Why metaphors make powerful brand names

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This article originally appeared on Brand Experience Magazine. 

Words are tools. We invent them, collect them, employ them to build meaning and communicate the meaningful to others. We are taught how to use our words most effectively and persuasively from a very young age. We call it rhetoric. And one of our earliest and most memorable introductions to the importance of rhetoric is the metaphor. Remember? It’s that figure of speech that compares two things, but doesn’t use “like” or “as” to do so. Metaphors are one of our go-to devices; we use millions of them over a lifetime to color our writing and everyday conversation. Unsurprisingly, their ubiquity extends to the world of branding, where they have become a powerful way to name.

Just what makes a metaphor such a powerful brand name is far more complex and fascinating than we think. The obvious is true. Metaphors make great names because they paint a simple, strong image in customers’ minds. When you hear the name Amazon, you think big, impressive river. And you remember that river. Metaphors also dance around the obvious. They are not the first, most immediate or literal way to express a key idea. Metaphors have that special surprise factor. They are big and broad and continue to surprise over the lifetime of a brand because they easily shift to tell more than one story. It’s the difference between the name Amazon and Online Bookstore; Amazon allows the business to grow in an infinite number of directions and change its focus time and time again.

All of the obvious reasons why metaphors make great names didn’t quite satisfy the experimental psychologist in me. I saw client after client respond to metaphorical names with an unmistakable twinkle in their eyes. And I knew if we so commonly turn to metaphors as a form of expression, there must be a more significant explanation for their power. There must be something happening on a deeper, cognitive level when we use or hear other people use a metaphor.

That something became clear when I found a journal article in Psychonomic Society that proposes metaphors play a unique social and emotional role in our lives. The researchers questioned whether metaphors create social bonds and help us understand others’ intentions. More specifically, whether the act of processing a metaphor actually enhances our ability to infer what a person is thinking or feeling.

The study is rather complex, but here is a quick rundown. In the first experiment, participants read short stories about two friends. One story ended with a friend making a literal statement. The other story ended with a friend making a metaphorical statement. For example, Maria liked her friend Julia’s idea, so she said “what a very good idea” (the literal), or she said “what a gem of an idea” (the metaphor). Participants answered a series of questions about how close the two friends were to each other. Closeness indicates intimacy. They were then asked to complete a test called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET). It measures one’s ability to gauge mental state from subtle facial expressions. You match a cropped black-and-white photo of the eye region to its mental state description (i.e., serious, ashamed, bewildered, alarmed). And you do it 36 times.

In another experiment, participants either read a long list of metaphorical statements or a list of their literal counterparts. They also took the RMET. Interestingly, when participants read the story that ended in a metaphor, they rated the two friends as having a closer relationship, and the degree of closeness correlated with greater accuracy on the RMET. The findings were similar in the second experiment; participants scored significantly higher on the RMET after reading metaphorical statements.

In simple speak? Metaphors create a sense of intimacy and they heighten our understanding of others’ emotions. Here is the fascinating way a researcher explained it: “There is a unique way in which the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor are drawn closer to one another.” It’s like a game of subconscious negotiation. If I use a metaphor to explain an idea to you, I’m giving you “a kind of concealed invitation.” I’ve invited you to consider my goals and intentions. And I then feel a heightened sensitivity to seeing whether you accept that invitation. The metaphor is what connects us.

Back to naming. What in the world does this have to do with naming? It means metaphorical names may be more emotionally powerful than we think. A suggestive or metaphorical name serves as that same kind of invitation. Not between two people, per se, but rather, between a brand and its audience. Amazon, Nike, Safari, Oracle, Kayak, Nest. They are strong names because they entice us to dig deeper and try to understand the story they start. They ask us to consider why the name of the world’s largest river is being used to convey scale and scope, or why a bird’s roost relates to a protective home automation system. It’s almost impossible to decline this invitation, and by working to understand the metaphor, we may in fact feel closer to the issuer, the brand. Perhaps this is the reason clients get that special little twinkle in their eyes when they respond to metaphorical names.

Gabriele Zamora is Senior Strategist, Naming. 

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