In Other Words

Using metaphors can change the way you--and your customers--perceive your business.
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7 min read

This story appears in the January 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Donel Young and Jeff Caponigro are entrepreneurs in the same industry, in similar-sized companies. But to Young, a partner in two-person New York City communications firm Hansen & Young, a day at the office is a spin on the dance floor. For Caponigro, CEO and president of 10-person Caponigro Public Relations Inc. in Southfield, Michigan, it's a football game to be won.

"For us, a dance is how we think about business," says Young. "It's a dance between the client and the media, trying to figure out what we can offer the media so they will call our client back."

"We're in a competition," counters Caponigro. "We've got opponents. We keep score with our finances. I look at myself as the head coach of a football team."

The metaphors these entrepreneurs use to think about their businesses are more than shortcuts or convenient communications tools. They powerfully affect the firms' competitive strategies and, ultimately, their effectiveness as competitors.

When you think of your business as a game, as a war or as some other metaphor, you are shaping your whole approach to business, says Shelby Hunt, a marketing professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, who has studied business metaphors extensively. Says Hunt, "It suggests a pattern of associations you bring to a situation."

  • Emerging Metaphors

You may remember learning a metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is said to be another. Unlike a simile, which uses the words "like" or "as," a metaphor doesn't so much compare two things as indicate they are one and the same. Saying "business is war" is different from saying "business is like war."

One of the best-known metaphors is "marketing myopia." This phrase, coined in 1960 by marketing guru Theodore Leavitt, makes the point that marketers are shortsighted by comparing the way marketing is practiced to the way an eye sees.

By equating one thing to another, a new relationship is highlighted or a new idea is explored. Some of the most common business metaphors, along with war and sports, are business as biology--as in "product life cycle"--and business as marriage, a metaphor commonly used by companies to describe strategic alliances, supplier-vendor relationships and the like.

"People use [metaphors] to communicate with like-minded people and because they're comfortable," explains William H. Crookston, an entrepreneurship professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "It's as if there's a language of entrepreneurship or business."

But Hunt argues that using metaphors like these merely to communicate is not making the most of this powerful business tool. Instead of using metaphors simply to make points or explain concepts, he urges businesspeople to use metaphors to help plan competitive strategies.

"To me, the great benefit of using metaphors is they spur creativity and innovation," says Hunt. "They can provide a new way to look at something you've been looking at for a long time."

When you're out of ideas or the old strategies just don't seem to be working, Hunt suggests creating a list of metaphors comparing what it is you're looking at, whether it's a new product, a new market or the entire business, to something else.

For instance, an entrepreneur who compares business to war will likely be thinking about such military maxims as "don't divide your forces" or "choose your own ground for battles."

An entrepreneur who equates business with dancing might be concerned with a completely different set of rules--for instance, staying in time, choosing properly between leading and following and, of course, not stepping on his or her partner.

In this way, switching to new metaphors may reveal new resources, suggest new solutions or offer alternate routes around existing obstacles. "When the creative process runs dry," says Hunt, "looking at a fresh metaphor can be useful."

  • Metaphor Boundaries

One point that may seem obvious but is important to keep in mind is that metaphors aren't true. Business is not war, dance or marriage, even though it may resemble all these things in significant ways. An entrepreneur may get some helpful hints by transplanting football strategy to business, but eventually the metaphor, like all metaphors, will break down.

"The danger of metaphors is that you may bring in an entire system of values, behaviors, techniques and strategies that don't really belong," explains Hunt. For him, the best example of this is the business as war metaphor.

Hunt cites one common experiment in which people are given two options in a business scenario. In the first, the business can charge high prices and make high profits but not hurt competitors. In the second, the business must charge low prices and earn low profits but do lots of damage to competitors.

"Interestingly enough, about 35 percent of practitioners will choose the low price, making less money, just to hurt their competitor," says Hunt. "I think that comes about because they frame competition as warfare; therefore, they place a tremendous importance on punishing their competitors. It makes no sense, but they're so wrapped up in marketing as war, they make suboptimal decisions."

One way to avoid metaphoric breakdown is to make sure you choose a metaphor big enough for the job. For instance, Hunt points to the business-as-biology metaphor. Product life-cycle theory ties concepts such as pregnancy and gestation to investment and product development, compares birth to introducing a product, and equates product maturity and decline to death and extinction. Other business-as-biology analysts have looked at competitive markets in terms of natural selection, population pressure and other ideas from nature.

When you're looking for a metaphor to use in thinking about your business, look for one that's similarly broad and deep. In a June 1995 Journal of Business Research article written with Emory University marketing professor Anil Menon, Hunt writes, "Rich metaphors contain a large proportion of substantive, well-developed concepts that, when transferred to marketing strategy, can have theoretical potential and practical significance."

Metaphors can also be mistakes if they're not clear, especially when they're being used to aid communication. This is coded language, Crookston points out, and if the person you're trying to speak to doesn't get your metaphor, you're back somewhere at square minus one.

Other metaphors can go wrong if they're too well-known. Stale metaphors only bore and irritate people, without adding to the communication process or the creative session, says Crookston. For that reason, entrepreneurs should usually resist the most common, obvious metaphors. "We've outgrown the athletics and war stuff," Crookston says.

Not everybody agrees. "It's probably way overused," Caponigro admits, "but I think about somebody like Larry Bird, one of the great players in the NBA, who would shoot a thousand free throws every day. That's how he got great, and that's how he stayed great. And that's how I talk to our staff about things like professional development and how important it is."

Donel Young, on the other hand, believes metaphors themselves are good opportunities for creativity. Rather than use conventional metaphors like sports or war, she likes to unexpectedly insert metaphors uncommon to the business world into otherwise humdrum meetings. For instance, instead of advising a flighty client to "follow the game plan," she'll suggest they "stick to their knitting" just to shake things up.

Similarly, the dance metaphor may give some clients pause, she says, but it creates a vivid picture of the give and take and sense of timing required when working with the news media. "The dance metaphor seems to work best for explaining to our clients why we do what we do," she says. "It quickly makes it clear how we work."

Mark Hendricks is an Austin, Texas, writer specializing in business topics.

Contact Sources

Caponigro Public Relations Inc., 4000 Town Center, #900, Southfield, MI 48075, (810) 355-3200;

Hansen & Young, 183 E. 94th St., New York, NY 10128, (908) 295-2406.

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