How To Frost Your Marketing

Your product is like a sponge cake. It’s fantastic, but nobody knows that until they try it.

Plain white sponge cake tends to look boring. No matter how scrumptious it tastes, the unexciting appearance isn’t enough of a draw.

But imagine that you frost your sponge cake, going all-out with vanilla swirls and chocolate shavings, maybe even adding some fruit and glaze on top. Suddenly you’ve got a winning cake that will tempt anyone to try it. And of course, one taste and they’ll realize how delicious your cake truly is.

A marketing metaphor is the frosting for your company’s product or service – the added touch that makes your customers say, “that’s exactly what I need!”


What’s a Metaphor?

For those of you who slept through English class in high school, a metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly different things. (And for those of you who were wide awake in English class, I’m not going to differentiate between similes and metaphors right now. For the sake of explaining how to make marketing metaphors work, let’s ignore the differences.)

One of the best ways to sell anything is through a metaphor. Why? Because our brains aren’t wired to emotionally connect with technical explanations. Instead, we’re wired to connect to imagery. Creating an image that encompasses your product’s benefits make your message “click” in your customers’ minds.


Marketing Metaphors at Work

To understand how a marketing metaphor works, take a look at this old Chevy commercial:

A Chevy truck is “like a rock.” Chevrolet’s marketing metaphor paints their trucks with imagery we can immediately understand this is a rugged reliable vehicle that can take abuse without cracking under pressure.

Tropicana is “your daily ray of sunshine.” This metaphor portrays orange juice juice as healthy bright, and full of vitality.

Sometimes, brand names alone can convey a metaphor. For example, Tide (detergent), Safari (perfume), and Puffs (tissues) all evoke metaphorical thinking.


Creating a Marketing Metaphor

Trying to come up with the perfect metaphor for your company or product can feel sort of like trying to scratch that really itchy spot on your back. No matter how simple it should be to reach, you somehow just can’t seem to put your finger on it.

No matter. Here’s a process you can use to slowly circle closer and closer to the itch until you’ve finally got it – umm, figured out the right metaphor to use.


Get in Your Customers’ Heads

You’ll need a focus group, or at a minimum a few customers who will give you some of their time. Once you have your group, it’s time to begin asking questions and listening carefully to their answers.

You should ask questions about their experiences with your company’s product or service. Make sure to relate your questions to feelings:

  • How did they feel before they found your company?
  • How do they feel now?

The goal here is to try to tap into the emotions they felt without your product or service, and the emotions they feel with your product or service. You may need to ask variations on the same questions to get rich, vivid responses.

Now you’re ready for the interesting part. You’ll want to listen for “visual descriptions” in their answers. Did your your clients feel “lost” beforehand? Were your customers “overwhelmed”? Was your product “refreshing”? Did your service make them feel like they had “just set down a heavy load”?


Search Out Your Metaphor

Based on what you hear, create a list of possible metaphors that might convey the emotions you’re aiming for. For example, if your clients felt “lost” and “confused” before they found your product, your list might include items like lighthouse, flashlight, sports coach, map, or Waze.

Alternatively, if you’re selling a software product that helps accountants find problems in their files, you might find that your list includes giant yellow highlighter, guided missiles, or master copyeditor.


Extend the Metaphor

Choose two or three of your favorite metaphors and try to extend them. How does the metaphor continue beyond the initial, obvious connection?

Let’s say your service is like hiring a private sports coach. What is a scrimmage or a pre-game pep talk? If your charity is acting like a lifeguard, what is a life preserver or a whistle? While your final metaphor will be short and succinct, going through this brainstorming process ensures that you’re choosing a metaphor that can be easily applied down the line.

If possible, try adding sensory details to your metaphor. Allow the person hearing the metaphor to see, hear, taste, feel, or smell what you’re talking about.

Finally, keep it short. Once you’ve extended the metaphor as far as it can go, keep the final marketing metaphor as succinct as possible. You want to create a quick picture, rather than a lengthy story.


Test It Out

Now it’s finally time for the big reveal. Share your metaphor with the customers that you initially spoke with. If you’ve found that perfect metaphor, you’ll hear “Yes! That’s just how I felt!” That’s how you’ll know you’ve got the perfect marketing metaphor.

So don’t try to convince your customers to taste a bare sponge cake. Whip out the frosting, decorate your cake perfectly, and watch them dig in!