Why Effective Word-of-Mouth Disrupts Schemas

Just Make Sure the Disruption Stays Tied to Foundational Brand Truths

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Steve Knox
Steve Knox
There is a lot of talk today about word-of-mouth, social media and all the technologies that surround them. But have you ever wondered why consumers talk? It turns out that understanding why consumers choose to communicate is rooted in the cognitive psychological sciences. Before you nod off, read on, because this just might make you think differently about your marketing.

The brain is designed not to think.

Did that line disrupt your thought process? It happens to be true. Our brains are designed to try to remain in a static state, to reserve their processing power for true emergencies or survival.

A mechanism the brain uses to remain in this static state is the use of schemas, mental models that we use to make the world work. They enable us to assume things and use the model to fill in the missing details.

You have many schemas operating at one time. Here is one that you likely used today: When you got in your car, you had a schema that you would drive on the right-hand side of the road, and the person coming at you would drive on his or her right-hand side. You don't think about it. Your brain simply makes the assumption that this is how the world works.

Have you ever been to the U.K.? Remember the first time you saw someone driving on the "wrong" side? Your schema was significantly disrupted (even if you knew about the rules of the road in advance). And guess what you did? You talked about it.

Core of word-of-mouth
Disrupting a schema turns out to be at the core of all word-of-mouth. The brain cannot live in a state of disequilibrium. One way it gets back to its static state is by talking about the disruption. Significant disruption causes sustained talk.

As marketers, we are trained to listen to the consumer. Use these same skills to watch people, and you can observe this phenomenon at work.

One year ago, we all watched in awe the news recounting Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's successful landing a US Airways plane on the Hudson River. We are still talking about the "Miracle on the Hudson" today. Contrast this with other plane mishaps that happen. Engine failure on airplanes is a rare occurrence, but when it happens we rarely talk about it. Why?

It goes back to schema disruption. The Miracle on the Hudson significantly disrupted many schemas. Our schema is that planes don't land on water. We all had to and still do talk about this because our schemas were so significantly disrupted.

So how does this apply to marketing? Word-of-mouth on brands uses these same cognitive principles. Consumers talk about brands when we disrupt a schema. They talk when we give them a piece of surprise that does not fit inside their mental model.

But let me make a distinction. This is not about buzz marketing. In buzz marketing, the disruption is superficial and often not tied directly to the product. In cognitive terms, it is interrupting a schema, just not one that is associated with the brand or category. This is most often seen in the funny commercial or the viral video (humor by definition is a piece of disruption) whose brand you cannot remember.

The foundational truth
Effective word-of-mouth disrupts schemas that are tied to the core of your category and brand. We call this the foundational truth. Disruption can never stray too far from the foundational truth or the consumer rejects it. A classic example was the attempt to reposition Las Vegas as a "family friendly place." This change was wildly disruptive but strayed too far from the core schema of Las Vegas as an adult playground. It was rejected in the consumers' mind. Effective word-of-mouth that drives consumer advocacy disrupts mildly, not wildly, from the consumers' foundational truth.

We work with a variety of brands (inside and outside of Procter & Gamble). We always start with understanding the brand purpose. This is the reason the brand exists, and all messages (including word-of-mouth) must be consistent with this purpose. However, it is generally necessary to disrupt from the mass-advertising message.

Here is an example of schema disruption and resultant word-of-mouth message from the Secret brand. The purpose of the Secret Clinical Strength brand is brought to life in our advertising through "Live Life. Don't Sweat It."

We uncovered that the core schema in the category is the more active you are, the more you sweat and the worse you smell. We created a disruptive message of "The More You Move, The Better You Smell." It disrupts the schema first and then is supported by the brand technology (unique moisture-activated deodorants).

Note how the word-of-mouth message is different from the traditional advertising message but consistent with the brand purpose.

The result was significant conversation about this brand both online and offline. As just one example, more than 51,000 posts were made on our website about this particular product.

Bringing the world of cognitive science into your marketing can pay huge dividends. Before you become enamored with the latest technology, stop and ask yourself, "What are the core schemas at play and how are we disrupting them?" Understanding why a consumer wants to talk about your brand is one of the breakthrough areas of marketing.

Steve Knox is CEO of Tremor, a word-of-mouth marketing organization inside Procter & Gamble. Tremor serves brands both inside and outside of P&G.
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