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How Companies Cleverly Deploy Metaphors

Southwest Airlines speaks a language of love, but for Palantir, it’s all about war

The heart logo on the underbelly of a Southwest Airlines plane (Photo by Southwest Airlines)

The use of metaphor in business is nothing new. Metaphors have been harnessed for decades to guide a company’s mission, shape its storytelling, and create a culture. As companies battle for attention from customers, employees, and investors, an effective metaphor can help a company craft a narrative that distinguishes itself from others.

Businesses often talk about a “company voice,” a unique lexicon and tone that infuses its marketing, investor relations documents, and internal emails. Metaphors are key to the company voice because they are easily remembered and manipulated to suit different contexts and audiences. To understand how this works in action, let’s consider the divergent examples of Southwest Airlines and Palantir, which frequently use “love” and “war”, respectively, as guiding metaphors — only insofar as they are convenient for the stories they want to spin.

Business as Love: Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines began its service in 1971 out of Love Field in Dallas. The company started with a vision to change the airline industry by focusing on customer experience: making the friendly skies even friendlier. They went public in 1977 with the ticker symbol LUV. In the past, they’ve served “LUV bites” as snacks on planes and dispensed tickets from “LUV machines”. Much of Southwest’s marketing and internal material is based on the concept of spreading love and care. The heart has become the carrier’s main visual symbol of this commitment to service, and love is a clear metaphorical device in their mission statement and their service commitment.

Southwest’s website has many examples of this metaphor in plain sight. It’s vision is “to be the world’s most loved […] airline”. It’s employee promise is full of them: “I will show my Servant’s Heart by delivering Legendary Customer Service and treating others with respect. I will express my Fun-LUVing Attitude by not taking myself too seriously and embracing my Southwest Family.” Their messaging references being “in LUV with our Customers” and how its “LUV has spread from coast to coast and border to border thanks to our hardworking Employees and their LUV for customer service”. There are multiple references to Heart, connecting People, neighbors, community, and togetherness — all concepts related to love and social bonding. In Southwest’s 2019 annual report, CEO Gary Kelly referred to his employees as “family members” who he is “proud of” and who “have my deepest appreciation and love”.

Companies that use metaphors well, like Southwest, tailor the metaphor to each of its stakeholders. The airline wants employees to feel like family, so it uses candid phrases to express appreciation and thanks. For customers, love can take the form of someone caring for another — providing for the customer, serving them, creating a neighborly community. And for investors, love can take the form of providing shelter and safety. They want to be trustworthy and want shareholders to believe that their money is safe and being put to use for a beneficial cause.

The metaphor has paid dividends. If we believe that language can shape the culture of the company as well as the brand perception of consumers, it is no surprise that YouGov puts Southwest Airlines at the top of its list of most popular airlines and is consistently known as one of the best places to work. Customers and employees love them back.

Business as War: Palantir

While business may well be about love to the folks at Southwest, business is closer to war for those at Palantir, a data analytics software firm. At Palantir, this connection is not nearly as overt. To be clear, Palantir does not embrace this lexicon in any formal way, but the language that the company uses in its external-facing documents strongly suggests support for the war and military service metaphor, due in part to the fact that the Department of Defence is one of their flagship clients.

Palantir’s website is chock full of language often used in the context of battle. A “Palantirian”, as its employees are called, have “an uncompromising engineering mindset with an unwavering focus on executing in service of the mission”. The software is “on the front lines, sometimes literally, and that means so are we”.

In its S-1 filing, Palantir’s mantra includes phrases like: “we go where we’re needed most”, “we are engineers on a mission”, and “we seek out the most critical problems we can find — the ones that pose threats not only to many of the world’s most important institutions, but to the people they serve”. In closing, the document reads: “If we are going to ask someone to put themselves in harm’s way, we believe that we have a duty to give them what they need to do their job. […] We have chosen sides, and we know that our partners value our commitment. We stand by them when it is convenient, and when it is not.”

The language is dripping with the aggrandizement and seriousness of a unit going into a fight, talking extensively about the “mission”. Its three “guiding ideas” are: the best idea wins, nothing is permanent, and keep focused on the mission. One sub-team is specifically referred to as “Mission Operations”, and in descriptions of some engineering jobs, the role or job function is referred to multiple times as “the mission”. Some of these phrases have made their way into a broader business lexicon long before Palantir even existed, but the use of this word in so many contexts and by using it where other words would certainly do, the phrasing establishes a deeper connection to soldiering.

Palantir understands that this kind of motivation for team members is effective, especially for young men, which, in today’s reality, many software engineers are. Getting its team to associate work with an honorable battle is a motivational tactic that has been used for millennia, but now the battlefield has moved to office buildings in Palo Alto and soon Denver.

The company does not shy away from using war-like metaphors. This metaphor should resonate with shareholders and market analysts, too. Showing strength, fortitude and commitment to goals while draping it in patriotism is a great way to convince investors that a company that has not made money to date will reach profitability — especially when many of those in the world of finance are competitive men.

Palantir’s use of metaphor must be somewhat subtle because war is more of a hot button issue than love. But unlike most business-to-consumer (B2C) companies, Palantir does not have to worry as much about the court of public opinion. In fact, the war metaphor is very likely to resonate with its clients in the US government or with veterans in the public sector. Even without a military background, the concepts of battle, honor, and a mission-driven mentality can draw like-minded enterprises to work with Palantir. As Palantir marches on after their public offering, take note of their martial tongue.

The Metaphor as a Tool

Metaphors are useful mechanisms to broadcast a company’s values, culture, and brand to the world, to customers, to investors, and to its internal team members. But metaphors are not destiny. Rather, they are used to achieve specific goals using creative language. Southwest Airlines only uses love as far as it can get customers to associate the brand with friendliness and good service. Love is not something to pitch investors when the bottom line is under scrutiny. Palantir only uses war as far as it can motivate its team members, get customers in the door, and rally investors. For example, Palantir’s trademark horizontal team structure has no resemblance to military hierarchies.

Creating a company voice wherein metaphor is used effectively can help build a lasting and valuable brand, while clearly communicating a vision. Metaphors can be simple, powerful, and malleable linguistic tools, and the best brands use them with frequency and potency. As more companies continue to fight for attention from customers, investors, and job-seekers, more will have to learn to wield the tool of metaphor with aplomb to get noticed and stay relevant.

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Jay Plamondon

Jay Plamondon

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