Talking About Schema


I earned a minor in Psychology at the University of Findlay because I took 21 hours of it before deciding to major in English. As a result, I learned about “Schema” from Milton Peters, professor of my Psychology II class. He quoted Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development while speaking of Assimilation and Accommodation. During a Piaget discussion on the second floor of Old Main, we discussed Schema and the human behaviors associated with it. Fast forward 10 years and I’m sitting in a WOMMA conference breakout session, captivated by Steve Knox the CEO of Tremor, as he taught how schema related to WOM marketing.

To summarize the various definitions of the science; a schema is a mental structure we use to organize and simplify our knowledge of the world around us. We have schemas about ourselves, other people, technology, eating, exercising and in fact almost everything. For example, a child may first develop a schema for a dog. The child knows that a dog has fur, four legs and a tail. When the child encounters a cat for the first time, he might first call it a dog because it fits his schema of a dog; he sees an animal that has fur, four legs and a tail. Once the child is told that this is a different animal called a cat, he will modify his current schema for a dog and create a new schema for a cat.

During the session, Knox presented an image of the Miracle on the Hudson. Sully saved hundreds of lives that day and solidified schema-consideration as part of the marketing mix. When we look at this image we see something that disrupts our schema. We associate planes with the sky and not water so it’s something that we will remember and talk about. Would you be surprised to know that ten days after the Miracle on the Hudson there was a small aircraft crash that killed 14 people in upstate New York? I doubt any of us remember that plane crash because we weren’t talking about it. Unfortunately that story is true. To complete the analogy, when planes crash, schema allows us to know what happened to the passengers without having to see the wreck, although we can’t help but look. And we can’t help but look because a train wreck, like an air plane on the Hudson River with people standing on the wings is many degrees away from what we believe to be ordinary… and when it’s extraordinary, we talk about it.

Seventy-six percent of Americans talk about at least one brand every day according to a 2009 research study conducted by the Keller Fay Group. With three out of four consumers talking about brands, it’s essential that Brands give them something to talk about; and one certain way to ensure they are talking is to disrupt their schema.

Life Lessons mixed in Cognitive Psychology

I remember my first real teaching experience; Second grade at Brookside Elementary. I woke up that morning and had a purpose, a certain motivation to somehow make a difference. The darkness of the morning commute allowed for some anxiety as I sipped my coffee. The questions were floating around in my head as I paid close attention to road signs, cautiously driving to Brookside. Work at an elementary school – It always sounded like something I would enjoy and be good at but as for a career, how would I know until I tried it, right? My football career was up in the air after all the injuries and so I decided to try something different for a while; at least until I was healthy enough to go to another try-out.

After stumbling through my first day and finally walking all the students outside to their busses, one of the little girls returned to the hallway hysterical, crying and shaking. I remember being alarmed and thinking, what is the matter with this poor girl! Confused and not real sure what the acceptable gesture was for the situation, I kneeled down, embraced her in my arms a little and tried to talk to her. She had blurted out between wails that she lost her jacket. The school secretary heard the commotion and soon came and assisted me with this dilemma; which I greatly appreciated because it was helpful to have a motherly figure around at this point. I decided that I would go in search of the jacket and bring it to the bus. The girl calmed down a bit and was off to bus twenty-seven, and I off to find the blue jean jacket.
I only took a few steps though until I realized this poor girl was absolutely terrified to go home without her jacket; or any bad news for that matter. She was scared for her safety. Luckily, I found her jacket on a chair in the hall. I picked up my pace back to the bus to give her the jacket but she had turned back in search of the jacket as well and met me in the hall. When I neared the doors of the building she made eye contact with me and as I kneeled down to give her the jacket she hugged me very tightly, as though I had just saved her of something terrible. It was a hug fueled by terror; not the hug that you imagine from a sweet little second grader. She didn’t say a word, just hugged me and took off for bus twenty-seven.

Why do I still remember the tightness of her hug; the smell of her hair; the shaking of her shoulders, the color of her coat and the number of the bus she rode off in?

The answers to these questions much like the answers to questions floating around your marketing department brainstorming sessions are in an understanding of Sir Frederic Bartlett’s work in Cognitive Psychology. The simple answer, because my schema of hugging a sweet innocent girl was interrupted. I have a six year old niece who is an absolute sweetheart. I look forward to visiting her and anticipate her smile and hug when I pull in the driveway and see her peeking from the kitchen window. When we become accustomed to a certain reality and fundamentally believe something to be a certain way or we are used to having something a certain way, it is human nature that over time we will expect it. When that normalcy is interrupted we have an emotional reaction to it, which causes us to talk about it – or write about it in a blog using a translucent blue-shade of Invizzible Ink.

Much of marketing is about experiences and connecting those experiences with real life consumers. Consumers are human beings, breathing and warm and influenced by a variety of dynamics that they can touch and smell and see for themselves. Consumers want to experience your brand for themselves; they aren’t interested in what a stranger on television tells them about a product anymore. Consumers want to feel the terrified hug and smell the little girl’s hair. As advanced as media has become, they still haven’t brought me a product I can smell, taste, touch, or feel… Invizzable Ink –