Use Visual Metaphors To Create Some Unforgettable Ads

If you want to be just another brand, in a sea of others, then your designs can all be literal to get your messages across. But if you use visual metaphors, you tap into a powerful form of storytelling that elevates how you present your brand. The art of using visual metaphors is something that businesses of all sorts have tapped into.

And it’s not just in one particular application that you’ll find them. You’ll find examples of visual metaphors in images, videos, infographics, and animations, just to name a few. The trick, however, regardless of the form it takes, is to do this in a way that will resonate with the customer. 

For this, not just any creative brief or design will do. You really need to think about all of the emotions you want to evoke and values and associations you want your customers to take away. And then you need to share that information with your designers so that they can bring it to life, visually.

What are visual metaphors?

By definition a visual metaphor is a representation of a person, concept, place, idea, or thing. The representation takes the form of an that uses a particular analogy or association.

In simpler terms you could say that an effective visual metaphor takes the familiar and ordinary, and transforms it into something that is extraordinary. Visual metaphors play on common belief systems and perceptions of the world. 

Since they’re tapping into what we already believe, they’re able to make us see the familiar in new ways. 

The power of visual metaphors

In order to master the art of communicating through visual metaphors, you need to know how the human brain processes information. When we look at an image or any other visual for that matter, we process it through the lenses in our minds known as mental models. These models are simplified versions or representations of the world around us.

People, places, and things can all fall into various areas of these models. The images and beliefes that we’ve internalized, help us make sense of new experiences. They also help us in other aspects of our lives. From making decisions and judgments, to solving problems and also directing our daily behavior.

Visual metaphors and your marketing

So what does this have to do with your marketing? Well, we each have the power to influence the mental models of others. In this case, we’re talking about your customers’. Mental models are not permanent fixutres. And we can change them. All it takes is communicating something through an innovative and creative approach.

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Using visual metaphors is one of the best ways to take this on. This is not simply about thinking outside the box or just putting two and two together to form a conclusion we all know – i.e. 4. When you use visual metaphors you bridge the gap between the new and the familiar. Visual metaphors can have elements, objects and concepts that are familiar. They just happen to be used in screative ways to build on their existing meanings.  

Who can benefit from visual metaphors in ads?

According to Kantar’s third annual Dimension report, more than half of the UK’s consumers are suffering from what they call advertisement fatigue. And this is hardly a problem that is just plaguing the UK. 

People have so many ads thrown their way, all day every day that they are increasingly becoming numb to them. To compensate for this adverse effect, brands need to really up their game in communication strategies. This means that you need to give your audience something refreshing in your ads. And they will appreciate you for it. Visual metaphors can help you do just that. And they can also help you increase engagement and nurture purchasing intentions.

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Technically, any brand can benefit from this level of creativity. No matter what industry you are in, using the right visual metaphors will help you stand out from your competition and will help to steer your audience’s intentions towards purchasing your product or service.   

Is there actual evidence to prove that visual metaphors work? 

Yes, there is actual empirical evidence to show this. The Louisiana State University collaborated with the University of Florida to test whether the attitudes and purchase intentions of customers are influenced by visual metaphors. The results analyzed the impact of visual metaphors on perceptions and how those changed based on how familiar a customer was with a product. 

Four very well known brands, including Ariel and Land Rover were used to conduct the analysis. The study concluded that when visual metaphors were used, customers adopted more favorable attitudes towards the brands. They also noted increased purchase intentions.

In a separate study conducted by Margot van Mulken et al (2014), from the Radboud University, Nijmegen in Netherlands, the same conclusion was observed. The study said that visual metaphors were important in advertising and that customers understood messages better when they were used. Ads with visual metaphors were also appreciated more. 

But there is a fine tipping point. This has to do with when a visual metaphor becomes hard to understand. The less obvious a visual metaphor is, the less customers appreciate it. And once it becomes too complex people simply failed to understand or engage with the message at all.

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The steps to creating a powerful visual metaphor

Ready to use visual metaphors in your ads? Now that you have a sound background in what they are, let’s take a look at how you can create them. Writer Kate Evans offers the following step by step process. 

  • Step 01 – Write down the exact message you want to convey, e.g. “Our holiday sale is here!” 
  • Step 02 – Make note of synonyms that are related to this concept. For instance, related to the “holiday,” you can list synonyms, metaphors, or analogies such as “festive,” “Christmas tree” or “wreath.”
  • Step 03 – Now you can work with your designer to come up with concepts that represent your message. To represent the word ‘holiday’ you could ask your designer to arrange your products in a way that suggests the shape of a Christmas tree or wreath.  
  • Step 04 – Next try different combinations of your brand assets and visual metaphors to see what makes the most impact. This process can take a lot of back and forth. But can you strike gold, it’ll be worth it. 
  • Step 05 – you can use visual metaphors to their fullest potential, and take this process one step further, when you animate them or create a complete story/visual theme centered on them.
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Now that you know the process for creating your own visual metaphors, let’s take a look at some examples.  

Examples of visual metaphors in ads done right 

A smart way to use visual metaphors

A good visual metaphor combines everyday objects and elements to create a powerful message in an unusual way. The Smart brand designed the ad below to show people the best possible ways to navigate through the city at busy times. In this case, the difficulty of threading a needle is compared to driving a big car through the busy city. They also make their point that a smart car will be able to enter the narrow streets with ease.

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Use clever wordplay when you use visual metaphors

“Your daily ray of sunshine” is used by Tropicana to promote their orange juice. The association that is made is that vitality and good health is the result of drinking orange juice on a daily basis. It also refers to the fact that oranges are natural and are made in tropical and sunny climates, as compared to something artificial and man-made. In the example below, Tropicana emphasizes the role of their orange juice in a complete breakfast, by having an orange in the shape of toast.

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Similarly, Werther’s uses the metaphors “It’s what comfort tastes like” and “A little piece of bliss”. This associates their candy to eating comfort food. And treats it like a much-needed break from the stresses of daily life.

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Look at your product from a new angle

In celebration of Easter, and to let customers know that the chain would remain open through Easter Sunday, Burger King used a visual metaphor. They made their famous burger look like an Easter egg. The meaning is immediately clear to the customer, but there is definitely something attractively unique about it as well. Because of how well they used a visual metaphor they were able to drive traffic to their outlets.

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Use double entendres when you use visual metaphors 

A lot of the visual metaphors we see have one object as the focal point with a symbolic meaning behind it. But some visual metaphors can actually illustrate two ideas in just one visual. Diniz, the biggest eyewear chain in Brazil did a collection of print ads that demonstrate this use of two ideas.

To play up the idea of their taglines like “Refresh Your Style”, they used tropical fruits in their ads. The fruit chosen are associated with being refreshing, acidic, tropical, and colorful. Diniz also used the shadows cast from the fruit, to show the models and styles of eyewear they sell.

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Using visual analogies when you use visual metaphors

Bus Connects’ ad, shown below, uses a visual analogy. It compares Dublin to a Rubix Cube which can only be possibly solved by collaboration between the public and Bus Connect. And this message is reinforced with the direct and concise copy used. The text complements the image subtly, leaving an overall impression of simplicity and impactfulness. It also carries an emotional undertone that will allow customers to connect very well with the brand.

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Use subtle messages when you use visual metaphors

Thinx is an underwear brand, targeted towards women and to be used during their periods. They tailored their ad to focus on the solution they offer. And they made it subtle, classy, and creative. The use of the half-peeled grapefruit is a nod towards the female anatomy, and the use of color suggests menstruation. Yet, any customer who sees this ad, can quickly understand the nature of the product.

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Highlight selling points when you use visual metaphors

Nokia loves reimagining some of its classic models in order to generate buzz. This was the case with the relaunch of its XpressMusic phone. It was initially launched at the time when we were still turning to our MP3 players for music. And Nokia was boasting that it was putting music in the palm of your hands. The XpressMusic offers stereo speakers and FM radio as well. It’s a far cry from the devices we’re using today. But hey if you love a throwback it might be for you.

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Try visual similes when you use visual metaphors 

This a technique through which an object is made to look like something else. Absolut Vodka is a brand well-known for employing this approach. In the example below, their bottle doubles as a mannequin dress form. By modifying the colors of their bottle, and adding the headline “Absolut Fashion” they’ve represented the tie between the fashion industry and their brand.

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Employ visual fusion when you use visual metaphors

Visual fusion involves bringing together two different, and maybe even opposing, objects. They work together to put forth a very direct message. Sometimes this fusion can involve combining one object with a brand’s logo. This is especially effective if the logo is easily identified, so that the brand can be clearly associated with the message.

The United Nations recently created a set of ads to emphasize the importance of social distancing. They’ve used visual fusion to suggest the negative consequence of two objects coming close together. And they’ve intentionally chosen objects that would not pair well. As such their ads encourage people to be safe and to avoid risks.

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Visual metaphors happen where artistry meets innovation 

Each day we are pummelled with a ton of different ads, all claiming to be better than the last. However, so many of these are commonplace and bland that we do not even remember them. Or worse yet, we don’t even want to see them. At a time when there is ad saturation happening on a large scale, choosing to use visual metaphors can drive people to your brand. And it all starts with clearly communicating the message you want to convey and the feelings you want to evoke to your designer.

Getting creative is a whole lot of fun. So go for it, and remember that your only limits should be the things that won’t resonate with your audience.