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Building Consumer Experience Value Using the Power of Metaphors

We were wrapping up a meeting with a client who was developing a new neighborhood. Through a combination of field research, trend studies and historical analysis we defined a story and collection of artifacts and experiences that would make this place meaningful to potential residents as well as the neighboring community. After the meeting our client said, "I finally understand what you guys do. You orchestrate the obvious."

At first I resisted the idea. Innovation must include more than orchestrating "the obvious." But then I shifted my attention away from the "obvious" to the "orchestration." In an orchestration it's the collection of things that create value, not necessarily the things themselves. It's not the individual notes in the song, but the collection of those notes. When creating meaningful experiences, it is often this orchestration that is the primary source of value creation. Our client was able to put this into sharp focus.

A lot of companies struggle with the idea that this orchestration can create significant value. They are often looking for a silver bullet—a single product concept that they can patent and protect. But with experience innovation, the organizational device that holds a collection of products and services together is critical to value creation—the silver bullet is often a metaphor. A metaphor creates value by transferring associations from a previous experience to a new one. It functions as shorthand to help people understand the offering and what it means in their lives.

whole foods market

Only a handful of companies embrace the value creating power of metaphor. While other retailers were focusing on rearranging shelves and picking new colors and finishes, Apple, Whole Foods and REI redefined their respective categories by leveraging the power of metaphor to create a meaningful experience. In the Apple Store, the metaphor of a learning center helps you feel comfortable returning for help even after you purchase your computer; in Whole Foods, an outdoor bazaar shifts the shopping experience from being a chore to being fun.


At the outdoor retailer REI, an outdoor industry expo invites you to test and try gear before you buy. The elements within these stores are often obvious and shared by competitive stores. But, by orchestrating these obvious elements around a metaphor helped Apple, Whole Foods and REI redefine their categories and win in the market.

It's difficult for many companies to respect that something as intangible as a metaphor can create real value, but the numbers don't lie. In 2006, Apple's annual sales per square foot was $4,032, compared with Best Buy's $930, Neiman Marcus' $611, and luxury store Tiffany & Co.'s $2,666. On average Whole Foods and REI stores deliver two times the annual sales per square foot than that of the typical stores in their category.

Companies that are successful at delivering consumer experiences understand the value of metaphor. Are you using metaphors to create value?

Over the last several years the innovation discussion has shifted from a focus on product and business innovation to consumer experience. Companies are increasingly interested in creating value by delivering better consumer experiences, but many are not quite sure how to get there. The results have ranged from a proliferation of Apple-like Genius Bars to frustrated project teams whose projects never make it to market. These companies are finding it surprisingly difficult to deliver great consumer experiences. This week, Steve McCallion explores some of the challenges companies face when trying to deliver consumer experience innovation.

Read Steve McCallion's blog Beyond the Widget
Browse more blogs by our Expert Designers

Steve McCallion is a skilled innovation architect and brand strategist with a rare balance of design sensibility and strategic thinking. He has led groundbreaking work including redefining Umpqua Bank's role as an anchor for community prosperity, creating Sirius Satellite Radio's award-winning experience for the "iPod fatigued" and working with real estate developers Gerding Edlen to create more meaningful neighborhoods. His other clients include Xerox, Black & Decker, Whirlpool, FedEx, McDonald's, Coleman, Kenwood, and Compaq.

Steve's primary charge is to foster Ziba's consumer experience practice. He founded the company's award-winning Design Research and Planning practice group which has developed many proprietary research and design planning methodologies that have helped numerous clients understand the essence of their customers, win design awards, obtain patents and succeed in the market. He was named as one of Fast Company's Masters of Design in 2006.