6 Requirements for a Winning Product Metaphor

A good metaphor is a powerful product and company positioning tool, but a bad one is worse than just saying what you do. A bad metaphor will get in the way of understanding. Let’s start with an example, then talk about the 6 requirements of a great metaphor, and finish by evaluating the example against the 6 requirements.

Why Metaphors (and an example)

Metaphors are the pocket battleships of positioning. After World War 1, Germany was faced with treaty weight restrictions on the ships she could build. Pocket battleships were a new type of vessel that fit under those weight limits by using advanced construction and engine technologies to reduce enough weight to include the big 11-inch guns Germany wanted. 

Like pocket battleships, metaphors are concise enough to deliver in a paragraph, but still pack the firepower to land your positioning with your audience.

Got it? Metaphors are the Pocket Battleships of Positioning

Requirement 1: Emotionally Provocative

Frustration, delight, joy, hope. Emotions wake our brains up. They get our attention and make us listen by painting a picture for us. 

Good: It’s like being trapped in a plastic chair at the DMV, with nothing to do.
Bad: It’s like calculating tensile load tolerances for structural beams.

Requirement 2: Accessible 

Metaphors are targeted at people, so they need to be wrapped around experiences or things most people have experienced or seen – and which don’t have to be explained. 

Good: Like grandmommy making your favorite snack after a lousy day at school. 
Bad: Like the ball gowns at a reception during the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Requirement 3: Internally Coherent 

Because you’re usually positioning an old way versus a possible new way, product metaphors often have ‘before it was like A and now it’s like B’… but for the metaphor to work, A & B have to be about the same situation. 

Bad: It was like getting kicked in the face, but now it’s like writing a symphony. 
Good: It took an hour to find the ball your dog lost, but now the ball calls to you.

Requirement 4: Relevant 

This might sound silly, but the metaphor has to relate to what your company and product are trying to do. If your company makes some process more efficient, the metaphor needs to be about an inefficient situation. If you instead use a metaphor about handling sudden surges in demand, that will be confusing.

Requirement 5: Deliverable

A winning metaphor promises no more than what your customers could do with your product, what you can demo, what you can support with a customer story proof point. If your metaphor promises a change a lot more significant than what you can achieve, you’ll undermine your credibility in the medium and longer terms.

Requirement 6: Extensible

Since you’d love to have a specific metaphor for each new feature or product you launch, it’s ideal to find a metaphorical ‘world’ that metaphors for your other products can live in, too. Otherwise, a year from now, when you’re explaining everything you do, you’ll use 3 different metaphors – and the listener’s head will explode from trying to keep it all straight.

Scoring the Pocket Battleship Metaphor

Let’s score our example metaphor, because you’ll rarely get it right with the first idea you blurt out. Learning how to critique your metaphor to make it stronger is a key to a repeatable process for success.

Emotionally provocative: C-
While war is upsetting, ship engineering is intellectual & abstract, not an emotional experience.

Accessible: B
The metaphor works once explained, but for 99.9% of the population, you’d have to explain it. 

Internally Coherent: A
They couldn’t build the ships they wanted, but with pocket battleships they suddenly could. 

Relevant: A
The weight constraints of the treaty are like the brevity constraints of a metaphor.

Deliverable: A
You can find a metaphor that gives you more firepower with fewer words.

Extensible: A-
There’s enough ‘room’ in geopolitical armed conflict for metaphors for other aspects of positioning.

What Now?

Pull in other people to help. Brainstorm a few different metaphors and critique them as a group. Your B- idea is what will spark someone else to come up with the A+ metaphor that will powerfully explain the value of what you do.

Happy positioning!

The Front Porch
Moss Beach, California

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