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Book Review: Marketing Metaphoria
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Book Review: Marketing Metaphoria by Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman

Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal about the Minds of Consumers

Written by: Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008. 219+xxi pages.
Reviewed by: Beebe Nelson

Marketing Metaphoria

In 1994, Gerald Zaltman, one of the coauthors of Marketing Metaphoria (the coauthor is Zaltman's son), presented ZMET (Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique) to the International Association for Product Development (IAPD, now a corporate member program of the Product Development and Management Association [PDMA]). Workshop 14, “The Pre-concept Phase,” was the first IAPD workshop to address what we have come to call the fuzzy front end, or the front end of innovation. I remember being intrigued but not sure how this might apply to the work of product developers.

In 2003 Harvard University Press published Zaltman's (2003) How Customers Think: Essential Insights in the Mind of the Market (see Nelson and Ross, 2004). This book helped me understand how Zaltman's methodology can help product developers. It is a methodology that allows the product developer into the mind of the consumer/market in ways that are consistent with, and add important insights to, other ethnographic or voice of the customer (VoC) methodologies. In Marketing Metaphoria the Zaltmans expand on the message of How Customers Think by identifying what they call “deep metaphors”—“enduring ways of perceiving things, making sense of what we encounter, and guiding our subsequent actions” (p. xv).

In 2007, Gerald Zaltman gave a keynote address at the PDMA 10th Annual Voice of the Customer Conference titled “The Strategic Importance of Deep Metaphors.” In that talk, and in both of his books, Zaltman asserts that 95% of consumer thinking, including the memories and emotions that lead to behavior, takes place in what he calls the unconscious mind. He uses the metaphor of the mind as container, with conscious awareness at the top and stuff we are not aware of hiding at the bottom (see p. 103). The consumer, being unaware of this unconscious thinking, cannot articulate it, so the kinds of research instruments that only tap into conscious thinking cannot help us to understand this.

What does this have to do with the voice of the customer? This “voice” is used in a way that the Zaltmans would probably call “deep” (as in “deep metaphors” or “deep insights”). In VoC we are not looking, primarily, for what customers say they want, for their complaints, or their suggestions. Customers' voices tell us about the context and culture in which they live their lives. Their voices reveal what reality is for them. Their voices can connect us to their deepest meanings. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that our view of the world really is the world. Exploring the world of the customer using deep ethnographic methods like the Zaltmans' can be the antidote to that.

In his 2007 talk Gerald Zaltman stressed a theme that recurs in both of his books—that most of us who work in corporations suffer from what the Zaltmans call “a depth deficit” caused by, among other things, our tendencies to fear change, to seek differences instead of underlying similarities, and to focus on short-term results. In Marketing Metaphoria the Zaltmans suggest that “workable wondering,” which “involves the use of empirical, rigorous, and relevant information … to challenge our assumptions and to engage in disciplined imagination” (p. 10), can help overcome the depth deficit. You cannot achieve “workable wondering” unless you have the right sort of information, which the Zaltmans describe as “deep insights from customers … that come from (1) exploring beyond customers' surface-level thinking and behavior into their unconscious mind, and (2) learning from their perspective [i.e., the customer's] why and how they think and do what they do” (p. 11, italics in original). They add that “deep metaphors can help us gain these insights” (ibid.).

Metaphors and insights are not deep the way that oceans are deep, and neither is thinking. Why do the Zaltmans call their metaphors deep? And why do they tell us that corporations suffer from a depth deficit? Even more interestingly, why do we understand what they mean? George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), in Metaphors We Live By, tell us that rather than being “a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish, metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphoric in nature” (p. 3).

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) propose a number of basic metaphors: We talk about wasting or spending time as if time were as substance like money; we speak of the high point in my career or how I felt low last week. We know that high is better than low and up is better thandown. Why? Because it is embedded in our conceptual system and “much of our conceptual system is structured by metaphor” (p. 147). It is this embeddedness, our inability to think at all without thinking metaphorically, that makes the Zaltmans' insights so important.

According to the Zaltmans, there are seven deep metaphors: balance, journey, transformation/change, container, connection, resource, and control. The seven metaphors were identified in their research, including “twelve thousand in-depth interviews for more than a hundred clients in over thirty countries” (p. 16).

How can we get to these deep metaphors? At the heart of the Zaltmans' methods are two-hour interviews with customers in which the interviewer seeks to understand the customer's relationship to the general research area through open-ended and probing interview techniques. For a glimpse of the interview technique see Zaltman and Michelman (2008). Michelman's experience with the method included selecting six to eight pictures a few days before the interview and a two-hour interview with a skilled interviewer, the purpose of which is to elicit deeper levels of thinking and feeling. The interview “made me feel like I was going through psycho-analysis. The process really got me thinking” (ibid.) As Zaltman put it, you discover “what you don't know you know” (ibid.). Michelman responded, “I'm not sure at a conscious level that I was aware of what I was thinking. There was an evolution of my thinking, certain aspects coming to the fore, some receding … .” (ibid.).

It is striking to hear an interview subject reflect on this. Too often we suppose that what customers say is what they truly feel and want. The Zaltmans are very clear that the thinking and feeling that truly motivates our actions and choices are most often hidden even from ourselves. This is in part because we tend to be unaware that how much of our thinking is metaphoric. Here's an example: We suppose, quite benignly, that we are describing the world when we talk of how the brook runs downhill (ever seen a brook with legs?).

Market researchers tend to look for differences among customers. Product developers design products, services, and marketing approaches to meet those differences. The Zaltmans tell us that the similarities, revealed through these deep metaphors, are the underlying dimension and are often more important than the surface differences. There are cautionary tales in the book that show how surface differences have prevented firms from understanding the underlying similarities through which customers connect to products and brands. For example, a consumer products company spent millions of dollars focusing its advertising on regional differences only to discover that it had not produced any substantial changes in top-line growth. Once it discovered the “three hot buttons for consumers,” it was able to turn things around (p. 5). The Zaltmans have found that these deep metaphors are often “equally enduring across generations and cultures” (p. 17). Beware your marketers' penchant for segmentation, and ask them to look for what ties them together.

I find myself wanting to resist the reduction of the world into sevens: seven sins, seven habits, now seven metaphors. One of the great powers of the practice of VoC/ethnography has been the inductive approach to the data, and this is a key to the success of the Zaltmans' process. An inductive process like ZMET allows a team to challenge its own categorizations with ones derived from customer voices and helps to lead us into what the Zaltmans call “workable wondering,” where our own surface assumptions can be challenged and expanded by our understanding of the customer. I fear that going in with seven categories already defined might undermine the power of the process. It is subtle, but if you are looking for containers, resources, journeys, you are likely to find them.

This is a book primarily for marketers, but it holds much wisdom for innovators as well. For example, the Zaltmans use a technique in which they ask the subject, with the guidance of a graphic facilitator, to create a collage at the end of the interview, “a kind of visual executive summary,” Zaltman says (Zaltman and Michelson, 2008). This graphic expression, which is well represented in many illustrations in the book, shows the “evolution and maturation of the subjects' thinking—certain aspects coming to the fore, some receding” (ibid.). Some product developers use a graphic approach to capturing customer information. It is a powerful way to reach a level that we cannot always get to through verbal interview techniques alone and is particularly useful in the way that it invites subjects to reflect rather than give pat or surface answers.

Marketing Metaphoria will be helpful to innovators as well precisely because it is aimed at marketers and marketing. It is, or ought to be, of primary concern to product developers that their output can be communicated in a way that will reach the consumer/purchaser. Good VoC/ethnographic work often provides the frame and language for good marketing outreach; the Zaltmans' approach will encourage us all to bring that aspect in explicitly and to recognize that the product we are developing, in truth, is only as good as our ability to communicate its value to those who will, or will not, purchase it.

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