05 May 2008  Research & Ideas

Connecting with Consumers Using Deep Metaphors

Consumer needs and desires are not entirely mysterious. In fact, marketers of successful brands regularly draw on a rich assortment of insights excavated from research into basic frames or orientations we have toward the world around us, according to HBS professor emeritus Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman, authors of Marketing Metaphoria. Here's a Q&A and book excerpt. Key concepts include:

  • Deep metaphors are powerful predictors of what customers think and how they react to new or existing goods and services.
  • The seven deep metaphors discussed in Marketing Metaphoria appear across a variety of products.
  • Recent advances in various disciplines are providing concepts and techniques enabling marketers to dig into what consumers don't know they know.


Think of famous brands you know: Hallmark cards and Coca-Cola soft drinks, for example. What do these products have in common for consumers?

An emotional meaning that taps into thoughts and feelings related to the positive aspects of transformation, according to Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman, authors of Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal about the Minds of Consumers (HBS Press, 2008). Transformation is just one metaphor that finds expression in products that satisfy deeply held consumer needs and desires. Other metaphors they notice include balance, journey, and connection.

Gerald Zaltman, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, and Lindsay Zaltman, managing director of Olson Zaltman Associates, a research and consulting firm, believe that deep insights from consumers are essential for brands that resonate. In this e-mail Q&A, they describe the thinking behind Marketing Metaphoria and how insights about deep metaphors can improve brand success.

Martha Lagace: What are deep metaphors?

Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman: Deep metaphors are basic frames or orientations we have toward the world around us. They are "deep" because they are largely unconscious and universal. They are "metaphors" because they recast everything we think about, hear, say, and do. Because deep metaphors shape the way we engage the world, an understanding of them is necessary to explain why we think and act as we do.

While relatively few in number, much like core emotions, each deep metaphor may take many different forms. For example, balance may involve social, psychological, physical, and aesthetic themes. The small number of deep metaphors, each with many variations, and often working together, constitute a silent but rich and powerful language of thought and expression.

It is a language that marketers must learn to speak if they are to understand and connect meaningfully with their customers.

Q: How did you become fascinated by deep metaphors?

A: We noticed in study after study all around the world that deep metaphors were the most powerful predictors of what customers think and how they react to new or existing goods and services. It was as if we had identified a secret code of thought, one that customers were unaware they were using. For any given topic, two or three basic deep metaphors would be highly relevant no matter how varied the set of customers or consumers being studied were in other ways.

It was as if we had identified a secret code of thought.

The seven deep metaphors discussed in Marketing Metaphoria are those appearing most often across a variety of products ranging from the choice of motor oil for trucks to baby aspirin to home computers to the meaning of quality health care.

Q: Why are these metaphors important for effective marketing? What happens when marketing does not give attention to them in branding and other efforts?

A: Most thinking occurs without awareness. Even conscious thought originates in unconscious processes. Growing recognition of this is one reason for the increased interest among marketers of the role of emotions in decision-making.

Deep metaphors, being a part of this unconscious language of thought, have three special implications for marketers. First, they are the best, and some linguists argue the only way, to learn about the content of emotions. Knowing the actual content of an emotion is critical. The right type of emotion might be activated but involve the wrong content.

For example, when an advertisement, brand name, scent, or some other stimulus produces a negative reaction, deep metaphors enable us to discover whether shame, guilt, or some other negative feeling is producing the aversive or negative experience.

Second, deep metaphors provide the basic foundations for the brand stories people create based on marketing communications. If managers are to influence the stories consumers create or their relationship with a brand or company, they need to know what deep metaphors are operating. These metaphor insights then allow managers to leverage them in advertising, packaging, product design, and so on. For this reason, they are fundamental building blocks for developing customer relationships.

Third, because deep metaphors are shared by consumers who may vary considerably on the surface, they become very powerful tools for developing new product concepts, communicating about them, restructuring market segmentation strategies, and simplifying product design processes. They are the way of answering the important question, "What is the common denominator around or about which consumers vary?" We can't say that two groups, for instance, are different without reference to a common yardstick. That common yardstick—or deep metaphor—is far more important to understand than the various positions taken on it, although those too are important.

Q: What to your mind are a few effective marketing campaigns that have utilized knowledge of deep metaphors? What did they do that was unusual or insightful?

A: Two classic campaigns come to mind. One is Coca-Cola's "I'd like to teach the world to sing," which invokes the deep metaphor of connection and the ability of the brand to bring diverse people together. It also engaged the deep metaphor of social balance by stressing with a music metaphor the concept of harmony.

A second campaign is the Michelin tire ad portraying the tire as a container—another deep metaphor—of safety for one's family, especially children. The last version of the ad, which ran for many years, showed a child positioned within a tire on a wet surface accompanied by several pairs of animals. This invoked imagery of Noah's Ark, one of the most famous containers of all time that withstood a major catastrophe.

Q: How do you see the future of marketing? Is marketing becoming more or less responsive to consumer needs and desires?

A: Marketers in general have always tried to be responsive to consumer needs and preferences. The issue is whether they do so as well as they could by using the most appropriate or insight-bearing tools and techniques. The high failure rate of new offerings and the failure of existing offerings to achieve expected returns suggests that many marketers are not thinking deeply enough about their customers or consumers. And they fail to think deeply enough partly because they lack deep insights to think about.

Fortunately, recent advances in various disciplines are providing concepts and techniques enabling marketers to dig into what consumers don't know they know. As these advances in understanding human behavior are used by marketers, they will be able to serve their markets with greater success.

Q: What are you working on next?

Gerald Zaltman: I have had a long-standing interest in how managers approach messy or ill-structured problems. These are nonroutine problems with no clear solution. It may not even be evident what the problem is, only that there is one. I have collected considerable data on this topic and will be conducting further interviews to understand the qualities of mind that contribute to success in dealing with this important class of problems.

Lindsay Zaltman: I have been exploring new ways to leverage the power of deep metaphors in other research methods. For instance, I have been developing an applied ethnographic approach that allows us to see how deep metaphors influence the behaviors and actions of consumers by spending time with them in their actual environment. This may mean spending time with consumers by observing them in their homes, on shopping excursions, at social functions, or at their jobs. Insights from this approach can be used for improving product design, reengineering retail environments, or simply as a way to better understand one's customers.

Excerpt from Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal about the Minds of Consumers

By Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman

Loyalty Is a Two-Way Street

Brand loyalty is perhaps the most discussed topic in marketing, and rightly so. The lifetime value of a customer can be very high and warrants the special costs of securing enduring commitments to your brand. Consider this consumer: "I am driving in the car, I am out of coffee, I see a Stop & Shop, and I say, 'Oh, I've got to get my coffee.' I go down the coffee aisle, and it is out of Taster's Choice. I must find another store that sells it. So I get back in the car, go to Star Market, go down the coffee aisle, and there it is, my Taster's Choice, and I say, 'See, I'm loyal to you. I purchased you. I will only buy you."

Consumers develop brand loyalty because the product consistently delivers what it promises, and it resonates emotionally. However, just because the term loyalty implies a special connection does not mean a brand must activate connection as a deep metaphor to achieve consumer loyalty. Instead, the brand must effectively leverage any relevant deep metaphor to motivate product trial and the repeat purchase behavior that culminates in loyalty.

The Harvard Business School's Mind of the Market Lab conducted several projects for a consortium of firms owning some of the world's leading brands. The findings across projects emphasized loyalty as a reciprocal process. One business customer in the computer industry said, "I am giving loyalty, and I am getting loyalty back. That is what loyalty is about, a two-way street. It feels safer for me when it is equal, when it goes both ways."

In our interviews with brand managers, we often notice that while they think of consumer loyalty to a brand, they do not think of a brand as loyalty to its consumers. Consumers become aware of this one-sidedness. When asked, many loyal consumers did not feel that the company or the brand reciprocated their own commitment. While consumers may continue to use those brands and thus, by some standards, be deemed loyal, the loyalty is fragile. Consider these expressions:

  • "I would not bank anywhere else. I opened my very first account here when I was younger, but frankly I do not think the bank really worries about my banking elsewhere. I am one of thousands. Why would it care about me in particular? My impression is that it does not."
  • "They tell me in that chirpy, recorded voice that my call is very important to them and then they put me on hold forever, and I keep thinking, 'Like yeah, right, I am really important.' "
  • "I keep going back to them because they provide a really high-quality product—because they worry about their competition, not because they care about me."
  • "All these points programs. Or the coupons. I use them. But basically they are buying me; they are not being loyal to me. It kind of says, 'We must do these extra things because we are not doing enough with what we give you to begin with."

Many other consumer quotes suggest an asymmetry in loyalty. That is, the consumers feel more strongly connected to the brands than the brands are to them—not a healthy or secure foundation for building brand loyalty. Companies cannot simply offer quality products, because competitors can always emulate a quality product. Companies must convey that they have the consumer's best interest at heart. This is one reason consumers use their perceptions of how firms treat their employees as a proxy for how firms value their customers. As one consumer put it, "If they don't treat their staff well, you can hardly expect them to care about us."


We human beings have a fundamental drive or need for connection and, at times, for being disconnected. This has roots in our evolutionary history, because individuals and groups with the ability to bond and support one another were more likely to survive. Thus, the need for affiliation became an enduring driver of behavior. This need has extended to individual identity; in fact, it is said that the mind is not the possession of the individual and that our notions of self are determined significantly by the various individuals and groups with whom we connect. Sometimes, connection is expressed through the consumption of material things that reflect social membership, help us feel accepted, or demonstrate our relative position in society. Consumers develop strong attachments to objects, brands, and companies. Marketing managers must be sensitive to several connection-related issues:

  • Connection is a two-way street, and consumers are most apt to feel loyalty to brands and companies if they feel those in charge have a commitment to them.
  • Products and services can provide connection or disengagement, or both. The offerings may be a badge showing informal membership in a group or society (connection), may offer a means of being apart from others (status via disengagement), or may afford the consumer private time (disengagement).
  • Other goods and services provide a sense of inner connection and sense of connection with others.

Managers must identify the dimensions of connection that are most relevant or could be made more relevant to consumers. For example, managers need to consider whether a product offers connection with, or disconnection from, others or oneself. And they must decide whether a connection is physical, social, or mental. Once these levels of connection are understood, marketing managers can better show how a product or service attends to the consumer's basic human needs.

Book excerpt used with the permission of Harvard Business School Press from Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal about the Minds of Consumers. Copyright 2008 Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay H. Zaltman.

About the author

Martha Lagace is the senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge.