Mental flags

Marketing and branding rely heavily on mental flags and signals. The first imperative of branding is to make people’s purchasing decisions easy. And because of the habitual nature of human behaviour, we rely on mental shortcuts, or heuristics, when making those purchasing decisions.

The effect of which is we assign greater importance to things that have ready mental availability and choose the most salient brand. That’s why it’s so important that brand messages are consistently reinforced at every opportunity, so brand associations become burned in our memory. But it’s important to understand that we remember the concept of the brand, not necessarily every last product detail.

Martin Weigel likens it to walking the same route across a grass field until an enduring path is created.

We remember concepts, not data. There’s a lovely experiment in Chip and Dan Heath’s book that illustrates this point. Study the letters below for no more that 10 seconds, then look away and write down as many as you can remember.


That’s 20 letters, most people remember between seven and ten because there’s only so much information you can juggle at once. Now scroll down and look at the same letters again in the same sequence, this time with the spacing slightly rearranged.


Chances are you remembered more second time around. In the first list you were trying to remember data, in the second list, concepts. Twenty pieces of data, but only six concepts. But in remembering the concepts you are actually remembering infinitely more information.

JFK for example triggers associations with politics, relationships, assassination, family etc., surely that’s harder to remember than three little letters? The answer of course is we’re not remembering all that information, we’re simply recalling it.

All the remembering work is already done; we’ve already walked that grassy path. The letters are just a pointer or mental flags, so in the end three letters are three mental flags and one concept is one flag.

You use what’s already there.