Mental Models - Why sometimes it’s best not to Get too Funky

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One of the major concepts I deal with when developing brands for ambitious businesses is the concept of differentiation.

Every business should endeavour to “stand out”, to have a unique business proposition and to hopefully solve a problem that has yet to be solved, or perhaps to solve it quicker and more efficiently than anybody else. An inability to do so can quickly land a business into obscurity and keep it there.

However, it is important to consider the concept of a mental model, so that you stand out from the competition in your industry but don’t stand out OF the industry. When it comes to your brand/business and the industry you are in, your potential audience will have assumptions and stereotypes already developed around your product, service and industry. These assumptions can be known as a mental model.


A well established mental model is that of the fast food restaurant. If you decide to go to a fast food restaurant, you may make that decision based on the assumption that you will likely see some large signs where the products and prices are listed for you to decide on your order, and you would then expect staff to be present behind a counter where you can place your order and make payment. You would then be presented with the option to sit down and enjoy the meal on the premises or take away.

This mental model can vary slightly but overall it is the established mental model for customers that allows them to confidently make a decision with an expectation that this solution will solve their problem. ie quickly and conveniently get their hands on food that will satisfy their hunger.


Differentiation is simple and effective when it does not disrupt the mental model of the current buying process but adds something new and exciting to a familiar experience.

For example, picture a big fluffy brown bear. This fits your current model of what a bear should look like.

If then you should see a big fluffy BLUE bear, this is an important and interesting characteristic that has been radically transformed and enhances your experience.

Now, if you see a green bear, with smooth skin, 6 legs, no head and swims underwater, it has stepped so far from your mental model of what makes a bear it will lead you to question if it is actually a bear. Your familiar assumptions, confidence and trust in the nature of the bear will turn to distrust, confusion and an overall negative experience if your expectation had been for a bear. Unless you have the curiosity to stick around and find out more, which (especially with today’s ever decreasing attention span) most customers do not.


This is not to say that innovation is not welcomed, or that people do not embrace change, but the rate of change is so quick in the technological world we live in that it can be difficult to keep up. To consider the current customer’s established mental model is to consider the customer’s experience and that experience is becoming more and more important as the internet and convenience takes over. For new businesses it is especially important to become trusted and accepted in the marketplace as soon as possible. Should your business be quite innovative and differ greatly from the standard, it can be done, but it will require a significant level of communication and assistance to the customers to make their on-boarding process a pleasant one.

Quality research, journey mapping and any process that can optimise the customer experience is always a great opportunity for your brand to build trust and customer loyalty and considering current mental models will ensure that your solutions don’t go unappreciated by those that matter most.

Sean MallenComment