Using metaphors as creative inspiration

Guest post from Prasad Narasimhan, our Managing Partner for Asia, based in Bangalore, India. 

As brand coaches,
we are constantly looking for great ideas that will grow brand & business
for our clients. We’ve often heard that “the best way to get
a great idea is to first get a lot of ideas”. However, conventional brainstorming doesn’t always help. This can help
generate a lot of ideas, but the output can be quite scattered. And the low
hit-rate of relevant breakthrough ideas creates considerable skepticism in
brand teams.

One more effective way to
generate high-quality ideas is the humble metaphor. As Robert Frost said, “Any
idea is a feat of association and the height of it is a good metaphor”.

Simply put, a metaphor is the direct comparison of two unlike things. The juxtaposition of
one onto the other can create a surprise & build fresh new meaning. See an example below.

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Why metaphors work

Metaphors help our minds
to go beyond logic/words to visualize new possibilities. Metaphors, by throwing up images to our minds, spark off the
visual thinking side in us each time. And so when used as stimulus in our workshops, they can help spark breakthrough

Metaphors also help to
visualize & communicate Brand Ideas eloquently, as the real-life examples below

  • For a functional foods brand targeting kids: “Mental Sharpener for an active
  • Scooter brand targeting women
    seeking to drive more & do more: “Vehicle
    of change
  • Youth TV Channel that seeks to
    catalyze positive change: “Idea Jockeys
    for young India” 

If metaphors are comparisons
between two unlike things, it follows that the best way to use them for
generating a lot of ideas is to imagine a number of unlike things we can
compare our challenge to; and then deliberately make explicit connections that
could spark ideas. We find it useful to plan for this at 6 levels. These range
from near to progressively farther comparisons.  

The ‘6 Orbits of Metaphor’

The 1st orbit is Others
in the category – either direct competitors or even players in other countries.
There are several global databases (e.g. GNPD from Mintel) that allow us to
effortlessly trawl the world for inspiration. This is not about just copying with
pride, but about taking inspiration from brand actions and creating new
thoughts for us. For example, crispbread brand Ryvita got ideas on how to refresh its personality from solo dieting to being "one of the girls" by asking "What if we were more like Diet Coke?", as we posted on here.

2nd is Roles.
Imagining what famous brands or leaders would do to address our challenge helps
us brew up some very new ideas. Archetypes are another interesting way to inspire
ideas in this orbit. The idea to use Gary Linker as the face of Walkers crisps was inspired by a personification exercise in a workshop, asking "If Walkers was a person, who would it be?"

Buyers make up our 3rd orbit. Deep consumer observations & fresh
insights allow us to build bold new ideas that are very fresh to the market.

The 4th orbit is immediate
spaces; where we can query brands with similar challenges for new ideas.

Transpose makes up the 5th
orbit. One you identify where everyone else is zigging, you can create bold
ideas that zag. This is very powerful simply because it is very contrarian.

And the last orbit is Surprising
spaces. By going well beyond reasonable comparisons, we create the chances for
some serendipitous idea connections.

The 6 Orbits in motion 

As an illustration, we recently
created a fun foods brand targeting tweens called "Go Mad". This brand was entering the market
in direct competition to large players like PepsiCo, Cadbury & Nestle; and
had to really stand out to stand a chance. Some of the big ideas jumped off

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 14.46.17
A large number of fun product ideas
like ‘chomp-able, slurp-able’ jelly drinks were inspired by fun food brands (others) like Ben & Jerry and Magic

Seeing the brand through the eyes
of maverick CEOs (roles) allowed us
to visualize many zany product & activation ideas that were way off the
sober charts.

Deep understanding of teens and the
pressures they go through (buyers)
helped us to recognize goofing off as a key need-state, and the brand was
designed as a fun antidote. 

Looking at TV programs targeting
kids (immediate), we created
communication that seamlessly mixed animation with real life. 

The brand name “Gone Mad” itself
was a result of contrary (transpose)
thinking; boldly going against category codes in naming. 

And crowd-sourcing thoughts (surprising) inspired a packaging &
advertising development program that was all created by kids through
competitions in schools.    

Far versus Near 

In conclusion, all 6
orbits allow for effective ideation. In general, the farther the orbit is, the
more surprising the connection, and hence the fresher the idea. The disciplined creativity of exploring all six orbits against a tight Brand Vision
helps generate a large number of high-quality ideas.

For more on metahphors, see this piece in Fast Company.