The Power of Metaphors to Influence Customers

Some leisure and tourism businesses have capitalized on metaphors customers use to assign value. Under Armour ® conveys a protective container. Keystone Resort’s famous restaurant, the Alpenglow Stube, provides a transformative dining experience. It begins with awesome mountain top views and rockets skyward when guests are warmly welcomed by hosts offering plush sheepskin booties to wear during dinner.

The Alpenglow Stube reinforces the transformation metaphor by inviting guests to enjoy cozy sheepskin boots as they dine.

The Alpenglow Stube reinforces the transformation metaphor by inviting guests to enjoy cozy sheepskin boots as they dine.

What metaphors will drive customers to your door, anxious to buy from you? Read on.

Knowing the metaphors customers used to assign meaning to your customer experience can dramatically accelerate your business’s growth.

Researchers at Harvard Business School have identified several metaphors that customers commonly use to assign significance to their experiences. Journey, transformation, resource, and relationship are among them.

So, how do metaphors influence leisure and tourism buyer behavior?

Metaphors are how our brains assign meaning to our experiences. For example, we boil down a fuzzy abstraction, like ‘time’, down to a metaphor that holds more significance for us: a journey. We say, “The past is behind us, and the future is ahead.” We eventually come to the “end of the road,” a reminder of the precious nature of our lives.

My first exposure to the power of metaphors to influence behavior was with Stu Campbell, former ski school director at Heavenly. Stu’s mastery of metaphors was reflected in his ski technique articles in Ski Magazine and his on-snow clinics.

Stu reduced the technical complexities of making carved turns—tilting the ski, angulating at the hip, pressuring the downhill ski, extending one leg and shortening the other–to one simple metaphor: pedaling.

Pedaling was easy to teach my ski school students. It was a metaphor that brought disparate ideas into one meaningful whole. Students intuitively grasped the idea. Most mastered the concept within a few minutes. It immediately influenced how they skied.

In the contexts of innovating and marketing your business, you can dramatically accelerate purchases by understanding and building upon the metaphors customers use to intuit the value of your offering. Building on the customer’s metaphor enables you to configure products, services and

Metaphors influence customer behavior. Here a young skier applies the pedaling metaphor to achieve a new level of mastery.

Metaphors influence customer behavior. Here a young skier applies the pedaling metaphor to achieve a new level of mastery.

experiences that resonate with customers. It pulls customers toward your brand. It demonstrates, “I clearly understand what you want and I’m going to help you get it.”

Here’s one example of how we helped a company adopt the customer’s metaphor. This resulted in innovations that created millions of dollars in incremental revenue.

Like vacations, jewelry is a luxury product category. The executives of a national jewelry store chain thought of their stores as a resource for jewelry. They offered competitive product selections, attractively displayed.

But, as we quickly discovered, resource was not the metaphor customers used to assess value.

We learned that the biggest jewelry purchasers are gift givers. Many are men buying expensive engagement rings. They’ll visit competing brands of jewelry stores. But, when we talked to customers about why they bought jewelry gifts, we made this radical discovery:

Gift givers don’t buy because of a jewelry store’s resources. They buy in accord with the metaphor that compelled them to shop for jewelry in the first place—to invest in their relationships.

Gifts of jewelry are expressions of commitment and love. They are to gift givers deposits in their relationship bank accounts. So, gift givers experience a variety of concerns in their shopping experiences. Will she (or he) like it? If not, can I exchange it or get a refund? If so, will it be a frustrating and potentially embarrassing experience?

Power of metaphors to create customer experiences

Helping gift-givers invest in relationships boosted our client’s jewelry sales 25% nationally.
Photo courtesy

Our client’s new appreciation of the power of customers’ relationship metaphor inspired several significant innovations. (As you read about these changes, think about what you might change in your business if you were to guess at what a more compelling, highly differentiated customer experience could look like.)

Store employees were trained to avoid welcoming shoppers by asking, “May I help you?” Instead, they began asking more engaging questions like, “Are you shopping for someone special?”

With that entrée, salespeople began conspiring with the gift giver to orchestrate a fun gift-giving experience. They probed about the fashion preferences of the recipient. They asked when and where the gift would be bestowed. They offered to wrap the gift in fun and creative boxes, wraps and ribbons.

The chain’s return policy was revamped. Before, buyers could only make exchanges. They had to go back to the same store where they bought the jewelry, which sometimes required driving to another city. They replaced their exchange policy with a no-questions-asked returns policy that provided full refunds or exchanges at any store in their system.

These innovations were promoted by a “Perfect Gift, Guaranteed” brand promise.

The results: Same store sales increased 25% in the next three years, generating millions in incremental revenue.

The implication for leisure and tourism businesses is this: If you design your customer experience around the metaphor the customer uses to assess value, you can dramatically accelerate customer purchases.

So, what’s the metaphor your customers use? This isn’t a question you can answer with a survey, nor with a direct Q&A with customers. But, we can get at this using project interview techniques that surface the hidden, subconscious motivators of vacationers’ behaviors.

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Jay Sherman portraitJay Sherman is the Insights Chief at and CEO of a research and innovation firm in Cleveland, Ohio. Clients include over forty Global 2000 organizations.

Jay has experience in nearly all assets of the tourism leisure industries, Including resort sales and marketing, hotel management, retail sporting goods and food and beverage. More about Jay and VacationBehavior here.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Metaphors to Influence Customers

  1. Hi,

    Hope that everything is well ” Over there ” !

    Just brilliant ! Using metaphors to influence behavior is a powerful “thing”, and it helps you in many different ways. Especiaiiy in my relationship with ski guests, and of course in my on-snow clinics.
    Metaphors also helps you to “transfer a feeling”.

    I think that this is a very interesting issue, and maybe one of the most important “things” to keep up my own small business.
    ( Doing everything by my self, and only private ski guests in Åre, up north in Sweden )

    Thanks for letting me comment, and take care for now !

    Best wishes,
    Peter Mellquist
    Åre Skidguidning

    • “Transferring a feeling” is the emotional magnet of the brand, whether a resort, transportation, lodging, food or retail service. Thanks, Peter, for your comment. Stay in touch,


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