The Priming Effect.

Marketing and Psychology undoubtedly go hand in hand. Consumer behaviour, and how to influence, is a dense topic and once again we've found a tactic worth discussion: Priming.

The Priming Effect.

Introduction to Priming for Businesses.

Business is a transaction of products and services between people, therefore, it is important for businesses to understand human behaviors in order to effectively respond to their customers' needs.

The human brain is programmed to be responsive to our environment and changes as a survival mechanism to protect us from danger. For example, when we are cold, our body signals us to layer up to stay warm. When we are hungry, we feel the need to fill our stomach. The sensation that triggers these body responses is called stimuli.

Stimuli are an essential aspect for human survival. Generally, our bodies are conditioned to react to the internal and external stimuli. Likewise, businesses have been using stimuli to attract the public attention as well as stimulating the decision making process. The psychological effect of this practice is known as Priming.

Priming Definition.

Priming is a phenomenon whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.

When considering how 'priming' may apply to brands or businesses, think about the entirety of the customer journey and all of the potential interactions that your audience could (and should) have with your brand.

Customer Experience through Journey Mapping.
“Customer experience is going beyond human centered customer service to give an exceptional experience showcasing your brand and essence.”

To simplify the meaning of the concept, we came up with a set of exercises to capture the essence of priming:

Exercise 1.

Looking at the figure below, your objective is to complete the crossword puzzle by completing the missing letter of the missing word. You may write down your answer on a piece of a paper for reference.

Exercise 2.

Following the same instruction, please complete the crossword puzzle and jot down your answer.

Results & Evaluation.

After finishing the exercises, you are very likely to reach this conclusion:

  • Exercise 1: See
  • Exercise 2: Sea

Interestingly, both words share the same syllable and start with "Se" but why didn't we think of "Sea" instead of "See" in the first exercise and/or "See" vs "Sea" in the second one? In fact, given that there is no clue for the words, no guidelines for what you should be looking for, it's interesting that almost everyone trying this exercise will have landed on the same conclusions.

Referring to Exercise 1 as an example, our brain associated the missing word with the surrounding words that appeared in the crossword puzzle. Since 'touch', 'taste', and 'hear' are all linked to the human senses, we automatically connected the missing word with 'see', as it is one of the senses. In contrast, we thought of the sea for the latter exercise because it was associated with the beach, etc.

The surrounding information primed us, and through this basic example, paves the way to more profound usages. Bargh, Chen, and Burrows' (1996) found that by exposing one test group to 'slow' words and stimuli, they could influence the speed of the test subjects - showing just how susceptible humans are to external factors.

A positive note here, is that you can simply talk yourself up in the mirror with encouraging statements about your mood and capabilities even if you don't believe what you're saying. The simple act of reinforcing traits through positive affirmations can help prime your behaviour. So remember, you are focused, you are capable, you are efficient.

Priming in marketing.

In the context of doing business, we recognize that whatever the customers need, businesses supply (or at least aim to). Whilst it is true that businesses are conditioned to consumers' needs, the process is not always as linear as we think because consumers do not always know what they want.

Following this, businesses have been trying to think a step ahead in order to identify what products and/or services will serve the consumer of tomorrow; Businesses seek intelligent solutions to unidentified problems in daily life. That is when the concept of priming can be introduced, and practiced with great efficiency, in marketing.

Priming in marketing is a subconscious reaction to stimuli that influences our conscious decisions to new stimuli.

Although priming in marketing sounds relatively new, it has in-fact been practiced for many decades, as early as 1990.

Scent Marketing.

Scent marketing is an example of priming in marketing where it strategizes the use of scent as a stimulus to influence the customer's decision making process.

Remember the last time you went to the mall and were greeted by the buttery smell of popcorn across the hallway from the movie theater, suddenly, you are starting to crave it. That is the result of basic scent marketing.

Retail stores like Starbucks, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Auntie Anne's -to name a few- have been incorporating smell into their stores to create a customer perception of their brands and eventually increase sales.

Now you know why Starbucks is never running out of their overflowing coffee scent... even when they are not making coffee. It may even sound ridiculous, but American sandwich giants 'Subway' have engineered a fresh scent to pump out of their stores to drive hunger and desire for their products.

Positive vs Negative priming.

Although the priming effect is popularly used as a marketing strategy, the concept has also caused a controversy as it is often believed to be manipulating people to take actions against their will.

The priming effect does not always induce positive feelings for people to foster a positive decision making process. As much as priming helps a customer on making a purchase, it can also deters another customer.

For example, a restaurant may decide to play a French song as a priming effect to increase the sales of their cheese and wine. It may be that a particular customer has a bad memory of France, and the song will act as a negative priming and leave a bad impression on the customer: Hence, the customer may decide not to dine at the restaurant again.  

Also, if the attempts are too obvious, customers can become distrusting of a brand for trying to subconsciously force actions. No one wants to feel tricked.

So ultimately, this raises the ethical question of what behaviours you're trying to influence and whether you're following moral judgement with your own practises. Aim to make the world a better place, and your marketing actions will be less likely to be branded as deceitful.