The power of visual metaphors in marketing and advertising

“A visual metaphor is like a hook to catch the viewer. It snares your attention via juxtaposition.”
Watermark Creative artist and master of the visual metaphor, Simon Shaw

Visual metaphors make a common reference point between two or more seemingly unrelated subjects. They can help us understand complicated ideas or emotions more easily. As a result, they are a compelling form of visual stimulation and an effective means of communication, particularly when it comes to expressing a brand message through marketing or advertising.


Ads using visual metaphors can quickly capture attention and change perceptions about a product. In fact, they have been shown to evoke more positive reactions in an audience and enhance ad recall1.


Watermark Creative artist Simon Shaw’s takeaway cup illustrations for Streetwise Coffee use the metaphor of modes of transport to show the idea of coffee as fuel. They quickly catch the attention of the weary commuter and build a brand connection through humour and a shared acknowledgement of the power of a caffeinated drop.


Finding the metaphorical ‘sweet spot’ for your audience


Research2 suggests that the effect of visual metaphors follows an ‘inverted U-curve’: visual metaphors that moderately challenge the viewer are said to have a more significant impact than simpler or more complex metaphors (Mohanty & Ratneshwar, 2016). In other words, a visual metaphor that is just hard enough to decipher is more likely to hold someone’s attention and create a more compelling message than one that is either too easy or too difficult to understand. 


This finding has important implications for advertisers who want to create memorable and persuasive campaigns. By using visual metaphors that strike the right balance of challenge and simplicity, they can maximise the impact of their messages and ensure that their ads appeal directly to the target audience.


The below image by Simon Shaw supported an article about creative prosperity published in a book aimed at experienced creative professionals. The shadows represent the future, and the dollar sign in the road relates to the financial prosperity that comes with creative growth. While the image is on the mark for its target audience, this sophisticated visual metaphor may not be as clear to someone outside of the creative sector. 



Watermark Creative artist Daron Parton’s visual metaphor for Drink Well Philosophy’s trade event invitation shows a sommelier collecting rare butterflies/wines to add to his collection. This image hits the ‘sweet spot’ for the brand’s audience of wine connoisseurs, indicating that they will find a wide range of unique, collectable wines to taste and admire at the event. 



How to create a visual metaphor for your brand or product


Crafting a compelling visual metaphor requires careful planning and execution. Daron Parton first considers what the product or service represents, and reviews its features and qualities.


“After that, I quickly sketch out images that could symbolise those qualities,” says Daron, who has drawers full of metaphor-packed sketchbooks in his studio. “Once I have a few ideas, I narrow the options by considering how well each image fits with what I know about the brand identity, audience, and required messaging.”


Daron’s sketches for the Drinkwell Philosophy invitation reveal the thought process that culminated in his final concept. To convey the exclusive nature of the event to progressive wine and liquor enthusiasts, Daron explored a wide range of solutions, from a milkman delivering a selection of wines to a sommelier arriving to the sounds of heavenly fanfare.



Simon Shaw recommends testing your visual metaphor with a small group of your target audience before finalising the campaign, to ensure it effectively communicates your message and hits the metaphorical ‘sweet spot’.


Simon’s personal disappointment at Lance Armstrong’s cheating scandal prompted him to create this image titled Dirty Laundry. Using the Pinocchio metaphor, he drew hangers on the rider’s nose with seven yellow jerseys, one for each title Armstrong won. One of Simon’s favourite pieces of work, it won a merit in the 2019 3×3 awards in NY, but may not have gone down so well with staunch Armstrong supporters. 



Could your brand benefit from a metaphorical approach? 


There’s no doubt that images can improve comprehension and promote the retention of ideas, and these benefits are enhanced when metaphors are added to the mix. So perhaps your next brand campaign could benefit from a metaphorical approach.


See more of Simon’s work here


View more of Daron’s work here



  1. Norris R. L., Bailey R. L., Bolls P. D., Wise K. R. (2012). Effects of emotional tone and visual complexity on processing health information in prescription drug advertising. Health Commun. 27 42–48
  2. Praggyan (Pam) Mohanty & S. Ratneshwar (2016) Visual Metaphors in Ads: The Inverted-U Effects of Incongruity on Processing Pleasure and Ad Effectiveness, Journal of Promotion Management, 22:3, 443-460