Data Gurus


Uncover Deeper Consumer Understanding with Metaphors | Ep.164

Welcome to another captivating episode of the Data Gurus Podcast! Sima is delighted to have Lindsay Zaltman joining her on the show today! Lindsay is Partner and CEO at Olson Zaltman, a world-renowned marketing strategy firm.

In this episode, Lindsay shares his background and talks about how he got to where he is currently in his career. He explains the way they work at Olson Zaltman. He also dives into how humans think and experience the world through metaphors and discusses how metaphors can be used as an effective marketing tool.

Lindsay’s background

Lindsay’s father was one of the founders of Olson Zaltman. He was also a Professor of Marketing, and Lindsay often used to look at the work he was doing. He always encouraged Lindsay to think about things a little differently- as he did in the marketing world. So from early on, Lindsay knew he would make his career in marketing, market research, or insights.

Lindsay did his undergrad with an anthropology background and went on to get a Master’s degree in marketing research. He spent some time in the advertising world, doing account planning, and then joined Olson Zaltman.

Olson Zaltman

Olson Zaltman has been around for the last twenty-five years. They specialize in getting into the unconscious thoughts and feelings of consumers. They were doing System 1 thinking long before it got that label. Lindsay considers Olson Zaltman the founder of applying neuroscience to the area of market research because they specialize in getting into consumers’ deeper thoughts and feelings and helping their clients develop strategies built on deeper thinking to make bigger business impacts. They specialize in metaphor as their primary way of thinking.


Metaphor is the most basic way humans think about and experience the world around them. Metaphors cross all language, demographic, and cultural barriers. In western languages, we tend to use about five to six metaphors per minute in our conversations.

Surface metaphors

When consumers talk about a brand, category, or experience in life, they use the surface metaphors that reside in their 5% of conscious level thought, without even realizing it. Those surface metaphors become shorthand for more complex ideas.

Deep metaphors

At Olson Zaltman, they have bucketed those surface metaphors into deep metaphors. There are only about sixteen to eighteen deep metaphors, and they are unconscious universal frames that all humans share. Balance, container, transformation, freedom, and connection are some of the themes, human truths, or unconscious frames, that all the surface metaphors are tied into.


Consumers don’t know that they have those deep metaphors. Olson Zaltman’s role is to uncover them and help clients leverage them for their product innovations or communications. They explain to their clients how a bundle of surface metaphors fits into a key theme of a deep metaphor.

The work they do

About half the work they do at Olson Zaltman is marketing, communications, branding, and insights. The other half is research and development, or renovation if the client is getting into a new product category.

US patent

Their most tried and true product, and the one they are known for, is called ZMET. ZMET is a metaphor elicitation technique developed by Lindsay’s father, and it was the first marketing research technique to get a US patent. It is a qualitative one-on-one in-depth process.

A quantitative tool

They also have an online quantitative tool, called Simile, to measure the deep metaphors in statistically significant ways.

Big data

There is a lot of excitement going on with big data. Lindsay feels that the pendulum may have swung too far towards looking for quicker surface-level input versus some of the deeper thinking that techniques like ZMET allow clients to do. However, he does acknowledge that the things learned from big data are the “what” and those create an opportunity for the “why” to be explained. He also believes that the pendulum will start swinging back, and people will rethink things.


Some fascinating things are going on internally at Olson Zaltman regarding applied technology. They are working with AI and other technologies to help improve ZMET.

The best research plans

Lindsay thinks that the best research plans have qual and quant. They also have traditional and non-traditional research. He believes that technology and advances in what we know about the mind will give us better ways to understand consumers than traditional surveys would.


About Lindsay Zaltman

Lindsay is Partner & CEO at Olson Zaltman, a world-renowned marketing strategy firm.

Lindsay is co-author (with Gerald Zaltman) of the book “Marketing Metaphoria” by the Harvard Business Press.

Marketing Metaphoria has been translated into seven languages. He is also co-author of a chapter in The Handbook of Marketing Research on manager-researcher relationships and a case study in the Harvard Business Review. He has been cited in numerous publications and events including TED Talks, The New York Times, Fast Company Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Advertising Age, and Variety. He was also the key brand consultant for filmmaker Morgan Spurlock in his movie on product placement and branding, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. He has lectured extensively at various Fortune 500 companies and conferences around the globe.

He has extensive experience in the advertising and communications field. Before joining Olson Zaltman Associates, he was an Account Planner in the Consumer Insight Group at Arnold Worldwide in Boston. While at Arnold, Lindsay worked with various technology, anti-tobacco, and packaged goods clients. Before Arnold, Lindsay spent several years at Dymun & Company in Account Management working with clients in banking, finance, and the arts.

Lindsay earned a Master’s in Marketing Research from the University of Georgia and a BA in Anthropology from the University of Maine.


About Olson Zaltman

As the Harvard-founded pioneers in the use of mind science for consumer insights, we are passionate about helping our clients unlock the hidden power of the unconscious. We uncover the beliefs and behaviors that impact consumers’ decisions and partner with strategic leaders like to determine the most impactful way of leveraging deep insights.

95% of consumer decisions are made deep in their unconscious where beliefs and behaviors are rooted. The ability to uncover this unconscious was the beginning of Olson Zaltman at the Harvard Business School Mind of the Market with the launch of ZMET, the first market research technique to receive a US patent.

Our academic roots are reflected in our highly vetted research tools. We’ve conducted more than 2,000 studies in 40 countries worldwide and our work has been cited in 4,000+ academic and industry publications. Academically rooted, Olson Zaltman is high-touch and rigorous in its methodology, and results-oriented.

Our team is filled with smart, curious, and interesting people. They are a big part of why we enjoy coming to work each day, and why clients enjoy working with us. We are purposefully small – some would say “curated”. We hail from a diverse array of disciplines and theoretical orientations, which helps us to generate wholly original ideas. Our DNA is a mixture of scientist, artist, and philosopher – but the kind you would want to talk to at a cocktail party.



Olson Zaltman

Book mentioned:

Marketing Metaphoria by Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman


Email me your thoughts!