The Importance of Metaphor

Each of us is a skillful master of metaphors, as both linguists and primatologist have pointed out.  From an early age, indeed from birth, we possess an innate ability to recognize phonological and semantic patterns.  We construct utterances, phrases, to describe one thing in terms of another. Metaphor is essentially hardwired into our little brains.  These metaphors tend to emerge first during pretend play or parent/child interactions, when children produce simple noun-noun substitutions. I recall my oldest daughter calling a paring knife an “apple shaver” as a small child because of the associations with food and my then practice of shaving (which I have largely put aside).  My younger daughter referred to the minivan we had at the time as the “driver house.”  The point is that metaphor is a large part of how we make sense of the world and SYMBOLS drive the better part of how we construct and interpret reality.

A key part of human learning processes is what is referred to as “cognitive embodiment.” We use our bodies to develop more complex or abstract  concepts. For example, when we fall and struggle to stand up as toddlers, we learn about the principle of “balance.” This in turn informs our understanding of “balance” in many other spheres of life – “balance” becomes a metaphor for other facets of existence beyond the physical struggle against gravity.

The tendency has been to trumpet the features and product benefits of the things manufacturers and retailers sell, but that model is rapidly dying.  Marketers are only now realizing how important an understanding of metaphoric experience processes in the consumer’s mind is (vis-à-vis a brand, a product, a need, etc), in order to then provide brand positioning and creative communication with genuine meaning that impacts consumer thought and behavior. To every advertiser, designer and marketer, metaphor is the fundamental thread that weaves through and across our conscious and subconscious minds.  Metaphor creates a new reality.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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