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The following article is excerpted from Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal About the Minds of Consumers, by Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman. It is reprinted here with permission of Harvard Business Press.

In our work, we have come to refer to the process of thinking deeply as "workable wondering." Workable wondering involves the use of empirical, rigorous, and relevant information, also called "workable knowledge," to challenge our assumptions and to engage in disciplined imagination.1

It means more than collecting information. It means thinking deeply about the consumer insights that we have surfaced. It requires reading between the lines and detecting what else is present, well beyond what we already know.2

Some executives evaluate their staffs in terms of this ability. One told us, "It is not just the sense they make out of the information they have, it is how they add value by going beyond what they've got. That is what I look for. Do they dare to imagine?" Another executive said, "It is not what is in front of you that provides real competitive advantage. Competitors may have that, too. It is what you think that no else thinks to think, even when they have the same information."

Regarding their experiences in generating deep insights, every executive underscored the importance of contemplating that which is missing. An executive explained, "The 'Aha!' is in spotting the missing connection between the dots. It's there but no one else sees it until you point it out."

That is what happened when IBM brought out its first personal computer, and when Toyota introduced its Prius amid the craze for sports utility vehicles. Until those introductions, no one imagined a market.

Without workable wondering, many of the goods and services we now take for granted would not exist. Someone had to engage in deep, disciplined, and imaginative thinking to see such possibilities as the need for personal computers, energy-efficient automobiles, cell phones, iPods, and gourmet coffee houses.

Most executives in our interviews felt they were making progress in encouraging workable wondering and overcoming the depth deficit. But it is clearly an uphill battle, one that requires commitment at the very top.3

For example, General Electric CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt has established a class of projects now well-known as "imagination breakthroughs," consisting of ideas that are "really hard or really important" and might generate significant revenues over a three-year period, the time that GE usually takes to implement a new idea. "Imagination breakthroughs are a protected class of ideas—safe from the budget slashers because I've blessed each one."4

Immelt's strategy, which is succeeding, is to grow from a hundred such projects to a thousand by focusing more on imagination throughout the company. Immelt's innovation is to imagine beyond the short-term gain and to see future profits not driven solely by quarterly reports.

How Deep Metaphors Fuel Workable Wondering (and Bridge the "Say-Mean" Gap)

Obviously, the quality of a manager's thinking is closely linked to the quality of the information to think about. If deep insights from consumers are absent, then it matters little how imaginative managers are. A key requirement, then, for workable wondering—that is, for thinking deeply and imaginatively about consumers—is having deep insights from consumers.

Such insights come from (1) exploring beyond consumers' surface-level thinking and behavior into their unconscious mind, and (2) learning from their perspective why and how they think and do what they do.5

Deep metaphors can help us to gain these insights. By probing and analyzing their non-literal expressions, we can discover what consumers are actually experiencing relative to what they are saying about that experience.6 When given the right opportunity, consumers will usually reveal these hidden thoughts, regardless of background factors such as years of formal education.

When marketers empower consumers to explore their thinking and speak at length about a topic their expressions become rich and revealing. Consider these examples:

  • "Planning for my golden years is an uphill, rocky road." (40-year-old American female on financial planning)
  • "Chewing breath mints is like throwing a party for your mouth." (52-year-old French male discussing the benefits of breath mints)
  • "When I go to the theatre I feel like a young girl again." (36-year-old Spanish-American female on the meaning of the arts in her life)

Each statement is a figure of speech that suggests more than the idea that retirement planning is difficult or that chewing mints refreshes one's mouth.7 For example, by exploring in one-on-one interviews phrases like "an uphill, rocky road," a financial services firm revealed additional ideas involving frustration, challenge, disappointment, hard work, and luck. When the company explored those thoughts further, it identified other important ideas to consider in its decision-making.

These deeper ideas are not available from survey responses to statements such as "financial planning is difficult" or in focus groups where each participant has on average about 10 minutes of air time.

Figures of speech, then, often signal the presence of other ideas that tell a deeper, more meaningful story about consumers' experiences with goods and services than is revealed by direct questioning. Deep metaphors capture and reveal these deeper understandings, uncovered by deep, non-directive explorations of non-literal or figurative surface expressions.

For example, we found the following deep metaphors (in italics) in the studies that provided the quotes above:

  • Financial planning is a journey
  • Breath mints are a resource for renewal
  • The arts transform one life stage to another

In many ways, deep metaphors and emotions are siblings because both are...

  • Hard-wired in our brains
  • Shaped by social contexts and experiences
  • Unconscious operations
  • Vital perceptual and cognitive functions
  • Few in number
  • Universal: that is, the same at a basic level the world over

Of course, people vary in what triggers emotions such as fear, sadness, or joy and in how these emotions are expressed. Similarly, differences arise in how people experience a given deep metaphor. These differences are shaped by unique individual experiences and by social contexts, including the impact on consumers of a firm's marketing activities.8

Consider two consumers' comments on financial planning. Both viewed financial planning as a journey. One, from a lower socioeconomic background than the person who was quoted earlier as describing financial planning as a "rocky road," expressed the idea of a journey this way: "Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, and just plain old temptation are roadblocks to my putting money away for old age." Here the idea is expressed of a journey thwarted by tempting detours, whereas the other consumer stressed the plain hardship of the journey.

Deep metaphors and emotions work hand in hand, and understanding the latter might be impossible without the former. According to professor of linguistics Zoltan Kővecses:

"Emotion language is largely metaphorical in English and in all probability in other languages as well. [Metaphor is necessary] to capture the variety of diverse and intangible emotional experiences. Methodologically, then, this language is important in finding out about these experiences. The language, however, is not only a reflection of the experiences but it also creates them. Simply put, we say what we feel and we feel what we say."9

As marketers pay more attention to the emotional drivers of consumer behavior, they begin to understand the importance of using deep metaphors in determining (1) which emotions are relevant to their brands (that is, which ones influence how consumers evaluate their needs) and the people, brands, and companies offering to help address them, (2) the anatomy of these emotions, and (3) how to engage emotions using metaphoric cues in product design, shopping environments, and other communications.

Managers must understand deep metaphors to avoid miscommunications. In fact, what marketers "say" is often not what consumers "hear." Deep metaphors account for the difference.10

Consider a food products firm that originally segmented its markets according to product features. Prior to its deep metaphor research, it spoke to consumers narrowly using only product-attribute language rather than the language of emotions that made those attributes important. According to a corporate insider, the company had been "addressing consumers in 'chemist speak,' while consumers were listening emotionally. The resulting conversation was not terribly productive."

So the firm reoriented its segmentation according to a deep metaphor theme. In addition to addressing certain flavor qualities in its communications, it began to stress the cultural connections or associations triggered by those flavors as the research also revealed that these connections were as important as taste in the purchase decision.

Knowing which deep metaphors play in the unconscious minds of consumers can help managers think more deeply. A firm in the cell phone industry had been using product attribute preferences to segment markets. Declining revenues suggested that this approach was insufficient. Managers realized that they had failed to understand the emotional relevance of the benefits provided by particular product features. The firm embarked on an in-depth multi-country study concerning parents' motivations for giving children cell phones. The deeper insights obtained produced a more useful segmentation strategy.

Altogether, four key consumer segments were identified and subsequently validated by other techniques. All segments, it was found, shared the deep metaphor we call connection. However, the segments differed in how connection mattered. For instance, one group of consumers emphasized parent-child connections revolving around safety, evidenced in their disproportionate emphasis on security issues reflected in such statements as "it's [cell phone] like having a LoJack attached to the kids," "she has a sort of air bag with her, like in a car, in case she gets into trouble," and "it's like the EPIRB (emergency distress signaling device) on our boat."

This new segmentation scheme has enabled the firm's product development and design teams and communications specialists to think more imaginatively, more meaningfully, and with greater resonance about consumer needs. They are no longer thinking about consumers in shallow product attribute terms but in deeper emotional terms.

Copyright 2008 Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay H. Zaltman. All Rights Reserved.


1 Lindsay Zaltman and Gerald Zaltman, "What Do 'Really' Good Managers and 'Really Good' Researchers Want of One Another?" in Rajiv Grover and Marco Vriens (eds), The Handbook of Marketing Research: Uses, Misuses, and Future Advances, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006, Chapter 3.

2 For a related discussion, see Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future, Boston, MA: The Harvard Business School Press, 2006.

3 Manjit S. Yadav, Jaideep C. Prabhu, and Rajesh K. Chandy, "Managing the Future: CEO Attention and Innovation Outcomes," Journal of Marketing, Vol. 71, October 2007.

4 "Growth as a Process," Harvard Business Review, June 2006, p.69. italics added.

5 Daniel Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002; Benjamin Libet, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Press, 2004; Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Cambridge, MA: The Belnap Press, 2007; David J. Linden, The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, Cambridge, MA: Belnap Press, 2007.

6 There is extensive literature on the discrepancy between stated and actual beliefs. For a good experiential introduction to this issue, the reader might consult the following Web site:

7 For discussions of the importance of figurative, non-literal language as a way of understanding thought and actions, see Herbert L. Colston and Albert N. Katz (eds), Figurative Language Comprehension: social and Cultural Influences, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005; Sam Glucksberg, "The Psycholinguistics of Metaphor," Trends in Cognitive Science, vol. 7 No. 2 February 2003, pp. 92-97; see also Seana Coulson and Barbara Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk (eds), The Literal and Nonliteral in Language and Thought, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2005.

8 For a discussion of this point see Zoltan Kővecses, Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

9 Zoltan Kővecses, Metaphor and Emotion: Language, Culture, and Body in Human Feeling, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 191-192.

10 Frank Luntz, Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, New York: Hyperion, 2007.

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Gerald Zaltman is the Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration Emeritus at the Harvard Business School.
Lindsay Zaltman is managing director of Olson Zaltman Associates (

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