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Communicating in Metaphor (Not Riddles)

October 15, 2020


Communicating in Metaphor (Not Riddles)

As our businesses grow, it’s natural for us to move in new directions. I’ve used the tree analogy before—our brands are like trees, and trees grow towards the light. Our brand ideally is anchored with a health set of roots and are uniquely different and ownable (brand essence). Then a competitor springs up before us, blocking out some of the light. Like a tree, its ecosystem is designed to ensure all parts of the tree, especially the roots are aligned promoting overall health.

The question for Marketers is how to make sure our branding always represents us, especially when we grow in all new directions. Does the logo we started with make sense? Instagram’s logo uses a camera, capturing the idea of the photo-based social media platform. What if they broadened their offering to making feature-length films? Does the camera icon best deliver the brand truth?

We often find ourselves in this sort of position. We need to think about what we communicate to our customers and how well those metaphorical meanings line up with the overall brand truth! Too often, as a brand grows and adjusts to remain relevant, touchpoints begin to speak in riddles. We get into the psychology, thinking about deep meaning. We can end up leaving our customers scratching their heads.

So how can we make sure we’re using the right metaphors, not speaking to ourselves around a boardroom table (or Zoom table) and not speaking in riddles?

 It comes back to the essence of our brands. Why does this brand exist? The brand’s truth!

Branches All Connect to a Root

The problem we usually bump into is that we aren’t seeing the roots of our brand. Over years of changing brand teams, decision making teams, we may have lost sight of the “why”. Piles of research, zigs and zags have resulted in many hypotheses around, “this is what I think the brand is all about.”

Sometimes, we’re pretty good at guessing! Other times, we get it dead wrong. And then there are the cases where we impose what we want our brands to be about on our branding. Instead of looking at what’s growing organically, we take what we want from competitors and graft it onto our brand.

Sometimes, this works. Most of the time, though, it doesn’t—because what we’re grafting isn’t natural for our brand. It’s a transplant, and it always feels like it.

The solution here is always to look to what’s at the root of our brands—what’s driving us forward.

 Iconic Logos Get to the Core of the Brand

So, what about Instagram? Their camera logo is iconic at this point. Even if they did move into films, people would probably still say this makes sense.

Why? Films still use cameras. They still provide some of what Instagram is known for: a lens through which we see other lives, entertainment, stories. We could even say films are social and provide connection, in a sense. We might get together and watch a movie with some friends. Maybe Instagram decides to make a particular kind of movie. Maybe they’re interactive!

So, Instagram’s logo still makes sense for this growth opportunity.

What if Instagram moved into something like restaurants? The logo might still make sense, depending on what these restaurant experiences offered. Restaurants are, again, a place to connect. And maybe Instagram-branded restaurants would be all about taking selfies with your food, so the camera would still make sense.

Let’s look at one of the most iconic logos ever: Nike. The swoosh is considered one of the best logos ever. Everyone knows it. You don’t even need the wordmark with it—you know it’s Nike.

And the philosophy—the metaphorical meaning—behind this mark fits with Nike. The brand’s tagline is “just do it.” The swoosh is almost a sort of checkmark. We can see that in a few ways: checking something off your to-do list or a bucket list, getting it done, making it happen, getting it right.

In other words, just do it.

This fits so well with what Nike does, always pushing to the limits, striving to be better than the day before. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best athlete in the world or someone who wants to stay fit. Nike helps you just do it and do it better than you could the day before.

And this fits with most of Nike's apparel and sports equipment. It also fits with their research initiatives and their social actions as well.

What if Nike was to launch into a completely new category? Say business software? Would the swoosh still work? Chances are it would, as the metaphorical meaning that is deeply embedded in this brand is all about the emotional benefit to their customer!

A Logo Represents Brand DNA

Instagram and Nike’s logos might seem, at first glance, to represent what they do right now. But they also speak to the core of the business in some way. Instagram’s camera tells us this social media platform is about taking pictures. But it also captures the idea of getting a glimpse into someone else’s life, connecting with people through pictures.

That idea of a “lens” or even of capturing and sharing images with each other speaks to what the brand is about: connection. The camera becomes a way of connecting us. It can bring us closer together—even if Instagram pivots into movies or branded experiences or something else.

The same is true of Nike’s swoosh. It may have started off as “just a drawing,” but today it embodies the company’s philosophy. That philosophy could help us “just do” everything from run faster to file our taxes if Nike ever wanted to offer accounting software.

We trip up when we forget about our essence. An example might be J. M. Smucker and their recent rebranding exercise. The company has expanded into many other areas in recent decades. The exercise here was to come up with something that captures the new direction of the business.

The company wanted to pivot away from what the brand is known for, what resonates with customers. They don’t want to be just the jam company. Which is fair! The company is enormous and handles so much more than jam.

Yet the new logo will likely baffle existing customers. It’s difficult to tell what it means without having it explained. The metaphor is missing; we have a riddle instead.

Plenty of brands and companies get tired of their look. Want to modernize or perhaps reinvent to share their new direction. But this runs the risk of confusing customers who could be brought in by speaking precisely to the essence—the root—of the brand.

Apples don’t fall far from trees, so to speak—and the apple, as different as it is, still has the same DNA encoding as the tree! Nike’s swoosh logo works for Nike branded software as well as it works for Nike shoes. That's because we know the DNA encoding of both products (the "apples")—and both spring from the company philosophy.

Talk to Your Customers

Did you talk to your best customers to help inform branding decisions? Not get your customers to design, but understand what is being communicated through font, colours, images etc. Do they recognize us? Have we added richness or created a riddle with the change?

Years ago, we were fortunate enough to have a teen panel that we could tap into. When we did a packaging redesign, we were saved by a group of our best customers through understanding that a slight change in pantone colour of the logo – suggested power and action OR burning and raw skin. It doesn’t need to take a lot of money to simply understand what is being communicated by people that love your brand and want it to succeed.

The only time we need to change brand perceptions is if people don’t want to buy from us and all trust is lost. Enron, for example, needed to do a lot of brand rehabilitation after enormous scandal in the early 2000s. Ultimately, it ended up selling off its businesses and winding down. Even if it had managed to continue, I would doubt they could overcome consumer mistrust and animosity.

Sometimes, when we get customer feedback, we think we need to change perceptions. It is important to understand the architecture under the meaning of the word AND to understand the respondent base and who you are asking.

Let’s take the word “traditional”. Being “traditional” isn’t a bad thing for a food company. Tradition is often associated with goodness and wholesomeness. Heritage and tradition often go together with “homecooked” and memories of making meals.

Sure, tradition be old or boring or outmoded. When we hear these terms connected to our brands, we might think or strive to change attributes that allow us to be seen as, “Hey! We’re modern, we’re hip! Look, we’re innovative!”

But what is the underpinning of the word? Tradition can mean comfort, good memories, wholesome, fresh, organic, or real food. Tradition can mean they trust us to do it right, to deliver something they can rely on. Something that’s like what Mom used to make.

And if the word traditional is attached to a corporation, why can’t this idea can translate across our brand categories—if we’re in coffee and pet food, why aren’t we also stressing to customers that everything they can expect from our other brands are also in these products? If these brands truly fit with our company, then they should match our corporate essence.

So, if we tug on that concept a little bit, we can come up with a logo that resonates with our customers. When we do that, we’re no longer speaking in riddles. We’re talking in metaphors—metaphors our customers already know and understand.

When we say, “Made the traditional way,” our customers say, “Wholesome, good, just like Mom used to make.” And we can apply that to every branch of our brand-tree—even if we’re venturing into something that’s new and innovative for us. We can be Nike going into software—but we’re bringing our philosophy to it, doing it our way. So, we can “just do” our taxes the same way we tackle our workouts—aiming to conquer, getting better at it, and checking the box.

If Nike tried telling us it was super simple or their software was user-friendly, it would feel off strategy. They would be focusing on what they are selling vs. what the customer is ultimately buying. It is important to always honour or root the message back to the essence (roots of the proverbial tree).

When we realize the connections our customers are already making for us, the metaphors they already use to communicate with us, we can develop brand assets that make sense to everyone, right at a glance. And that’s what makes Nike’s swoosh or Instagram’s camera logo so iconic—they communicate, instantly, what we already know and love about the brand.

So, whenever we think we need to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to our brands, we should hit pause—and remember to get back to the why!


Meet Margo…brand visioning & marketing

Margo Jay is a Master Brand Strategist with a career leading globally recognized brands; developing and launching a proven model that maximizes competitive sales potential and consumer appeal. She has built the model to help companies of all sizes. Her Client roster includes entrepreneurs through to Fortune 100 brands: NHL teams, Global QSR brands, CPG brands, Broadcast brands, Agencies, Non Profit brands, Hard goods…this model and process provides competitive advantage in any category.

Complete clarity. Ownable distinct selling proposition. Shared values. Brand Clarity. Brand Focus. Brand Inspiration. Brand Obsession. Unlocking brand potential is what she does.

And it all starts with why!

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