The power of metaphor in branding

Originally published Jun 30, 2011

Language is the most efficient tool your business can use to get attention and build a brand. It gives your business a human voice, and costs almost nothing to reproduce and share. In fact, it costs nothing at all when other people spread your message for you, using only their voices or their fingers and keyboards.

Language is for expressing ideas. You can’t get the language right until you get the ideas right. When you’re pitching, naming, and selling, the ideas you start with have to go beyond just identifying the unique benefits you provide. They have to present a vision that will make those benefits clear and meaningful to others.

To develop a vision like that, you need to put your company, product, or service into a compelling human context. It’s a matter of what some people, such as linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff, call framing.

Metaphor is one of the most powerful tools for framing. Metaphor allows people to project their basic knowledge of the world imaginatively to understand unfamiliar and abstract things. It’s especially important if you offer a product or service that’s innovative or hard to explain.

Some metaphors are more useful than others. The success of a metaphor depends on how apt it is and on the richness of the conceptual world it opens up.

Here’s an example from ancient internet history showing two different attempts to make a new technology accessible through metaphor. The first popular web browser was called Mosaic, and its successor was called Netscape Navigator. Those names used two different metaphors to convey something about what a web browser–a new kind of software at the time–was all about.

Mosaic likened the web, and perhaps the individual web page, to a familiar kind of picture made out of little pieces.

Netscape Navigator treated the web as a vast physical space to explore.

While the metaphor behind Mosaic has already been forgotten, the one behind Netscape Navigator has proved indispensable. It is, of course, the metaphor we all use now to think and talk about the web. It gives meaning to the names of two other currently popular browsers, Internet Explorer and Safari.

The contrast between these metaphors illustrates two important things to keep in mind about metaphor in general.

First, a metaphor that invites you to imagine you’re participating in an activity is better than one that makes a static comparison. Mosaic treated the web experience as a still picture. All the name really conveyed was that you would look at a complex whole composed of numerous parts. It suggested no imagined activity, purpose, or emotional engagement. Netscape Navigator, on the other hand, hinted at all these things. It suggested that the user was moving, in control, possibly headed somewhere important, and definitely in for an adventure.

The second important lesson is that it’s hard to come up with a new metaphor that’s as powerful as one that already exists. The metaphor of the internet as a physical space was established before Netscape Navigator came on the scene. People already used William Gibson’s term cyberspace to refer to the internet, and used the phrase “surf the internet”. That way of thinking and talking about the internet was, in fact, based on a metaphor that’s deeply engrained in our culture and our minds, and that may be universal: one that treats any purposeful activity as movement through a landscape. Metaphors like this run deep because they’re rooted in experiences that begin in early childhood. (Incidentally, before The Name Inspector was The Name Inspector, he was something of an expert on this topic.)

When you’re coming up with a company or product name, or a tagline, or a pitch, or copy for your website, it pays to think hard about how your message will tap into the conceptual lives of the people you’re trying to reach. What’s important to them? And how will they use metaphor to think about you? That’s partly, but not entirely, up to you.

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