The selling power of metaphors
“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor” Aristotle
Aristotle wasn’t describing sales techniques but if he had been, he would have been right.
Metaphors enable both speakers and writers to convey vivid imagery that can be easier to understand than literal descriptions. A carefully chosen metaphor will elicit powerful responses and truly connect with an audience.
Nothing portrays the benefits of a product or service better than a great metaphor. So, what is a metaphor and how can the right one drive sales?
What is a metaphor?
Put simply, a metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or idea by comparing it to something else. Comparisons are fundamental to human thought and understanding. The only way we can learn something new is to compare it to something we already know and understand.
Why are metaphors so persuasive?
We are all constantly bombarded with a wide range of sales messages. Advertisements, emails, pop-ups and junk mail continually vie for our attention but create confusing clutter in our minds. Marketers strive to ensure that we invest in the products they are promoting and the many alternatives that we have been presented with. Marketers have much to achieve if they are to clear the clutter and guarantee that we take notice. They must:
- Clarify the precise nature of the product
- Ensure the product stands out from the crowd
- Motivate their audience to act
- Make their product memorable
Given the aforementioned clutter in our minds, not to mention our short attention spans and our busy lives, it is important that marketers achieve these objectives by using just a few words.
As comparison is fundamental to human understanding, a metaphor is the perfect device for describing a product or service. You may not understand the precise nature of an energy drink, even when given details of its ingredients and their effects on your body. But “Red Bull gives you wings” says it all.
Marketers will often be targeting specific audiences. However, they will know that even within a particular demographic, there will be very different people with diverse knowledge and life experiences. Marketing messages must connect with as many people as possible and so marketers will always search for the common ground by making the complex simple.
Metaphors fit the bill because they offer comparisons with known quantities that almost everyone can understand. Someone who has little knowledge or experience of wines would be bamboozled by industry jargon such as acidity, varietals, tannins and nose. But they will be tempted by a bottle of white that transports them to the fragrant Tuscan hills. But a wine enthusiast who does understand the jargon will be equally inspired to buy thanks to the emotional impact of the phrase.
Standing out from the crowd
A clever slogan or tagline such as a judiciously chosen metaphor is an attention-grabber that any audience would find hard to ignore.
Every lager lover prefers their tipple to be served cold, but which should they choose? How about one that is as “Cold as the Rockies”? The Coors slogan really works because it inspires thoughts not just of coolness but of drama, beauty and fresh air.
Metaphors are quite simply more interesting than plain language or facts. Not only will these figures of speech garner our attention. They will also hold our attention.
An audience will only act when they feel sure that they know what they are buying and that they really want it or need it. Metaphors clarify and enhance understanding, but they also sell the dream. There are many Mediterranean destinations that travellers could choose for their holidays, but most sunseekers would be attracted to “an oasis in the Mediterranean”. This clever metaphor manages to convey in just five words that the location in question is unique, quiet, restorative, sustaining and incredibly beautiful. In other words, it is everything that a prospective traveller could dream of. It’s surprising that Tunisia wasn’t overrun!
Metaphors also inspire the pleasure of recognition. We feel gratified when we recognise things or feel that we understand them. For this reason, metaphors can motivate us to buy as they complement our intelligence. They are messages that welcome us to a special club and so we are attracted to them instantly. Metaphors are a form of flattery that ensure we are more likely to trust the source of the message. They create connections that are hard to break.
There’s no doubt that the right metaphors are memorable and so attach themselves indelibly to our brain cells. Everyone will recall that Red Bull gives you wings and if you live in America and need a new car, you will remember that a Chevrolet is “The Heartbeat of America”. Nobody will buy anything significant if they have forgotten what it is, what it does and what it represents.
Using few words
Of course, metaphors remove the need for lengthy explanations and therefore tend to convey their messages in just a few words. This is crucial when crafting marketing messages as they must be memorable, and they need to hold the attention of their audience. Marketing messages must often be delivered via vehicles that demand brevity including TV advertising, billboards and leaflets. Nothing keeps things brief better than metaphors.
Metaphors in translation
As you can see, marketing messages will often include metaphors, and this poses problems for translators. All language systems utilise metaphors, but metaphors are informed by culture and cultures vary dramatically. Culture could be described as including the ideas, customs, knowledge and social behaviour of a particular group. Metaphors can draw on any or all these aspects of culture.
Power of metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech and one possessing great power. That power and inspiring quality would be lost if a literal translation were given. It is not possible to use machines to translate metaphors as these figures of speech are far too nuanced and culturally informed. Human translators must possess the knowledge and cognitive ability to find an equivalent metaphor in the target language. Equivalence is incredibly difficult to achieve as metaphors have both a factual and an emotional function. The emotional connotations of many images that metaphors could conjure will vary greatly between cultures. A translator may easily be able to identify words with similar literal meanings. It is much harder to find words with the same emotional undercurrent.
Writing on the wall
Native English speakers will understand the metaphor “to sit on the fence”. This metaphor draws on the fact that a fence is a division between territories and so to sit on it is to position yourself in a neutral place. A wall usually serves the same purpose as a fence and so you might think a wall would be a good substitute for the word fence when creating a metaphor. But English speakers would not understand that to sit on a wall means to remain neutral or undecided. To sit on a wall is to do nothing other than to sit on bricks.
Metaphors are powerful marketing tools but ones that could be anything but powerful when translated without the application of impressive understanding and skill.