Priming: an invisible power tool for online marketing

Priming: an invisible power tool for online marketing

Priming is an important phenomenon in applied neuromarketing. It is a mysterious and complex process and impacts a significant part of our behaviour. It is a process driven by the subconscious mind. Without conscious guidance or intentions, the first item that is presented affects how we respond to the second.

The complexity of priming asks for a more profound explanation of the brain mechanisms it relies on. We know that the subconscious mind plays a huge role in our daily life and is important in applied neuromarketing. The subconscious mind (System 1) overrides the conscious, and logical mind most of the time (System 2). We won’t dive too deep into these two decision-making mechanisms, but we have posted a more profound article on System 1 and System 2 earlier. If you want to change your customer’s behaviour effectively, you have to change the factors that influence the subconscious mind. And priming is a perfect way to do so.

That implies that it is crucial to understand how to apply this technique in your marketing strategy or in advertising. To optimise your content with priming in the best way possible, we will explain how this mechanism is wired in our brain and our memory.


Human memory is pretty amazing, but it is complicated as well. Psychologists have developed many different theories on how our memories are stored in our brain. We can memorise many words and compose countless different sentences. Feelings, personal experiences, smells, and sounds are represented in our mind as well. We also can remember more abstract concepts, the names of all the people we know, and we remember the many skills we have acquired during our lifetime. Most of these skills we can do automatically. For example, we are able to drive home from work without consciously thinking about which exit we must take.

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What do we remember?

We are constantly surrounded by many sensory stimuli. There are a lot of things to see, many sounds to hear, and scents to smell. It is not necessary (and not possible) to process and remember everything we experience. Not all information will be stored in our long-term memory, where it will be available forever. Therefore we have two memory systems, short-term memory, also known as working memory, and long-term memory.

Short-term memory

Everything we are exposed to in our environment is held shortly in our short-term memory. The short-term memory has a limited capacity and only holds the information very briefly. If the information is not actively rehearsed or manipulated, it will leave our memory. The short-term memory can hold up to seven items. In a way, the short-term memory serves as a buffer to extract the relevant information from the rest and manipulate it.

The working memory consciously manipulates this temporarily stored, sensory information. Manipulation occurs through rehearsal or by forming associations with prior memories. The active manipulation of environmental information enables us to store this information in our long-term memory. When the information is stored in long-term memory, we can use this information in complex decision-making processes and learning.

Long-term memory

The working memory and long-term memory are bi-directionally connected. The working memory needs information from the long-term memory to couple the new experiences to old memories.

A cabinet filled with memories

The long-term memory has an unlimited capacity and can store the information from the working memory indefinitely. You could imagine the long-term memory as a large cabinet, in which you can store everything you know in different drawers. When you remember an experience from your childhood, your brain ‘opens’ this specific drawer. However, the long-term memory is constructed a little more complex than this.

The long-term memory is divided into two different systems. We have both conscious (explicit) and subconscious (implicit) memory. The conscious long-term memory includes all our knowledge of facts and concepts, words, and personal experiences. All the skills we have acquired in our lifetime are stored in the implicit long-term memory. Priming belongs to the subconscious, implicit long-term memory too.

The grandmother-cell

Every concept we know and every skill we have acquired is stored in our long-term memory. But how and where are concepts stored in our memory? And more importantly; how do we recognise and active all concepts?

One of the first theories about the storage of concepts and semantics in our brain holds that every concept has its own neuron or cell. This theory is widely known as the ‘grandmother-cell theory’. Seeing your grandmother makes a particular neuron fire. When you see your mother, or sister, or dog, different neurons are activated. Everything you recognise and know makes its individual neuron fire. This theory turns out to be limited and problematic. Nowadays we know that our brain and memory are not constructed in this way.


Concepts are not individually represented, but built within a network. This means that when you see your grandmother, a network of many neurons fires. And when you see your mom, another combination of neurons is activated. But the network that represents your mother may have similarities to the network of your grannie. Both are women, both are family, and both have probably attended your birthday parties. These memories and concepts are all part of the two overlapping networks of neural activation. The concepts and memories are associated with each other.

A pile of associations

Priming works according to a principle, called associative activation. Associative activation describes how exposure to one idea automatically activates other, associative ideas. It depends on our built-in propensity in the mind to imagine any pair of events that occur sequentially as a cause and its effect. It is evolutionally valuable for survival; you’ll get ready for future events that are most likely to happen subsequently. This way we prepare ourselves for possible actions we need to take.

Associative activation

Associative activation occurs through the amplification of connections we find in our long-term memory. This quickly, and without deliberation, results in large areas of memory being made ready to understand, act, and properly respond. This triggers physical responses, and thus in a more complex way, defines subsequent behaviours.

Thinking about Italy makes you crave a plate of pasta

When one idea activates another, we say that the first idea primed the second. Imagine that your friend returned from a trip to Italy and told you all about it. During the chat, it’s not unusual to find yourself craving a plate of pasta. Or talking with your friends about your birthday party and the family members that attended your party last year may lead to visiting your grandmother.

Different types of priming

Research on priming has exploded and many different types and a wide range of different priming effects have been found. Waiting for your doctor’s appointment in a room painted in a calming tone of blue? That will make you more relaxed when seeing the doctor. How do psychologists explain this?

From the neuromarketing perspective, primes are supposed to influence immediate choices in the decision-making. Priming is a key mechanism, deeply rooted in the brain, which in all forms impacts your customer’s attitude and following behaviour.

Research on priming has distinguished different kinds of priming. The priming effects can be based on positive or negative stimuli, concepts or perceptions, repetition, semantics, or acts of kindness. Different types of priming show many overlapping aspects.

The main idea for all kinds of priming is the same: one particular event or stimuli subconsciously influences another, because exposure to this event or stimuli eases the activation of associated concepts in the mind. We will explain a few types here to give you an impression of this multifunctional tool in marketing and goal-directed behaviour.

Conceptual priming

Conceptual priming is based on the mechanism in the brain, that the activation of a particular concept, activates similar items in different brain areas. The similarity between the first items and the items that are activated subsequently can be based on different modalities. For example, reading the word banana results in faster recognition of the word mango, because they belong to the same conceptual category.

This type of priming is known as conceptual, or associative priming. Whereas the latter is based on the same category of concepts, semantic priming focuses on the similar features of the concepts. Thinking about a ‘dove’ will activate the concept ‘seagull’ quicker. Perceptual priming shows overlap with this, but perceptual priming is sensitive to similarities in format or exact modality of a stimulus.

Positive priming

Positive priming (and thus negative priming too) focuses on the processing speed and reaction time. Exposure to positivity speeds up the processing speed, and negativity slows it down. Being exposed to certain stimuli makes a particular response to second stimuli more likely to happen. The positive priming is thought to be caused by the act of spreading activation. This means that the very first stimulus activates a particular memory or association before taking action. Because the memory or association has been activated, when the second stimulus is presented, it takes less activation. Smelling bread in the bakery leads to a higher chance of buying it? This is a perfect example of positive priming.

Kindness priming

You will notice more of the positive features of your environment when you are exposed to an act of kindness. If you receive a free Ice Tea from a promoter on the street, you will experience everything more positive. That happens because kindness activates related positive words and thoughts in our memory. Experiencing this positivity will also increase the neural threshold to activate negative experiences in the brain.

Boost your online marketing

Many commercial companies use priming in their marketing and advertising. The smallest detail could lead to great effects. Colour, logo, or typology can help you to achieve the desired outcome. The uses of priming for your marketing strategy can be endless. In a webshop, visual priming will be your most prominent point of focus. You can prime your visitors using visuals that make them feel more comfortable, confident or luxurious. For example, the online basket of H&M’s webshop does not look like a basket, but like a real-life shopping bag. If you add pictures, use positive priming and show happiness. Because smiling people will prime the visitor with other positive associations, this can increase your sales.


The use of specific colours, that are associated with emotions and actions, is a good way to drive the decision-making of your customers as well. Green is associated with health and nature. Trying to be more healthy? You’d probably are more attracted to a green food package. Red, on the other hand, is full of passion and power, which may evoke more expressive feelings (anger, love). Blue calms you down and yellow makes you happier.

Priming and brand identity

The most important element of your brand in the mind of your customer is the connections. The idea of the brand is connected with other ideas, feelings, and experiences. People subconsciously change their behaviour towards a brand image.

For example, McDonalds’ big yellow M is present in the memory of most of us. Driving home from summer vacation, or feeling a bit lost in a new, foreign city; when we see this M shining, our brain activates associations. A tasty burger, coke, or ice-cream will pop up. It may remind us of home, or just taste of fries activates a longing and craving. This is an example of positive priming. The association with good memories drives your decision to take the exit directed to the drive-through.

The power of priming and a brand logo also shows in this fun research project on Red Bull. Researchers aimed to influence the driving style during a computer game. They did this by creating two different types of cars. One group of vehicles showed the Red Bull logo, the other the logo from Guinness or Tropicana. They found that when people drove the Red Bull car, they indeed got wings! They drove fast, powerful and aggressive compared to the people in the other vehicles. People took more risks and were unaware of their driving style in the Red Bull car. That shows that Red Bull’s brand priming is a mighty one.

Redbull literally gives you wings


Persuasion guru Robert Cialdini wrote a book about influencing, priming and communication. His book Pre-suasion explains how you can guide someone’s attention to get their agreement with a message before they experience it. Cialdini explains that numbers, background information or words can influence how someone reacts to a message. These are a few examples out of the pre-suasion communication list. You can also apply this knowledge to online marketing.

Are you interested in how you can improve your online communication with priming? Neurofied offers an intense 1-Day Applied Neuromarketing Crash Course that will teach you how to apply priming and other psychological mechanisms to your marketing, advertisements, and growth hacking strategies.

Evi Rozendal

Evi Rozendal

Combines the art of storytelling with the science of cognitive & neuropsychology


  • Wow this was such an enlightning piece to read! Being a blogger I definitely got some great tips to use for my instagram blog. Defo gonna get some positive priming going on there from now. Thanks a lot!

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