A Playlist of Metaphors

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 2006

Aristotle liked a good metaphor and considered being a master of them to be a sign of genius. It’s certainly a useful trick for a brand manager with a complicated new product to use metaphor to get it into the mind of the customer. What something is like is often much easier to understand than what something is, and comparing something new, complex and strange with something familiar can be illuminating. I recently had an aneurysm test. Jane E Brody describes an aneurysm as ‘an abdominal time bomb lurking in the aorta, which is the body’s super-highway.’ A picture can be worth a thousand words and a well-chosen metaphor can also condense and package the detail to create a mental picture in the minds of the target market. Glad to say, my super-highway was clear.

Business language is rich in metaphors and certain categories of imagery seem to be particularly popular for a smash-and-grab. For example, finance and water seem to share a strong rapport. The financial pages talk about liquid assets, strong cash flow, new channels of income, or how an increasing drain on resources can lead to the risk of insolvency. 

Water and its dynamics have also been useful for communicating digital transformations and what those torrents of binary data can actually do for us. While the idea of data streaming had been around since the 1990s and the early days of developing video on demand, 2006 was probably the annus mirabilis. In that year, Google paid $1.65 bn for YouTube, the video sharing site which then employed just 65 people; Netflix was actively looking at setting up a streaming media division alongside its DVD rental business, and just as Apple executives were celebrating their billionth iTunes download, Daniel Ek was about to challenge the entire music business model when he launched Spotify.

Spotify, possibly against the odds, found an ecological niche between the music company giants who owned the content and the increasingly dominant new Internet platform capitalists, to offer listeners the benefits of an individualised music on demand service without actually having to buy the music. This service was either free but with advertising interruptions or via an ad free monthly subscription. It was the artists who were probably the least happy with the deal, but it seemed it was only the biggest stars who took their songs elsewhere.

There were a number of favourable pre-conditions which helped Spotify’s launch. The science of compressing high fidelity quavers and crochets into binary data packets without losing quality had advanced throughout the 1980s, but the arrival of the MP3 format in the mid 1990s was the pivotal event.  The development of the internet, especially as ADSL replaced dial-up created a fast, economical and effective means of transferring MP3 files. The strong underlying consumer need was then validated very clearly by the success of Napster which from 1999 until its shutdown in 2001 because of accusations of music piracy, showed the huge potential of peer-to-peer file sharing. The development after 2007 of Smartphones and 4G networks would make Spotify even more mobile, more relevant and more valuable.

Since its full market launch in 2008, Spotify has not rested on its laurels and with its easy UI, artist radio, mood playlists and cross device versatility, it has become one of the essential Digital Durables of our age. It is interesting to note that in the Brand Historian’s family, we have one committed Spotifier and another scion of the House who is dedicated to keeping and curating her own collection of MP3s and playlists. I remain a dual user, and to quote Aristotle, seem therefore to be caught between a rock and a roll.

Playlist like it’s 2006:

Crazy Gnarls Barkley

1 thought on “A Playlist of Metaphors

  1. A fascinating piece.

    What is scary about this tale is that I-Tunes was in its pomp, a disruptor –and manifestly a successful disruptor, but its model was made effectively redundant by Spotify. There is probably a metaphor one can apply to this, the disruptor becoming the disruptee but I cannot bring one to mind.

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