Electrify Your Customers’ Timid Transistors by Explaining New Products with Metaphor

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New products and brands are difficult to explain to potential customers. They are already inundated with information on more products than they could ever buy. They have no reason to care about a yet another new product they don’t understand. Companies that just copy old products in established markets can get by with special features to draw customer interest, but innovative pioneers must make their customers understand the benefits of their product.

Metaphor, whether in words or through visuals, is a well-worn but extremely powerful method for capturing what your customers already know in order to explain something new to them in a memorable way. Steve Jobs was a master of using metaphor to introduce new products that revolutionized the industry, but metaphor can be tricky, so you must take your time to find the best analogy for your product. If you get it right, your product will forever live in your customer’s minds, connected to what they already understand.

The Gene Grayson School of Advertising

Gene Grayson was a creative director during the classic 1960s era of advertising on Madison Avenue in New York. He pioneered a metaphorical approach to TV advertising during a time when many advertisers were still married to the idea of voluminous print ads. He relied on clever visual metaphors to give a value and emotion to new, but otherwise mundane household products.

Jane Maas describes in her advertising memoir, Mad Women, how in a Grayson TV ad coffee cups with instant coffee might be turned into coffee pots, or a pile of old-fashioned household cleaning supplies might be replaced with just one magical new product. ( Today this is often the stuff of cheap late-night ads and infomercials, but the metaphorical concept still remains strong if done with the right execution.

The Metaphorical Mazes of Steve Jobs

The walls of text once favored by many of those Madison Avenue ad firms are long gone, but metaphor still works wonders for many companies, especially those trying to sell customers and investors on a new idea. The Jobs metaphorical approach at Apple was so powerful that it’s sometimes hard to remember they started as metaphors, such as computer operating system desktops, documents, folders, and trashcans. (

Technology and innovation move at a fast pace and your potential customers don’t have time to try every new product or to even understand products. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but no one is going to buy it if you can’t within a single sentence give them a clear benefit. Metaphor is one of the best ways to do that, even if it drastically simplifies what makes the products what it is. The metaphor draws people in, and then you can explain in detail.

Finding the Metaphor

Bringing your detailed, long-fought over ideas down to one single line of benefit can be an arduous task, but metaphor makes it easier by sparking people’s imaginations, making their minds do some of the work for you.

Finding the right metaphor can take some time, but it’s all worth it if you find the metaphor that perfectly encapsulates your brand and product. Break down your product’s core benefits to the customer, and focus on the ones customers can most easily understand. Then, to get your mind working, start randomly writing down other ideas and try to connect them to your product as a metaphor. Most of them won’t work, but keep writing and your mind will find new paths through the forest, with new vistas of your product’s utopia.

Metaphors can be used for the product or brand name itself, such as Nike, named for the Greek goddess of victory, or the Ford Mustang, named for the storied American horse breed. More commonly, companies use metaphor in the tag of major campaigns, such as Skittles’ “taste the rainbow” campaign and Budweiser’s “king of beer” slogan.

How to Avoid Obscuring the Product in Metaphor

Not all metaphors are created equal. Cloud storage, though it is now widely used, has been heavily mocked because the very name of the product muddied instead of clarifying the product’s benefits. With the cloud, utopian technologists envisioned a world of freely-available data everywhere, but most average consumers looked at the technology and saw their data disappearing into a sky of water vapor, never to be seen again.

Subject potential brand and product metaphors to tests, both logical and experimental. Ask yourself if the metaphor clarifies the benefits you offer to customers or simply occludes them. And before settling on a metaphor, try it! Take it out and explain your product using metaphor to potential customers. See if it charges their circuits, if their minds’ crunch into gear, or if they can finally see where it fits in their puzzle.

Take advantage of metaphor to place your products in a context your customers can take hold of. Use metaphor to make their minds’ think actively, helping them to remember how your products can add benefit and value to their lives, but don’t let yourself get lost in clichés and complicated metaphors just for the sake of it. Metaphor should clarify, not confuse. Don’t just settle on the first analogy that pops into your mind. Brainstorm hundreds, pick them apart and put them back together again.

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