Why the Power of Metaphors may not Necessarily Apply to Brands

Metaphoric narratives may lead to lower levels of self-brand connections

Por qué el poder de las metáforas no aplica necesariamente a las marcas

In today’s social-media driven marketing environment, brand-related information multiplies quickly. Both consumers and influencers often share their experiences with brands in narrative formats, telling stories about their interactions with brands in their online product reviews or promotional activities. By using a narrative format, consumers can provide a more engaging and compelling review that captures the essence of their experience with the brand. 

In these narratives, metaphors are frequently employed to ease the understanding of complex concepts, such as “Nike shoes are a bolt of lightning” and “Bose headsets are the cream of the crop”. One intuition might be that the use of such metaphoric terms creates greater narrative depth, so consumers can perhaps form stronger bonds with their brands.

However, as new research found, metaphoric narratives can actually lead to weaker connections between the consumers’ self and the brand. This is because of the linguistic characteristics of metaphors, such as their abstractness, vagueness, and unclear casualty, which lack required features that make a brand story relatable.

This is the research topic of the article “When Brand Narratives are Written in Metaphoric Terms, Can They Weaken Self-Brand Connections?”, forthcoming in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, by Sydni Fomas Do (University of Arizona), Martin Reimann (University of Arizona and EGADE Business School), Raquel Castaño (EGADE Business School) and Alberto López (Ipsos). This study aims to understand the role of metaphors in the way consumers talk about the brands they buy.

Across three studies using two different methods (analysis of archival review data and experiments), the present research attempts to shed new light on the occurrence of metaphoric narrative in consumer’s reviews of branded products (pilot study), shows their effect in weakening self-brand connections among brand review writers (study 1), and highlights key differences in narrative structure between metaphoric and non-metaphoric narratives among the readers of these reviews (study 1).

The role of narratives in consumer language

Much of the marketing-related information we exchange is told in narrative format. But what do these stories have in common? At least, narratives consist of three aspects:

  1. Actors engaged in actions to achieve goals, such as the consumer who provides insight of the consuming experience
  2. A temporal sequence of events, such as when they describe a consumptions journey from beggining to end
  3. Reasons why things happen, such as the context that made the events turn out the way they did

What is a metaphoric narrative?

As figurative language that describes one thing or idea in terms of another, metaphors are integral part of people’s lives and personal stories. They seem to facilitate this process by providing terms and concepts consumers can grasp more easily. They are also said to provide an important foundation for how people relate to brands.

When consumers use metaphors in their stories—for example, when reviewing products— they are more likely to use complex figurative speech, abstract ideas, and vague concepts rather than straight-forward textual descriptions to detail the three aspects involved in narratives: actors, temporal events and reasons why the events of the story unfolded the way they did. When doing so, consumers are thought to engage in the cognitive process of using their antecedent knowledge about metaphorical concepts to transfer meaning to the narrative.

Because metaphoric storytellers use abstraction to create meaning, cognitive distance between what is said and what is perceived may increase. This process is theorized to result in weaker connections between the brand in the story and our sense of self.

Metaphoric narratives and self-brand connections

The central question of this research is whether the use of metaphors in brand narratives helps or hurts the relationships consumers have with brands. There are several reasons why metaphoric (vs. non-metaphoric) narratives may lead to lower levels of self-brand connections:

  1. The more abstract the narrative becomes, the less likely it is to describe the actors in the story in a relatable way. This can make it more difficult for consumers to generate a sense of emotional engagement with the brand.
  2. Well-developed stories require a temporal sequence, but metaphors contain a language that is not always linearly presented, and thus their efficacy may be problematic.
  3. In a good narrative, the events in the story are connected by a clear cause-and-effect relationship that provides reasons why events in the story happened the way they did. Because metaphoric meanings are often contextual, the metaphor may be understood differently across narrative contexts.

Metaphoric narratives weaken self-brand connections

The results of this research confirm that when consumers read narratives about brands in metaphoric terms, they perceive them to be less narratively structured than when the narratives are written in non-metaphoric terms. When participants are asked to write stories, metaphoric (vs. non-metaphoric) narratives lack detail regarding the story’s actors, temporal sequence of events, and cause-and-effect relationships.

Metaphors can weaken self-brand connections also because, as they make an implied comparison between two unlikely things, consumers must fill the gap between the metaphorical meaning and their connection with the brand, introducing cognitive distance and making it harder for consumers to relate to it.

Finally, non-metaphoric language is typically more concrete and easier to understand with less room for interpretation, which can lead to a more immersive and engaging brand narrative experience for the consumer.

The authors are Distinguished Visiting Professor in Consumer Behavior at EGADE Business School and Associate Professor at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management (Martin Reimann); Associate Provost for Faculty Development at Tec de Monterrey, and Professor of the Department of Marketing and Business Intelligence at EGADE Business School (Raquel Castaño); and Professor in the Department of Marketing and Analysis at Tecnológico de Monterrey (Alberto López).

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