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Metaphors in marketing and business

Author Joel Sanders

Business is war… or maybe a dance?

In the opening pages to their landmark book Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson show how we frame arguments in terms of war. We attack each other’s positions. We shoot down arguments. We point out where a claim is indefensible. And so on.

But must argument be framed as a war? A few paragraphs later, the authors invite us to “imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way.” Obviously, the outcome of that type of argument would be very different.

Business and marketing, too, are often framed in terms war. We position our products and services in the competitive landscape, we launch new products, road warrior salespeople are responsible for territories to capture market share, and so on.

Obviously, there’s utility in the “business is war” metaphor, which is why it’s so pervasive. But how does such thinking limit innovation and growth? How might it be hurting us?

What if marketing and business were something entirely different? What if it were a dance, instead of a war? Or something else?

Metaphor blindness

What’s fascinating about metaphors is that we use them all the time but are mostly blind to them. We get sucked into the experience of the metaphor itself and accept it as fact.

TELL ME MORE® hosts a bi-weekly Meetup of entrepreneurs, artists, marketers, and other creatives at a local coffee shop. At our most recent event, we discussed how metaphors shape our experiences, using our professional work as the backdrop.

To demonstrate how blind we are to metaphors, I asked one of the group members to share how he is evaluating various business opportunities. While everybody knew that the topic for the day was metaphors in business, I didn’t specifically ask the group to pay attention to them in this opening dialogue.

Meanwhile, as he spoke, I jotted own every metaphor I heard. Here’s a sample:

  • “I worked my ass off…”
  • “I had to dig myself out of a hole…”
  • “I always had my safety net…”
  • “I could always crank out…”
  • “Clouded by my past stories…”
  • “Ride the wave…”
  • “Entrenched players in the space…”
  • “Coding bootcamp…”
  • “Assemble a team…”
  • “Feel my way through…”
  • “Coding ecosystem…”

In the five minutes or so that this person shared his story, I identified no fewer than 36 metaphors! But when I asked the rest of the group how many metaphors they heard, nobody could identify even one…not even the person who was talking.

New metaphors, new possibilities

The point of all of this is obvious: The metaphors we employ in any situation sets the boundaries of experience and the possibilities in that domain. And yet unless we are explicitly looking for them, we don’t recognize the metaphors that are shaping that experience.

An awareness of the metaphors we are already using to frame our thinking opens the door to exploring new metaphors which might lead to new possibilities and creative breakthroughs.

Defining business or marketing in terms of war offers one set of possibilities. Marketing as a dance provides an entirely different set of possibilities, as a playground yet another, or as a sailing adventure yet another.

Likewise, the metaphors our customers use in work and life situations frame the world of possibilities in each context. Depending on the situation, we might enter our customers’ metaphorical experiences and play within those bounds. Or, we might create an entirely new experience by inviting customers to play a new game with entirely different rules and possible outcomes.

It’s in new but plausible metaphors that all innovation takes place. Yet anything new is by definition also experimental. It could fall flat, and then everyone’s back to playing the old game by the old rules.

But it’s the opportunity to play new games that keeps life interesting. Fighting the same old battles over and over again can become destructive. Dancing the same old dance using the same old moves can become boring and predictable.

Once we understand the full nature and power of metaphor in language and thought—and that we have a say in changing the games that we’re playing—the only limits to experience are that of our imagination.

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