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Consumer Evaluation of Bioinspired New Products

Mandler's Incongruity Model and Bioinspiration Schema

By Tojin T. Eapen

Many new products incorporate functions that resemble those of living organisms. In doing so, such products appear to be alive. We refer to such products as bioinspired products. Products that incorporate bioinspired elements are frequently highly novel and hence appear incongruous with their product category schema. Previous studies that build on George Mandler’s influential framework show that consumers evaluate highly incongruous schema unfavorably. However, Mandler’s model suggests that highly incongruous may be evaluated positively if an alternate schema is available that enables accommodative processing. In this conceptual article, we propose that in the case of products that possess high levels of both bioinspiration and incongruity, consumer evaluation can be favorable. This effect, which we term the bioinspired-incongruity effect is potentially enhanced when the branding is also bioinspired in nature.

Keywords: Bioinspiration, schema-incongruity, new products, branding 

Bioinspired New Products

Many new products incorporate functions that resemble those of living systems. Such functions include autonomy, motility, ontogeny, self-healing, and response to stimuli. For example:

We term such products as bioinspired products since they draw their inspiration from living systems. Many new products that incorporate bioinspired elements are also successful in the marketplace. Hatcimals, a line of robotic toys that hatch from eggs, was a best-seller in the 2016 holiday season. 

The evaluation of new products, particularly those that are novel and deviate from established category schemas, is a topic of interest in marketing and consumer research (Jhang, Grant, and Campbell 2012; Lehmann 1994). While new products can offer significant value to consumers, they often struggle to gain acceptance due to their unfamiliarity and deviance from typical products (Alexander, Lynch, and Wang 2008). 

Characteristics of Living and Bioinspired Systems

Living organisms possess self-organizing properties such as motility, response to stimuli, development, repair, and reproduction. These properties can also be found in various products, giving them a sense of being bioinspired. Products that incorporate these properties are designed to mimic the functions of living systems.


Living organisms have the ability to move independently while consuming energy. This property can be found in products such as self-driving cars and other autonomous vehicles, and can also add a sense of vitality to products not typically associated with movement, such as candy (e.g. Pop Rocks, Cadbury Dairy Milk Crackle).

Response to Stimuli

The ability to change properties based on external inputs is not unique to living systems, but they possess it to a high degree. This property can also be found in consumer products, such as color-changing products that incorporate thermochromic elements that respond to changes in temperature.


Self-healing properties, commonly found in living systems, have been incorporated in products to repair damage that can't be easily accessed. Breakthroughs in material technology have led to the development of innovative new products with this property across various product categories.

Development (Ontogeny)

Living organisms go through a development cycle, from origination to maturation. This property can be mimicked in toy products, such as Hatchimals, where toys hatch from their shells, or in products designed to disintegrate or disappear over time.


The ability to create new similar systems is ubiquitous in living organisms but extremely rare in human-made products. However, some attempts have been made to conceptualize and design self-replicating products, such as the RepRap project, in which a prototyping system can create all its own components. 

Products that incorporate the above properties found in living organisms, such as motility, response to stimuli, repair, development, and reproduction, can be considered to be bioinspired and possess "product vitality." This sense of vitality can be perceived by consumers and can provide new functional value.

Consumer Evaluation of Novel Products

Consumers evaluate highly novel products differently from incrementally new products (Hoeffler 2003; Jhang, Grant and Campbell 2012). Adoption of really novel products requires changes in deeply entrenched knowledge structures (Moreau, Lehmann and Markman 2001; Moreau, Markman and Lehmann 2001). Consumers employ knowledge from existing categories to understand and make sense of novel products that do not neatly fit into a single category (Gregan-Paxton and Roedder John 1997; Markman, Yamauchi, and Makin 1997). 

Schematic Processing and Consumer Evaluations 

Schema Theory developed out of Piaget’s work on developmental psychology and the research of Bartlett (1933) on memory. Schemas are representations of experience that guide action, perception, and thought (Mandler 1982). Human beings associate objects through categorization, or by separating like objects and events (Rosch 1973; Rosch et al 1976). Generic categorical knowledge of consumers is embedded in schemas and stored in human memory (Alba and Hasher 1983; Rumelhart 1978; Stayman, Alden and Smith 1992). Consumers process subsequent experiences with new products  based on the existing categorical schema. Categorical schema-based processing is an alternative approach to an intensive piece-meal approach, where consumers independently evaluate componential attributes of an object (Fiske 1982; Fiske and Pavelchak 1988; Sujan 1985). 

Consumer evaluation of new products can involve a category based processing or a piece-meal (or multi-attribute) approach (Bettman, Payne and Luce 1988). It has been suggested that a category-based approach may precede a piece-meal approach (Sujan 1985). In a category-based processing approach, a consumer compares a new product with a prototypical schema. Schemas represent a consumer’s expectations of a category, and can include hypotheses about usual values of attributes and importance of the attributes (Sujan and Bettman 1989). This schema is derived from the consumer’s past experiences with products in the category. If the product, ad or brand is atypical compared to the product category schema, it is considered to be schema-incongruous (Campbell and Goodstein 2001; Mandler 1982). 

When a consumer encounters a new product, it is compared with existing schemas derived from the consumer’s experience of other products in the category. The degree of congruity of a product compared to its prototypical schema can lead to generation of affect, which may be positive or negative (Mandler 1982; Noseworthy, Muro and Murray 2014). Novelty can emerge from elements of the product that are significantly different from other product categories. These differences from prototypicality lends itself to a perception atypicality for a new product.

Nature of Incongruity in Schematic Evaluations

We need to take a closer look at the definition and operationalization of incongruity. Incongruity refers to the degree to which an object or event that is inconsistent or out of place with previous experience.  Incongruity is related to the perception of novelty. Pioneering work in this regard was conducted by Berlyne (1960). Incongruity has been operationalized in different ways in previous studies. The approach employed by Myers-Levy and Tybout (1983) involves considering the hierarchical level at which the incongruity can be addressed or resolved. This operationalization is not appropriate in our context because, in the case of products with bioinspired features, incongruity would only be resolved at the highest level of categorization (living vs non-living systems). Thus, all products with bioinspired features would be characterized as highly incongruous. However, it is clear that consumers may perceive some forms of bioinspiration to be more typical than others.  So, we choose a more subjective definition of incongruity consistent with Mandler’s original understanding of incongruity as judgments of fit with a category. 

Consumer Evaluation of Bioinspired Products

Our interest is in studying consumer evaluation of bioinspired products, in particular, which may exhibit both life-like properties and a degree of incongruity with existing category schemas, creating a paradox for consumers. How do consumers evaluate the combination of life-like familiarity and novel incongruity in bioinspired products?

Most research studies on consumer evaluation of (in)congruity are based on the framework developed by George Mandler. This framework, also known as the schema-(in)congruity theory, links the degree of schema (in)congruity to affect. It posits that when the evaluated schema is fully congruous with the category schema, there is no affect, which is a case of schema-congruity. However, when the evaluated event or object deviates from the category schema, it is considered schema-incongruous. Studies have shown that when the incongruity is low, the affect is mildly positive, but for high levels of incongruity, when accommodation is not achieved, the affect is strongly negative. Research has also identified several moderators for this moderate-incongruity effect, such as the nature of brand positioning. Despite this, there is ongoing interest in understanding when consumers might evaluate high levels of incongruity favorably, particularly when it comes to novel products and bioinspired designs. Studies suggest that cognitive flexibility and the ability to access alternate schemas may play a role in this evaluation.

Mandler's model shown in figure below, illustrates how consumers evaluate the degree of congruity or incongruity in a schema and the resulting affect. According to the model, when a schema is fully congruous, the affect is positive but minimal. When incongruity is moderate, assimilation occurs, and the affect is expected to be positive, a prediction known as the moderate-incongruity hypothesis (Myers-Levy and Tybout 1989). However, when incongruity is severe and accommodation cannot be achieved, the affect is strongly negative.

Mandle's Schema Incongruity Model

When a consumer encounters a new product, they compare it to existing schemas based on their previous experiences with similar products. The degree of similarity to the prototypical schema can evoke positive or negative affect (Mandler, 1982). Novelty can come from elements of the product that are significantly different from other products in the category, resulting in a perception of atypicality for the new product.

Mandler's model (1984) depicted in the image above forms the basis for many studies on consumer evaluation of congruity/incongruity (e.g., Myers-Levy & Tybout, 1989; Noseworthy, Muro, & Murray, 2014). The schema-congruity theory posits that the degree of congruity or incongruity between a product and its category schema determines the affect generated. According to the theory, when the product fully aligns with the category schema, no affect is generated. This is known as schema-congruity. 

In contrast, when a product deviates from the category schema, it is considered schema-incongruous. The affect generated in this case depends on the degree of incongruity between the product and the category schema. Low incongruity leads to mildly positive affect, while high incongruity that cannot be accommodated leads to strongly negative affect. Myers-Levy and Tybout (1989) found that moderate incongruity generates the most favorable consumer evaluation.

Several factors have been found to moderate the moderate-incongruity effect. For example, the nature of brand positioning (functional vs experiential) can affect this evaluation (Noseworthy & Trudel, 2011). There has been interest in understanding when consumers might evaluate high levels of incongruity favorably. This is important for marketing as it relates to how consumers perceive novel products. One study in this area, by Jhang, Grant, and Campbell (2012), suggests that cognitive flexibility plays a role. However, there is little insight on whether highly incongruous schemas themselves might lead to favorable evaluations under certain conditions. 

Mandler (1984) offers an intriguing possibility, suggesting that even in the presence of incongruity, a consumer may evaluate a product positively if they have access to an alternate schema. Most studies in this field focus on how a product deviates from a prototypical category schema and assume that consumers evaluate only a single schema. There is limited understanding of how consumers evaluate incongruity if they can access alternate schemas, other than the product category schema. This question is important because it suggests that consumers may evaluate more than one schema. 

One such alternate schema is the "bioinspiration" or "vital" schema, where consumers view the new product as analogous to a living system. In such cases, even with high levels of incongruity, accommodation may be achieved, leading to a favorable evaluation of the highly incongruous schema.

Bioinspired Schema

When consumers encounter a new product, they may access multiple schemas, such as the product's category schema, a general schema, and a brand schema. With a bioinspired product, consumers may also access a bioinspired schema. However, for this schema to be activated and used, it must be enabled through bioinspired form, function, or branding. These three ways of activation allow consumers to access and utilize the bioinspired schema when evaluating the product.

Bioinspired Form

When consumers encounter a product with a bioinspired form, it activates a bioinspired schema in their mind. This can be a specific schema, such as that of an animal or bird, and can serve both aesthetic and functional purposes. For example, certain products that employ biomimicry, like the Shinkansen Bullet train's streamlined forefront mimicking a Kingfisher's beak, use the bioinspired form to provide functional value.

Bioinspired Function

Consumers access a bioinspired schema when a product's functions remind them of living objects. For example, a product with a camera for vision may appear like a living organism with eyes. Functional complementarity is important as the bioinspired schema has several complementary elements, such as motion and vision. Products with multiple complementary bioinspired features activate the bioinspired schema more strongly.

Bioinspired Branding

The third way to activate access to the bioinspired schema is through branding. This approach is the most explicit, as the brand is portrayed as being alive. Many brands incorporate bioinspired metaphors in their names and designs. For example, Reebok is named after a South African antelope, Mizuno's logo features a Runbird that symbolizes both sports and freedom, and Puma integrates both a bioinspired name and logo.

The use of bioinspired branding schema can make the bioinspired form or functions of a product easier to understand and evaluate. For example, self-healing soles, an innovative product feature would be easier to evaluate in the context of a bioinspired brand such as Puma, compared to a similar feature on an Adidas product.

Mandler's Incongruity Model and Bioinspiration Schema

Integrating Form, Function, and Branding

New products can effectively utilize a combination of bioinspired design, branding, and technology. A prime example is the Jaguar ALIVE campaign, which featured an integrated branding strategy centered around the concept of a living Jaguar. 

The campaign emphasized the bioinspired design elements and unique features of Jaguar cars, such as the use of an "Intelligent Aluminum Architecture" and technology like self-leveling suspension and intelligent headlights. The message conveyed was that every Jaguar is engineered to deliver an intuitive, "alive" driving experience.