“Do you know what mental real estate is?” my good friend and legendary Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter asked.
“I don’t think so,” I replied.
“It’s when you take something that is already familiar to someone and then repurpose it. When you do that, you increase mental real estate.
“For example, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ owns the word ‘pirates’ in the mind of kids. Therefore, Disney owns the word ‘pirates’ in the mind of kids. And ‘pirates’ is already an emotionally-charged word,” Tony said.
That concept of “mental real estate” is also an example of the term itself by taking the word “real estate” and adding “mental” to it.
Other examples of it include:
- Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella, which takes a tech term and uses it a metaphor for how to grow by not destroying everything from the past, but by just eliminating what doesn’t work and then “refreshing” your organization.
- Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, which takes the term “lean in” as one might do when being pitched a ball, hitting a tennis ball, striking a golf ball, etc. and uses it as a directive to women to lean into their companies and therefore empower and embolden themselves, as opposed to acting like deer in the headlights.
- Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, which uses that metaphor when something like a sudden, unforeseen death of a husband takes away the option A of living happily ever after.
- Never Eat Alone by my good friend and colleague, Keith Ferrazzi, which hits a mental real estate winner because the words, “never,” “eat,” and “alone” are all emotionally charged. Put them together and you get more mental real estate.
- #metoo. Speaking of women leaning in to make their voices heard, #metoo also serves as a mantra for women to join together and stand up to sexual harassment and abuse.
- Facebook originally was a play on “The Face Book” that had been given to all freshmen at most colleges to see who was in their class so they could connect with classmates.
- Apple. According to author Walter Isaacson, “On the naming of Apple, Steve Jobs said he was ‘on one of my fruitarian diets.’ He said he had just come back from an apple farm, and thought the name sounded ‘fun, spirited and not intimidating.’” Of course, we customers have allowed it much more mental real estate by connecting in our minds to perhaps Eve and the apple in the Garden of Eden or possibly to die-hard Beatles fans (which Jobs was) the name of their recording label.
- Watson. Emulating both Sherlock Holmes’ assistant and James Watson, co-discoverer with Frances Crick of DNA, IBM’s famed computer competed with and finally won over human intelligence as when it beat Gary Kasparov at chess in 1997.
For those of you with some curiosity about how “mental real estate” works at the neuropsychological and AI level, think of terms that become second nature and then instinctual to you. When that happens, you are taking something from your conscious into your unconscious or, with regard to AI, from your working memory into your hardwired, long-term memory.
Once that occurs and something goes into your unconscious, or your hard drive, over time it begins to bond with and mold into your core identity. At that point, you begin to trust it, and so when a little tweak or repurposing is done, it’s more readily accepted than something entirely new.
From a neurophysiological level, when something familiar to you is touched upon, it triggers a slight burst of dopamine, the pleasure hormone. And while you are in a state of temporary pleasure you are more open — and less guarded — about adding something to it. Alternatively, when something entirely foreign tries to enter your mind, it causes a rise in cortisol, the stress hormone, and that causes you to put your guard up.
What’s in a name?
I made use of the mental real estate concept in titling my last book, Talking to Crazy. When I was telling friends that I was writing a book and was going to call it that, nearly all of them smiled (i.e., the familiar factor).
When I asked them what they were smiling at, they almost always responded, “I need that book now because I do that every day!” That title has no doubt contributed to its success.
But not to be outdone by their American publisher colleagues, when the bookwas translated into Russian, it was entitled Как разговаривать с мудаками. And I kid you not, the translation of that is: How to Talk to A—holes. With that title, it has not only had much more mental real estate, but it also went viral.
Gee, I wonder why?
Therefore, when you’re thinking of branding, yourself, naming products and services, or even your headlines for your companies, ask your marketing team, “How much ‘mental’ real estate does that get us?”
If their answer is, “Not much,” change it.