The Difference Between Metaphor, Simile, and Analogy (and How to Use It)

If you’re like most people, trying to figure out the difference between metaphor, simile, and analogy sounds like work.

Even though it’s easy to get these literary devices mixed up, you’re probably more familiar with them than you think. That’s because they’re a part of the language we use every single day.

Today, we’re going to discuss how you can use these three elements of figurative language from a business perspective, but before we do that, here’s a quick rundown of each term from a technical perspective.

Part 1: The Basics

What is the difference between a metaphor, simile, and analogy?

  • An analogy is a comparison between one thing and another thing in order to make a point.
    • Example: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” – Forrest Gump
  • A simile allows you to create more vivid or emphatic descriptions by comparing two dissimilar things while using connecting words (like, as, resembles, etc.).
    • Example: Twirling in the air, the dancer looked as light as a feather.
  • A metaphor helps you get your point across by describing an object or an action in a literal way, even if it isn’t literally true.
    • Example: “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” – Albert Einstein

Here’s the last big thing you should know: You can use simile and metaphor to create an analogy. Following the rules I’ve laid out, you’ll notice in the example above that the Forrest Gump quote is a simile but, because it’s used to make a point, it’s also an analogy.

Let’s break this down a little more before we start talking about practical applications.

Metaphor, Simile, and Analogy: Three Devices, One Example

Before we start talking about how these literary devices can be effective communication tools, I want to provide one more explanation to help solidify the difference between metaphor, simile, and analogy.

However, in this example, we’re only going to use two things:

  • A knight
  • A storm

I’ll highlight the important parts, but refer back to the section above if you want to review the rules:

  • Simile: The knight stabs at the air with his sword. He flows like a graceful wind, his strikes as swift as lightning.
  • Metaphor: My sword strikes at his chest and my shield crashes against his armor. In that terrible moment, I am lightning and thunder. I am the storm.
  • Analogy: Fighting isn’t always the answer. Even the bravest knight can’t duel with a storm, but taking off the armor and putting down the sword could save you from a lightning strike.

In the simile and metaphor examples, notice how the figurative language is to introduce a new concept into the dialogue. Our knight is clearly a ferocious combatant, and the context provided by the language helps us visualize that.

But the analogy is a little different. Analogies are often about teaching a lesson or making a point.

Here, we’re using an illogical and impossible idea (fighting the weather) to illustrate a logical argument: It’s literally impossible for fighting to be the answer to everything, and if you try it, you’ll probably get hurt.

All three literary devices we’re discussing are designed to make explicit comparisons between unrelated objects and disconnected ideas. It’s one reason that storytelling works so well for modern brands. People understand concepts when told through elements of storytelling, and the literary devices we’re talking about here play a big role in that.

That’s it for the high-level overview. Below, we’ll take a look a closer look at each of these literary devices and we’ll talk about how you can use them to improve your writing and communication skills.

Part 2: How to Use Metaphor, Simile, and Analogy to Build Your Brand

Using metaphor, simile, and analogy effectively can help you translate big ideas into simple but powerful concepts that you can use to train your team or build your brand.

Let’s take a look at how to use each literary device in order to operate and grow your business more effectively.

Analogies: Making Your Point

Using analogies to build your brand can be both an external and an internal process because analogies are one of the easiest ways to make your point to employees, customers, and business partners.

Analogies can be powerful and simple branding tools, too. As the Harvard Business Review points out, Thomas Stemberg, founder of Staples, started the company with this analogical question: “Could we be the Toys R Us of office supplies?”

Today, Toys R Us may be bankrupt (and on the verge of a comeback), but it was a household name back in 1986 when the first Staples opened its doors. Using the toy chain’s huge commercial success as a comparison for the type of brand that Stemberg wanted to build made the idea accessible to employees, customers, and business partners.

Analogies are great communication tools in this regard because they can help you draw an explicit comparison between your ideas and a known or established concept that your audience will be familiar with.

This can happen on both a large and a small scale. Think about it: The “Toys R Us of office supplies” is big from an operational standpoint, but we all know what it means if someone is “as sly as a fox”. That’s a much smaller analogy that can be used on a personal level.

Simile: Like Something You’ve Heard Before

Speaking of sly foxes, you’re probably more familiar with similes than you think. They’re such a common part of figurative language in everyday speech that they’re easy to miss if you’re not explicitly looking for them. Here are a few common similes, courtesy of Literary Devices:

  • Our soldiers are as brave as lions.
  • Her cheeks are red like a rose.
  • He is as funny as a monkey.
  • The water well was as dry as a bone.
  • He is as cunning as a fox.

Pretty familiar, right? So, how would you use this to grow your brand and build your business?

Remember, the entire point of using metaphor, simile, and analogy is to draw comparisons and create vivid connections between unrelated objects. A fox and a human aren’t that similar, but the concept of slyness carries well in the simile.

You’ll often see simile used in branding when companies are trying to help potential customers better visualize and understand the essence of their product offering or value proposition.

Consider this slogan for a delivery company: Deliveries as fast as lightning.

It’s simple, easy to understand, and borrows the speed of a lightning strike to describe its speedy service. As an added bonus, a slogan like that also borrows from a well-understood concept — and that’s okay.

A good, real-world example of a simile in advertising is Chevrolet’s “Like a Rock” campaign (the simile is literally in the title) in which Chevy points out the durability of its automotive line by saying that its trucks are “like a rock”.

And it worked massively well.

The whole point of figurative language isn’t to reinvent the wheel; it’s to leverage what’s already there to emphasize the key points of your brand.

Metaphor: Literally Difficult

That brings us to the big one: Metaphor. As a recap, remember that metaphors don’t use qualifiers such as “like” or “as”. They draw a clear, straight, and direct line from Point A to Point B.

In marketing and advertising, this is important, because your time to catch someone’s attention is limited. Metaphor tries to maximize the impact of a concept in the fewest words by saying that X is literally Y.

Often, metaphor is done visually in advertising, but that doesn’t have to be the case for your brand. Think about Tropicana’s “Daily Ray of Sunshine” campaign where Tropicana pitches its product as the ray of sunshine that someone needs to improve their entire week.

Obviously, orange juice isn’t sunshine (no matter how much Vitamin D it gives you), but orange juice shares a similar color palette to the sun and provides some of the same nutritional benefits, so it’s easy to make that comparison.

Metaphor works great in advertising and branding because it allows you to use the smallest amount of space to create powerful concepts and ideas. Advertising is a platform for product presentation, and using a metaphor in the process can help your audience visualize your product or service in an entirely new way.

Use Figures of Speech to Inform and Inspire

The entire idea behind figurative language and the literary devices mentioned here is that great connections can be made between dissimilar objects with a little creative thinking.

When you’re pitching a new idea to investors, teaching employees how to talk about what you do, or trying to tell the story of your business to customers, don’t be afraid to use metaphor, simile, and analogy to get your point across.

Compare similar things and different ideas. Find those significant relations and hash out how the literal meaning of a phrase or how you can use the understanding of an old saying as a communication tool to help your business grow.

That’s the true power behind metaphors, similes, analogies and all the other literary devices out there