Strategy by metaphor

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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If I said that the next 700 words contain the Uber of business advice, would you believe me? Probably not. It’s a big claim. And these days, a common one.

Forbes’ Daniel Newman writes, “[T]he Uber chapter in tech history has probably inspired far more copy-cat businesses than any other in recent memory, with Uber-inspired laundry and food delivery, hair styling, and even flat-tire service.” A quick Google search turns up references to the Uber of rental services, the Uber of tutoring and even the Uber of bathrooms. (Not sure I want to know more about that one.)

Despite its overuse, however, there’s good reason people (including me) are uber-referencing Uber. Metaphors work. Sometimes even more that we realize.

For instance, I was in a strategy session where the talk was all about supply chains. We were seeking a different way of understanding our client’s business when it dawned on us that “supply chain” itself had become so ubiquitous we failed to recognize that it’s already a metaphor. The simple exercise of revisiting it unlocked a breakthrough new idea.

In another case we were struggling with the positioning for a company that was respected but (there’s no other way to say it) boring. One direction felt particularly correct, but nobody was very excited about it.

After an awkward, pregnant pause someone said, “You know, we’re not the kind of company you want to date, but we are the kind you want to marry.” The tone of the room transformed as the perception of the positioning shifted, and it was adopted with enthusiasm (and I’m happy to report has been proven a winner).

And then there was the tech startup for which we were raising seed capital from existing industry players. The closing statement in the pitch presentation was, “You all are bookstores. This idea is Amazon. The only question is whether or not you want to own it.” As you might suspect, we raised a lot of money.

Metaphors work for the simple reason that they make the unfamiliar familiar. In brand strategy, for example, there’s a standard approach by which one first determines a brand’s “frame of reference” and then identifies its “point of difference.” Usually the frame of reference is a category of similar products or services -- insurance belongs with insurance, soft drinks with soft drinks, and industrial machinery with industrial machinery. This approach works well when you’re trying to differentiate a brand within an existing framework.

But when the task is bigger than that -- such as the need to reposition or even resurrect a company -- it can be helpful to examine different frames of reference using the power of metaphor.

“How would we sell our insurance in the soft drink aisle?” “What would we call our soft drink if it was an industrial machine?“ How would we position our industrial machine if it was insurance?” These examples are a bit far-fetched, but then again perhaps not. You never know where a helpful parallel will arise.

A good metaphor helps you pour the confusion you’re facing into a container you can examine and see if anything settles out. It can be used to understand a challenge, frame an opportunity, define a market or identify a new direction. It’s a fruitful way to generate strategic options you may not have thought of before, even if some of them are nonsensical.

Creativity is often simply the combination of two previously unrelated ideas, so it can indeed be enlightening to ask, “How could we apply the Uber model to our industry?” Or “Could we develop a pricing platform like Amazon Prime?” Or “How would Apple package our product?” The possibilities are limited only by the comparisons you can conceive, which is why metaphors can be such a helpful tool.

You have to have a sense of adventure and be willing to go down a variety of different avenues, some of which may be dead ends. But it’s also kind of fun. It may feel odd at first, but strategy-by-metaphor is a vehicle that can take you wherever you need to go. Kinda like an Uber.