Metaphor helps us see complex things that we don’t quite understand in terms of simple things that we do understand. Take something abstract like Time: I know what it is if no one asks, but if anyone does, I cannot explain it.

So, rather than say nothing, I reach for things that I do understand, like journeys or places. I <travel> through time – though that said, sometimes time <passes> me by. Time isn’t a journey, but in this sense it’s like a journey. Or perhaps I am <in> time just like I am <in> a room – which makes Time the fourth <dimension>.

And now we can have a conversation about something very confusing and abstract using language that is simple and concrete. Metaphor isn’t a frilly flourish to adorn a sentence. It is essential to the warp and weft of meaning.

In marketing, as in the rest of life, we use metaphor to make sense of things we don’t quite understand – and who among us can say that they really, totally ‘understand’ marketing?

There seem to be four big metaphors: the Journey, the War, the Relationship and the Exchange. There are others. Brands are thought to have <essences> or <DNA>; we use the language of finance to talk about <brand equity> and the language of religion to talk about <conversions>. And so on. But there are four big ones that crop up again and again. 

The journey

The first metaphor we use frequently is the ‘Customer Journey’. People <start> their journey with a brand at the ‘awareness’ <stage> before <moving> along to ‘interest’. Not all of them make it along the way, but those that do <get to> the ‘decision’ stage before <arriving at> ‘action’, or purchase. To most Westerners, this journey is conceived as moving left to right, but it can be imagined as going from top to bottom, in which case it’s less of a <journey> and more of a <funnel>.

According to different theorists the stages of the journey have different names: for instance, some call the ‘interest’ stage ‘consideration’. Some add a post-purchase stage.

Some smart cookies bend time round on itself and make people start their journey all over again: the <purchase cycle>. But it should be remembered that at no point has anyone actually gone anywhere, except maybe the shops. But it’s like they have gone on a journey – a metaphorical <journey>.

The War

The language of War patterns is the second big metaphor we use in marketing. We develop <campaigns> that are <targeted> and <launched> at potential customers. We <penetrate> markets, and hope to win customer <loyalty>. The more sophisticated marketers realise that it’s all about <hearts and minds>.

The Relationship

Confusingly, <loyalty> also features in the third big metaphor: Brand Relationships. We use the language of human relationships to describe how we <get to know> a brand, like it or even <love> it, our relationship evolving over time. In truth, we don’t literally love these things: brands don’t really exist, except in the mind of marketers who make them.

But we can use aspects of something that we understand well – human relationships – to help us comprehend something far less intuitive – the aggregate of interactions between a buyer and a seller over time.  

The Exchange

The final paradigm is that of Exchange. This might seem the least poetic and flowery. But listen carefully to the language we use. We develop ads in the hope of <earning> people’s attention. People <spend> time with us, and we try not to <waste> it. We <give> people messages, but we can’t be sure about how they will <receive> them. Here is a deep and profound insight into how we think commercial communication works. 

Working with metaphors

These metaphors are very helpful, because they allow us to use a language and logic from areas that we are familiar with – journeys, and conflicts, and friendships and negotiations – to talk about and understand something that is more nebulous and ephemeral. But they are only metaphors. There is no journey, or war, or exchange: we’re just seeing one thing in terms of another. 

And we should observe that these metaphors get mixed up something rotten. The Journey and the Relationship metaphors are often combined to give the impression that ‘brand love’ is somehow an inevitable or desired <destination> of a marketing campaign. Brands fight to earn attention. Loyalty matters in both Love and War. 

Keeping track of the logical entailment of all these metaphors (and mixed metaphors) is tough. But that’s okay, because once we realise that they are just metaphors, we can <pick them up> and <drop them> as we please. 

In summary:


  • What? We use four big metaphors to understand marketing processes: the Journey, the War, the Relationship and the Exchange
  • So what? Each metaphor offers an interesting perspective to help us understand something abstract and complex in terms of something (relatively) concrete and simple
  • Now what? But each metaphor is just that – just way of seeing things rather than the ‘thing in itself’