A domino tips over. Just before it hits the ground, it tips over another domino, which tips over another, which tips over another, until the last domino flips a switch illuminating a lightbulb.
Now, imagine that there are millions of lines of dominos, all capable of illuminating different lightbulbs, and you can choose exactly which lightbulbs to illuminate by tipping over the corresponding domino.
This is essentially how priming works. Only, we are not tipping over dominos to illuminate lightbulbs, we are activating ideas in the minds of our audience, which activates other ideas, which influence future behaviour.
Priming is not a new phenomenon; it is a tale as old as time. You see, essentially, all marketing is created with the hopes of influencing future buyer behaviour. We want people to buy our products, and our ads are designed to make that happen. In other words, marketers hope to successfully prime their audience’s future behaviour.
You’re subject to priming millions of times a day
Have you ever walked past a bakery, where you were met with the amazing smell of freshly baked bread, that instantly made you crave a pastry? This is an old, well-known technique to purposely diffuse the smell of freshly baked bread or pastries in front of bakeries to lure unknowing customers in. It is also an excellent example of priming.
Priming is based on the premise of associative activation: the activation of one idea subsequently activates another associated idea. The first idea can be activated by an endless list of stimuli, ranging from smells, events, and random sounds to carefully designed marketing communication. The subsequent ideas upon which behaviour is based are all associated.
The trick is that it all happens in your subconscious, the decision-making highway. Priming triggers behaviour without the interference of conscious awareness. Therefore, it has to be simple to be effective.
The priming tool box
We generally work with two main categories of priming: associative priming and motivational priming. Associative priming, as described in the bakery example above, is rather short-lived. Motivational priming however, both lasts longer and has a stronger and more persistent effect on behaviour. This makes motivational priming of keen interest to neuromarketing researchers.
The big advantage of motivational priming is that it activates goal pursuit. Triggering a goal, activates certain behaviour associated with said goal. Motivational priming is based on the same premise as associative priming but adds the element of goal pursuit, making behaviours more resilient and persistent.
The goal of many branding activities is to link the consumption of the brand to a goal. Let’s take Nike as an example: they are brilliantly linking the use of Nike products to enhancing athletic performance.
Fun fact: studies show that reading the word “banana” results in faster recognition of the word “mango”. This happens because mangoes and bananas all belong to the same conceptual category. This type of priming is referred to as conceptual priming.
How to employ priming without investing millions in neuromarketing research
Priming is impressively effective but can seem like a big task to take on for small or medium sized companies. While it takes time and expertise (/help from someone experienced in the field) to figure out which primes to use and how, the influence techniques themselves are really quite simple. Here are a few examples:
- If your product speaks to someone’s personal or selfish ambitions (this could be insurance, pension funds, banking solutions, etc.), the use of value symbols is greatly effective. Exposing your target group to symbols of currency triggers individualistic behaviours, all the way down to study participants not helping others in need and not asking for help themselves. On the other hand, if your product is usually used for gift-giving, it’s a good idea to avoid symbols of currency or mentioning money.
Fun fact: ads for Diamonds never mention price or discounts, or even investment value, as this would automatically trigger egocentric behaviour – which doesn’t work well when diamonds are mostly bought as gifts for others.
- Using influencers to promote your product can activate so-called goal contagion, where the audience adopts a goal (and subsequent behaviours) merely because they see someone else pursuing said goal.
- If your product has a high perceived price, it may help to expose your potential customer with (even random) high numbers previous to the sales pitch.
- Offering candy bars or sweets will help you sell products related to self-indulgence, such as travels and experiences.
- Do you own a bar or a restaurant and want to prompt your customers to wash their hands after visiting the bathroom? Adding even the faintest scent of cleaning products will activate the idea of staying clean, and thus prompt hygiene-related behaviour, such as washing hands.
- Need people to be focused on the positive side of things? Perform an act of kindness towards them. This not only activates positive words and thoughts in their memory, it actually limits the activation of negative experiences in the brain.