January 3, 2011 in Communication Ideas
Idea core: It is possible to communicate complex ideas and emotions in a simple and effective way through artful use of what already exists in people’s minds.
Source(s): Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck (Affiliate link)
The Beatles as a schema
The Beatles. How do you feel when you hear “Imagine”? What does the band mean to you? And what does the band mean to millions (billions?) of people around the world?
No doubt The Beatles would mean something slightly different to each of us. Some of their songs might resonate with you particularly strongly, or you associate them with specific events in your life. In a sense, our Beatles experience is very personal. However, if we asked a sufficient number of people, I bet a pattern of shared meaning would start to emerge. In psychology, The Beatles could be classified as a “schema”, defined as a collection of generic properties of a concept or category. “The Beatles” schema exists in people’s minds, and is very rich and emotional. To many, The Beatles symbolize a revolution, youth, mass appeal, timelessness, originality, passion… I could continue on and on, you get the point. But why is thinking about The Beatles as a schema so interesting?
Seeing what’s already there
The beauty of a schema (particularly a widespread one, like the Beatles) is that it’s already there, in people’s minds. Showing a photo of John, Paul, George and Ringo is enough to trigger all the associations, stories, experiences and emotions one connects with the band. In showing one picture, we can communicate an entire book worth of “The Beatles” meaning. Isn’t that fascinating?
Now the fun begins. How do we take advantage of existing schemas in our communication? Let’s look at Apple’s answer. Huge poster, covering an entire facade on a busy London Street. The four Beatles on white background, small Apple logo, “Now on iTunes” copy. That’s it. Simple, yet extremely powerful. What Apple did here was a masterful example of leveraging an existing schema. The poster is a bridge, meant to create a mental link between The Beatles and Apple. The Beatles are now on iTunes, The Beatles are now part of Apple. Seeing the poster, some of the meaning we have associated with The Beatles spills over to the Apple brand. Apple is subtly communicating that they are like The Beatles, only in the world of technology – symbols of a revolution, youth, mass appeal, timelessness, originality and passion… In a time when even grandmas use iPads, not many schemas could have served Apple better in communicating that the brand is still cool despite its popularity. Apple was able to identify that “The Beatles” schema in people’s minds is very similar to what they would like to communicate about themselves (the desired “Apple” schema), and the only thing that needs to be done is build a mental link between the two.
Leveraging schemas in communication is nothing new. Far from it. My favourite example is in fact ancient, and can be seen in the British Museum collection. After the Kushites (modern day Sudan) conquered Egypt around 700 BC, their leaders needed to communicate to the Egyptian nation that they are now the new rulers. Rather than reinventing the wheel, the Kushites took advantage of existing schemas related to government that were created under previous Egyptian Pharaohs. They kept the basic institutions and related symbols, and merely adjusted them to the new reality. To create a mental link between the concept of a ruler and Kushites, they would communicate using objects such as the Sphinx of Taharqo. The Sphinx, a traditional Egyptian icon, has the face of a Sudanese man. In a simple object, they were able to communicate that they are like the old Egyptian rulers, only they are Kushites. Everyone who saw the Sphinx of Taharqo knew immediately not only who the new rulers are, but also how the system of government would work from now on. Genius.