Sunday, September 6, 2009

Generative metaphors: Disney’s “cast members” vs Subway’s “sandwich artists”

Metaphors and analogies are useful in communicating abstract ideas. For example, when Arun Shourie calls BJP “kati patang” (adrift kite) we get the point immediately. Some metaphors are so useful they don’t merely shed light on a concept; they actually become platforms for novel thinking. Dan and Chip Heath call these powerful metaphors “Generative Metaphors” in their bestseller “Made to Stick”. Let’s see how they explain this concept using two examples: one from Disney and the other from Subway.

Disney calls its employees cast members. This metaphor of employees as cast members in a theatrical production is communicated consistently throughout the organization:

· Cast members don’t interview for a job, they audition for a role

· When they are walking around the park, they are onstage.

· People visiting Disney are guests, not customers

· Jobs are performances, uniforms are costumes

Beauty of generative metaphors is that they help you predict things associated with the concept. For example, one can guess that employees are not allowed to be on break while in costume and in public area (An actor would never have a chat and a cigarette in mid-scene). Street sweepers are evaluated on criteria other than cleanliness of their sidewalks. That’s because they are highly visible onstage and obvious target for customer questions. “Employees as a cast member” is a generative metaphor that has worked for Disney for more than fifty years.

Let’s contrast this with a non-generative metaphor, “sandwich artists” which Subway created for its frontline employees. As Chip brothers explain, this metaphor is “utterly useless” as a guide to how employees should act. Defining trait of an “artist” is individual expression. And anyone who has been in Subway knows how much individual expression frontline employees have – in dress, in interaction, in the presentation of sandwiches.


  1. I always questioned Subway's "Sandwich Artist" title. They take orders, and if they do their job right, they don't put any of their own 'art' into it. They are sandwich robots. Of course, this doesn't sound as good and I see why hey didn't go with that. If we said, "just make me a good sandwich", and let them decided, then perhaps they could be considered artists. =)

    1. Mauri, I like "sandwich robot" metaphor. Perhaps it is a generative metaphor for subway job :-)