How brands can use visual metaphors to influence consumer attitudes and enhance purchase intentions

In this month’s Marketing Science Cheat Sheet for brands we explore how consumers attitudes and purchases intentions are influenced by the use of visual metaphors in brands communications.

The Insight

Consumer attitudes and purchases intentions are enhanced more by the use of visual metaphor-based advertisements than non-metaphor based advertisements, when the product is in a low-involvement category.

A visual metaphor is defined as the representation of a person, place, thing, or idea by means of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity.

The Science

Findings from “Metaphor as Visual Thinking in Advertising and Its Effects: Focus on Brand Familiarity and Product Involvement” by Soojin Kim et at. 2017, highlight that when a brand uses visual metaphors in advertisement, consumers’ view the brand more favourably and purchase intentions are enhanced, when the product being advertising is in a low-involvement category.

Low-involvement products are everyday items which consumers routinely purchase or which are low risk, so therefore do not require a lot of personal thought. An example of a low-involvement product could be cereal or a shampoo.

High-involvement products are usually much more experience than low-involvement products, and therefore there is an increased risk to the consumer so the purchase requires more thought and personal involvement. An example of a high-involvement product could be a car or a new home.

With consumers becoming more adept at seeing through less sophisticated marketing and advertising tactics, it is important for brands to assess their communication strategies to ensure that their audiences are engaged.

Brands that are able to effectively incorporate visual metaphors into their communications will be able to positively influence their target audiences’ attitudes towards themselves and promote purchase intentions.


The Louisiana State University collaborated with the University of Florida in the USA to test whether consumers attitudes and purchase intentions are influenced by the use of visual metaphors in advertising. The research was published in the Journal of Promotion Management, a scientific academic journal dedicated to research on all aspects of promotion management that close the gap between future business needs and current business practices.

The report analysed how the impact of visual metaphors perceptions varies depending on the level of the consumers familiarity with the brand and the product involvement, conducting a self-report study of the reactions to four well-known global brands (including Land Rover and Ariel).

This study revealed that advertisements using visual metaphors led to consumers reporting more favourable attitudes towards the brand, as well as greater purchase intentions, than the advertisements that didn’t include visual metaphors, in low-involvement product categories.

Research conducted by Margot van Mulken et al (2014), at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, also highlights the importance of visual metaphors in advertising.  The research findings revealed that advertisements with visual metaphors were better understood that advertisements without visual metaphors, and were appreciated more.

However the research did also reveal that there is a tipping point as to when a visual metaphor becomes to difficult to comprehend, and so the audience’s pleasure and appreciation decreases: a so-called inverted U-curve.  The study revealed that metaphors which are moderately complex were usually the most effective and therefore after this point, comprehension and appreciation decreased: the ‘tipping point’.

Who can benefit

Kantar’s third annual Dimension report shows that over half of UK consumers are suffering from advertisement fatigue. To compensate for this, brands need to adapt their communication strategies, such as utilising persuasive visual metaphors, to ensure that their advertisements are engaging their audience and increasing purchase intentions.

These findings will benefit brands that offer low-involvement products, including service brands such as Airbnb, global brands such McDonalds and value brands such as Unilever, but will also affect other industries such as high street fashion and technology. The use of visual metaphors will help distinguish brands from their competitors and engage their audiences in a way to promote purchase intentions.

Opportunities to Create Brand Magic

To capitalise on these findings, brands can use creative visual metaphors that can be related to their unique products and services, to engage consumers and drive purchase intention.

An example of a brand successfully using visual metaphors in their advertising is L&C Mortgages. In this campaign, the brand uses a swan to describe its consumers, highlighting how they are able to effortlessly glide along whilst looking at the various mortgage options available.  Cleverly, L&C Mortgages goes on to describe themselves as their customers ‘legs’, hidden beneath the surface & constantly working behind the scenes.


Another example of a brand using visual metaphors to engage their target audience and drive purchase intention is Thinx. The brand recently launched a series of campaigns to promote its period pants, with posters showing half a peeled orange to represent female genitalia.










To celebrate Easter and communicate  that the chain was going to be open over Easter Sunday, Burger King created a campaign were they turned an egg into a ‘burger egg’. The different, yet simple, use of the traditional Easter egg image meant that the brand was able to stand out from the crowd whilst engaging with consumers and driving traffic to their restaurants.

About StoryScience

StoryScience is the UK’s first scientific strategic creative agency. Moving away from the traditional opinion-led approach, StoryScience’s guiding purpose is to pioneer scientific creative and deliver brand magic that audiences want and the results clients need. We deliver creative and strategic marketing solutions underpinned by a scientific creative thinking. In short, we use science to create brand magic.


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