The Power of Metaphors

The Power of Metaphors

VXWT #4 The Power of Metaphors

Although the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET®) is a qualitative research technique that has been around for decades, it is still considered one of the most innovative ‘experience technologies’ for eliciting customers’ unconscious emotional experiences. During the fourth Virtual 9+ Experience World Tour ( Lindsay Zaltman, Olson Zaltman CEO, explained the power of metaphors and how organizations can use them to better connect a product, service, experience, or (international) brand strategy to consumers’ unconscious feelings and desires.

Most of what people think and feel takes place in the unconscious and is captured in “images” and not in “words.” So if you ask people to use words to summarize the images in their minds, it’s likely that these words will not or will hardly describe what they’re actually thinking and feeling. This is the classic marketeer problem when using questionnaires or focus groups to find out what consumers think of a new product, service, or brand strategy. The discrepancy between what consumers “say” they will do (for example “buy”) and what they ultimately do (“not buy”) is difficult to bridge.

Zaltman clarified that, while the “sense and respond” approach is a step forward from the classic “make and sell” approach (“listen to what people want and try to respond to that,” rather than “do what you’re good at and try to include customers in that”), it is certainly not yet the highest “level of customer understanding.” The real deal is “anticipate and lead,” or: Understand what the consumer consciously or unconsciously really wants, despite the fact that the consumer is unable to articulate this, and then respond to that.

Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, founder of Olson Zaltman and also the father of the speaker, already discovered in the 1990s that the key to penetrating the unconscious mind lies in using metaphors. Metaphors are actually not stored in the memory as words but as networks of abstract concepts that form part of our “mental imagery.” He used this insight to develop the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET® for short); a method in which a limited number of people (eight – sixteen) collect images (meaning metaphors) over around a week that represent their thoughts and feelings on a company’s central question or central theme. These thoughts and feelings are finally “articulated” into useful deep insights during an individual experiential interview that uses a special methodology involving seven psychological exercises.

Unconscious Desires and Wishes

Zaltman used various cases to show the power of this “metaphoric” approach. For instance, hearing aid producer Oticon discovered that some of the hard of hearing target group associated a hearing aid with “the ultimate sign to the outside world that I’m old and worn out.” This insight led Oticon to develop a line of hearing aids with a striking design (Delta), in trendy colors and even with prints, transforming an embarrassing aid into a positive “statement” and “lifestyle accessory.” And following ZMET® research, an American architect agency decided to completely redesign a children’s hospital as the existing design was not a good match for the unconscious desires and wishes of the young patients, their parents, and staff.

Metaphors are everywhere in how we use our language. We use them some five or six times a minute when we’re talking and that makes them particularly suitable for “framing” a certain idea or political conviction. Zaltman used research among two groups of citizens to demonstrate that this is not without risk. The first group was asked the question: “Is crime a virus that is infecting society?” with the image of a virus in the background. Another group had the same question formulated as “Is crime a monster that is consuming society?” with the image of a growling dragon in the background. When asked for a “solution” to the “crime” problem, group one overwhelmingly chose to improve education and childcare etc. Group two overwhelmingly opted for stronger measures, stricter punishment, and so on. The outcome was influenced just by using a different metaphor. An important lesson for marketeers who want to use a metaphor to emphasize how a product works…

The insight Zaltman gave with respect to the existence of “deep metaphors” was particularly powerful. These approximately eighteen “ancient metaphors” apparently resonate among all people in all cultures across the world (which shows that we all have the same cognitive experience of the world). Each metaphor that we use (in whatever language) can ultimately be linked to one of these deep metaphors, such as “being in balance,” the “source”, “being connected,” and “transformation.” According to Zaltman, knowledge of these deep metaphors is invaluable in, for example, rolling out an international brand strategy.

Small Data in a Big Data World

At the end of his presentation, Zaltman covered big data (that often tell you very quickly what kind of behavior customers show, but never “why” they show that behavior; “small data” do just that), and also covered AI and NLP. The latter are now still notoriously poor in recognizing metaphors, but Zaltman expects this to change within a few years, which could be a game changer as far as AI-controlled chat boxes and other automated customer contact technologies are concerned.

In the final hour of the VX World Tour session and facilitated by moderator Fabian Kortekaas (TUI) and co-moderator Berry Veldhoen (Altuïtion), Zaltman answered various questions from the Virtual Experience World Tour audience. Among the issues discussed was the fact that some deep metaphors are more or less common drivers for certain industries. For instance, according to Zaltman, the healthcare industry always uses the “journey” metaphor, the no longer “being in control” during the journey, and the attempt to regain control (through medicines or treatment). According to Zaltman, at a metaphoric level, there is a transformation from health to illness and back to health. In contrast, the B2B sector is dominated by metaphors that evoke “confidence.”

Together with Kortekaas and Veldhoen, Zaltman explored the concept of “emotional intelligence”—an essential success factor for human relationships, but often overlooked. Zaltman pointed out that emotion and metaphors are closely linked and that people use metaphors especially to communicate emotions. If someone says they’re “boiling with anger”, it has more impact than if someone says they’re “angry.” In that sense, you could also talk about “metaphoric intelligence;” something that would benefit society if it were taught at school.

According to Zaltman, organizations can always benefit from standard research methods that provide “good insights,” but the extra time and effort in a ZMET® study provides “the right insight,” making the end result even more powerful. There is no incompatibility between exploring something quantitatively and the ZMET® technique. In fact, according to Zaltman, ZMET® is regularly used (as a byproduct) to produce the optimal questionnaire.

In conclusion, Veldhoen suggested that it should perhaps be possible to design customer contact in a much more “metaphor-2-metaphor” way (i.e. allow call center agents to use images much more to find out what is really going on with a customer) and that the apparent tension between big data and small data could possibly be resolved by using metaphor mining (or looking for corresponding metaphors in large quantities of data). Zaltman qualified both as “interesting concepts about which we have yet to conduct research.”

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