3 ways to use Sensory Metaphors

We use them all the time…. someone or something is ‘cool’, works at a ‘feverish pace’, someone has an ‘icy stare’, gives a ‘warm reception’, is ‘frozen with fear’ or has a ‘heated debate’.   Metaphors are about understanding one thing in terms of another.   Sensory metaphors are tied to the physical world.   The mind’s eye comparisons they make are intuitive and implicit and can help brand builders do the following:

#1.  ‘Shine light’ on emotional insights…Sensory metaphors access people’s intuitive and implicit perceptions of a category or a brand.   They can be uncovered in an open-ended exploration by asking customers such questions as ‘ What does the category smell like? ‘   For example, a category that smells both of fresh air and of burnt food, revealing the duality of unlimited possibilities along with restrictive usage parameters.  Or sensory metaphors could be assessed on a rating scale of spicy to bland. Where does your brand fit on that scale?   It may be described as somewhere between spicy pad thai and bland tofu suggesting that it has an exciting upside but an experience which is perceived as mundane.   Ask your customers about their perceived sensations and you will develop deep insight into their feelings for category or brand.

#2.  ‘Wave a magic wand’ for innovation…Those intuitive and implicit associations and cues of sensory metaphors can inspire innovation thinking, design and decision-making.    In fragrance or in flavor you can decode the sensory experience to drive product innovation.    For example, your strategy might be centered on the flavor spaces of indulgence or health or the exotic.     To innovate in one of these strategic terrains you could explore the many sensory dimensions of flavor including texture, smell, temperature and colour.  You could develop an understanding of the emotional connection of the flavor and the emotional reward of the taste experience.   From there you could springboard to ingredients, formulas, formats and packaging of new products.  It’s worth looking to sensory intelligence for your sensory innovation.

#3.  Increase ‘message stickiness’ …as an example, a reference to a cold person rather than an unfriendly person is proven to be more memorable.   The work of Berger and Akpinar ‘Drivers of cultural success: the case of sensory metaphors’ has demonstrated that sensory metaphors are more effective than literal language.  They cause us to create pictures in our mind that evoke emotions, add thoughts and ultimately deepen both understanding and recall.


A great example of the opposite is a study that looked at ‘the bleak landscape of biomedical texts’. The authors of that study conjectured that ‘ reading such texts is similar to the effect of a long journey through a colourless flat terrain devoid of prominent features: a numbing of the senses’.  The study determined that numbing of the senses also numbed the mind thereby impeding comprehension.

 The opportunity for brand builders is to take the abstract concept of ‘brand’ and translate it into concrete sensory-grounded symbols that can be efficiently processed by our brains.