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 intentions, the first item that is presented affects how we respond to the second.
The complexity of priming asks for a better explanation of the brain mechanisms it relies on. We know that the subconscious mind plays a huge role in our daily life. The subconscious mind, System 1, overrides the conscious and logical System 2 most of the time. When you want to change your customer’s behaviour, it's System 1 you must focus on. And priming is a perfect way to do so.
For this it is crucial to understand how to apply this technique. Whether it is in your marketing strategy or in advertising. Let's start with explaining how this mechanism works in our brain and 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 or personal experiences, smells, and sounds are present in our mind too. We also can remember more abstract concepts, all the people we know, and we remember the many skills we have acquired. Most of the skills we can do automatically. For example, we are able to drive home from work without conscious thinking and deliberation about with exit to 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 neither possible nor necessary to process and remember everything we experience. Not all information will be stored in our long-term memory, where it will be available forever. So, we have two memory systems, the short-term memory, or working memory, and the long-term memory.
Everything we are exposed to in our environment is held shortly in our short-term memory. The short-term memory is limited and very brief. If the information is not 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. By manipulating this information we can store it in our long-term memory. In that case we can use it in complex decision-making processes and learning.
The working memory and the 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.
The long-term memory has an unlimited capacity. It 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. Unfortunately, the long-term memory is constructed a little more complex than this.
It is divided into two different systems. We have both conscious (explicit) and subconscious (implicit) memory. The conscious memory includes our knowledge of facts, 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.
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 holds that every concept has its own neuron or cell. This theory is 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 spreaded 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 as a cause and its effect. It is valuable for survival; you’ll get ready for future events that are most likely to happen. This way we prepare ourselves for possible actions we need to take.
Associative activation occurs through the amplification of connections in our long-term memory. This quickly results in large areas of memory being ready to understand, act, and respond to. This triggers physical responses, and defines the following behaviour.
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 last year may lead to visiting your grandmother if she was present last year.
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. Priming is a key mechanism, deeply rooted in the brain. In all forms it 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. Or on concepts, 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 event subconsciously influences the next one. Exposure to an event eases the activation of associated concepts in the mind. Let's give you an impression of priming in marketing and goal-directed behaviour.
Conceptual priming means that the activation of a 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.
Semantic priming focuses on the similar features of the concepts. Thinking about a 'dove' will activate the concept ‘seagull’ quicker. Perceptual priming shows overlap, but focusses more on similarities in format or modality.
Positive and negative priming
Positive priming 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.
You will notice more positivity when you are exposed to an act of kindness. So, if you receive a free drink, you will experience everything more positive. That happens because kindness activates related positive words and thoughts in our memory. Experiencing this will also limit the activation of 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 smiles prime the visitor with positive associations, which increases your sales.
The use of specific colours, that are associated with emotions and actions, is a good way to drive decision-making 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 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 are 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 presented in the memory of most of us. Driving home or feeling lost in a new city, when we see this M shine, 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 a 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.
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. These are a few examples out of the pre-suasion communication list. But you can also apply this knowledge to online marketing. Do you want to learn how? Have a look at our Brain & Behaviour Crash Course.