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Work That Metaphor

He teamed up with design researchers and used empathic study sessions to get a better understanding of what people really thought of banks. Some of the findings were not surprising: Yes, people hate the fluorescent lighting and the rope lines, to say nothing of those damn chained pens. But, even in the digital era, people seem to like the idea of their money being in a building they can drive past at any time. And they also like to be able to see the vault (they realize their money may not actually be in there, but it still comforts them to look at a big sturdy lockbox). Davis and the design researchers at the Ziba Design firm of Portland learned something else: A lot of people don’t trust big banks.

The research showed that people felt disenfranchised and disconnected from the large financial institutions and were more inclined to trust a small community bank. This was well before the subprime mortgage crisis and the big-bank bailouts, yet the people Ziba studied already had an uneasy feeling that perhaps the large banks might not be doing the right things with their money. “And as we now know,” says Ziba creative director Steve McCallion, “they were right to feel that way.”

To appeal to these “localists,” Ziba suggested that Davis play up the community hub aspects of the bank as it opened its new Portland flagship “store” (Davis doesn’t like to call them “branches”) in 2003. “We wanted to shift the notion away from banking being all about speed and efficiency and getting you in and out the door,” says McCallion. “We decided to focus on the idea of ‘slow banking,’ with people you know and trust.”

As he remade the bank, Davis and his designers began to jump fences, taking ideas from other seemingly unrelated fields such as the hotel industry and importing them to his bank. And as they did this, they were often guided by the use of metaphors. McCallion’s firm is a big believer in what he calls “transformational metaphors,” wherein a company thinks of itself as something other than what it is — which, in turn, changes the way it behaves. If a company thinks of itself only as a bank, it behaves one way. But if it begins to think of itself as a boutique hotel, or as a country store, or as a community center — and Ray Davis had all of these metaphors floating around in his head — then it starts to behave another way.

Thinking metaphorically is common in design. [Canadian designer and author of “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”] Bruce Mau hit upon the idea that businesses might benefit by thinking that way in the mid-1990s, when he began working with corporate clients that, Mau felt, were too restricted in how they viewed themselves. One of the laws Mau included in his manifesto was Work the metaphor. He declared that every product, every service, every brand “has the ability to stand for something else.” And if a company could begin to think this way, it could have a liberating effect by opening up new possibilities, offering fresh ways to present that company and its services to the public.

Davis did not know Mau from Mao, but he “worked the metaphor” like nobody’s business. He turned Umpqua into one part Ritz-Carlton, a little bit of Pier 1, a touch of Elks Club, and threw in a double-shot of Starbucks.

The bank also used metaphors to breathe life into mundane bank products. Bank accounts were named after life-stage aspirations, such as “Go,” “Reach,” “Savor,” and “Cruise.” And some of the services were packaged in offbeat ways: If you want to switch your account from another bank to Umpqua, you get your application from what looks like a soft drink can (the cans are in vending machines that instruct you to push a button “for a refreshing change of bank”).

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This Reviewer

  1. Bo Burlingham is editor-at-large and former executive editor of Inc. magazine. He is the author of Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big (Portfolio, 2005), and coauthor of The Knack: How Street-Smart Entrepreneurs Learn to Handle Whatever Comes Up (with Norm Brodsky; Portfolio, 2008). He also collaborated with Jack Stack on The Great Game of Business: The Only Sensible Way to Run a Company (Doubleday/Currency, 1992) and A Stake in the Outcome: Building a Culture of Ownership for the Long-Term Success of Your Business (Doubleday/Currency, 2002). Burlingham previously served as managing editor of Ramparts magazine and cofounded PAC World with Tom Peters.

This Excerpt

  1. CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People: Inside the World of Design Thinking and How It Can Spark Creativity and Innovation (Penguin, 2010), by Warren Berger
  2. Warren Berger is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Wired, and Business 2.0. His books include Hoopla/ Crispin Porter + Bogusky (Powerhouse Books, 2006) and a novel, The Purples (Ringer Books, 2010). Berger is also the founder and editor-at-large of One, an advertising and design magazine.


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