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Priming: an invisible power tool for online marketing

Subconsciousness. You’ve without doubt seen this word pass by a few times in our blog. That is not a coincidence. Why? The subconscious brain plays a huge role in our daily life and neuromarketing. From the moment we learn to walk, start driving our first car or develop a hobby. At some point, we own these skills naturally and without thinking. A little brother of subconsciousness is priming, a phenomenon related to learning and our memory. Priming enables us to recognise information that we have been exposed to subconsciously. That means that exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another stimulus. For psychologists, priming is a Valhalla for research. It’s mysterious, complex, and impacts a significant part of our behaviour. In this blog, we will describe the basics of priming and how you can use it for online marketing.
Priming and pasta
Thinking about Italy makes you crave a plate of pasta

A pile of associations

When we mentioned that priming plays a massive role in our everyday lives, we were not exaggerating. 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. 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 doc. Even after reading this article, you might recognise prime numbers faster. How do psychologists explain this? Human memory is pretty amazing. We are not only able to memorise words. Also, things like feelings, smells and sounds are present in our mind. Like thinking, we have both conscious and nonconscious memory. The latter is called implicit memory and plays a significant role in—surprise—priming. Our implicit memory is programmed in such a way that it links and associates everything we store in it. If your friend is talking about posing next to the Tower of Pisa, your memory activates associations. Words like the sun, ancient buildings and—drumroll— the pasta will show up. This automatic activation of related words and thoughts results in priming. Without us noticing, it affects our behaviour or reactions to other stimuli.

Different types of priming

There are different types of priming. We will mention three types here to give you an impression of its complexity:
  • Conceptual priming: the meaning of the stimulus activates associated memories in semantic tasks. Reading the word banana results in faster recognition of the word mango compared to chair. That happens because they belong to the same category (fruit).
    Priming and kindness
    An act of kindness activates positive associations in our memory
  • Positive priming: being exposed to certain stimuli makes a particular response to second stimuli more likely to happen. Remember that we talked about smelling bread in the bakery leads to a higher chance of buying it? Yes, this is a perfect example of positive priming.
  • Kindness priming: when being exposed to an act of kindness, you will notice more of the positive features of your environment. 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.
As you can see, there are different types of priming, but sometimes they overlap each other. The main idea for all kinds of priming is the same: one particular event or stimuli subconsciously influences another.


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 writes 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? Have a look at Cialdini’s tools.

Priming consumers

It will not be a surprise that a lot of commercial companies use priming for marketing. An effect can already be reached with the smallest detail. You can use colour, your brand logo and typology to achieve this effect. Because everyone is a consumer at some point (yes, you included!), we all are primed when buying a product. For example, McDonalds’ big yellow M is without a doubt present in the memory of most people. When we see it shining somewhere, our brain activates associations. A tasty burger, coke or ice-cream will pop up. For some of us, McDonald’s wins and we start driving towards it to get stuffed. Besides unhealthy behaviour, priming can also result in more healthy decisions. A green food package is associated with healthy and natural food. Health freaks will buy it more often. Do you own a liquor store and do you want to increase the sales of French wine? Play some French music in the background! Research shows music can prime people. For example, restaurants can influence how fast their guests eat their meals. More upbeat music causes us to eat our dinner faster.
Red Bull and priming
Red Bull literally gives us wings!

Red Bull gives you wings?

We will further show the power of priming and a brand logo with a 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 vehicules 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 vehicules. People also 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. People are subconsciously changing their behaviour towards their brand image. So be warned: don’t put their logo on your car if you don’t want to be in a crash!

Boost your online marketing

Now that you know how other companies use priming, it’s time to put it into practice yourself. As mentioned before, there are different types of priming. If you are creative enough, the use of priming for your marketing strategy can be endless. Even the smallest detail can affect. If you own a webshop, visual priming will be your most prominent point of focus. We will give you some examples and tools on how to do this:
  • Use associative priming as a conversion booster for your webshop. You can prime your visitors using visuals that make them feel more comfortable, confident or luxurious. Example: the online basket of H&M’s webshop does not look like a basket, but a real-life shopping bag. This small detail increases the positive association with shopping, leading to more online sales.
  • 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. Have a look at the next two pictures. Which one do you think will boost the sales of a hat webshop?
Positive priming can boost your online marketing Negative priming can hurt your online marketing
  • Look out for negative priming: you can subconsciously prime someone in a positive direction, but the opposite is also possible. So, negative words or images will activate related associations in your customer’s memory. Example: offer them the possibility to sign up for a newsletter and promise that you will not send any spam. The word spam will activate negative memories and associations, with the chance of no sign up at all.

Choose wisely

When you think about it, almost every aspect of your webshop or website is related to priming. It can boost your online marketing! Specific words, colours and images will influence your visitors. That might sound a little bit overwhelming, and you can’t decide what’s best for your shop in just a day. It will take a lot of time and effort. Choose wisely and keep your brand in mind! As a result, you will optimise your content to the fullest. Do you need any help? Contact us so we can help. Combining psychological knowledge with marketing gives you the best results!

Milou Odekerken

A passion for writing combined with fascination for the brain to give you the best neuromarketing content!

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