor. It’s not a marketing gimmick; brand metaphors are about understanding what a company is really about and then explaining it in the most compact and compelling way possible,” concludes Forty.


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