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vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream to represent the 3 flavours of white papers

This Just In: A new metaphor for white paper mashups

More than 10 years ago, I came up with the three flavors of white papers:

  • Vanilla for an old school product backgrounder
  • Strawberry for a light-and-lively listicle
  • Chocolate for an industry problem/solution

It’s a practical, memorable, sticky idea that has spread far and wide. (Many people arrive in my classes keen to hear all about ice cream.)

You can find out more in my 4-page infographic, my 15-page ice cream report, or in 100+ pages of my book White Papers for Dummies.

Then I extended the “ice cream” idea to mashing up flavors.

My concept was you could mix strawberry with either vanilla or chocolate. But don’t dare try to mix vanilla and chocolate!

That advice works fine for white papers

After all, it’s hard to shift from an industry-wide focus on a nagging problem (chocolate) to a deep dive into the features and benefits of one specific product (vanilla).

It’s better to split that content into two documents for people at two different points in their customer journey.

John Cole CopyEngineer

John Cole, CopyEngineer


But that’s where the metaphor breaks.

And someone finally pointed that out.

That someone is John Cole, a former avionics system engineer turned copywriter.

He’s one of those unique engineers who actually likes writing and is very good at it. He specializes in content strategy, case studies, and white papers.

John and I have exchanged some cordial e-mails, but we’ve never met in person since he lives in Italy (lucky!).


In his latest blog post, John discusses what he calls “hybrid” white papers.

And he zeroes in on the flaw in my ice cream metaphor.

“As someone who grew up eating Neapolitan ice cream, Good Humor bars, and vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s Syrup, I find this part of Graham’s analogy a bit hard to swallow,” he wrote.

“I mean, really, who believes chocolate and vanilla don’t go together?”

Whoops. He’s right. In the real world, vanilla and chocolate go together beautifully.

two blood donor bags

John proposes a new metaphor

His take is based on the four different types of human blood:

• Type O, the universal donor that almost everyone can accept
• Type A and Type B that can’t mix
• Type AB, the universal recipient that can receive any other type

Here is John’s rule of thumb for white paper “hybrids”:

You can’t mix Type A blood (the problem/solution) and Type B blood (the backgrounder). But you can add either Type A or Type B to Type AB blood (the numbered list).

You know, that’s quite apt. That works far better than my advice about not mixing chocolate and vanilla.

Am I sore? Not at all.

Are blood types better than ice cream flavors?

Most writers don’t realize this, but we can work with metaphors in a systematic way. We can compare and extend and brainstorm Big Ideas to make them stronger.

book cover Made to Stick


One great resource is the classic book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Their book explores six requirements of a sticky idea, with many well-researched anecdotes and insights.

If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat.

So I decided to test ice cream against blood types according to the criteria in their book. This table shows the results.



Ice cream flavoursBlood types

Ice cream edges out blood types on simplicity. Most people need a reminder about how the blood types work. But everyone knows ice cream.

Yet blood types are more scientific so how they mix seems more credible.

As for emotions and story, both can be spun out in gripping ways.

So it’s a close call, isn’t it?

The limits of metaphors

Any good white paper writer uses at least one good metaphor.

They’re handy to explain something new and strange by connecting it to something old and familiar.

Metaphors are great for giving someone a quick mental picture.

But a metaphor isn’t the real thing. It’s a mental construct, a visualization.

No metaphor can ever perfectly represent every aspect of anything else. Life’s too complex.

never stretch a metaphor too far

And here’s the thing: If you stretch any metaphor too far, it snaps.

So use metaphors wisely. And be humble when one of yours snaps back.

Another thing you can do is work out your metaphors systematically, and plan them out in advance.

Try not to mix too many metaphors in one piece… you want them to add clarity to your white paper, not create confusion.

And remember, whether you prefer blood type or ice cream flavor metaphors, you can use my three frameworks for white papers that work.

Download my 4-page infographic and my 15-page ice cream report for handy reference while you’re writing.


This page originally published 25 May 25 2022. Last updated 6 November 2022. 

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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  1. Helen on June 24, 2022 at 3:00 pm

    Hi regarding John’s metaphor….Group O is in fact the universal donor and AB the universal recipient

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