Priming: A powerful yet invisible tool for online marketing

By Ari Vivekanandarajah / June 15, 2020
Priming

Have you ever played the game ‘Family feud’? 

It’s quite simple. All you’re supposed to do is come up with words that are associated with survey questions. There’s this one question I remember quite well – “What would you find at the North Pole?” 

The first thing that popped into my head was Santa Claus and unsurprisingly enough, the contestant shouted “Santa Claus, Steve. I say, Santa Claus,” with plenty of enthusiasm.

That answer happened to be the most popular one, followed by elves, snow, reindeer, and Santa’s sleigh. 

This phenomenon of thinking or remembering something that’s associated with another word or phrase is called priming. This is a phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus influences how a person responds to a subsequent, related stimulus. These stimuli are often conceptually related words or images. This is a complete manipulation of how memory works in human cognition. 

Did you know that it is also an invisible and incredibly effective tool in a marketer’s arsenal of tricks?

Using the subtle art of priming for marketing

Many companies use priming in their marketing and advertising and what I’ve seen is that the tiniest detail can lead to positive effects. Colour, logo or typology, in fact, help you achieve desired outcomes. 

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. If you add pictures, this is a use of positive priming that elicits emotions of happiness. This is because smiles prime the visitor with positive associations, which may end up increasing your sales.

Take, for example, the basket displayed on H&M’s online store. It doesn’t really look like a basket and is more like a real-life shopping bag, which may evoke memories of you going shopping.

  • The use of colours

The use of specific colours that are associated with positive and powerful emotions is a good way to drive decision-making as well. 

Green, for example, is often associated with health and nature. Trying to be healthy? You would probably be more attracted to a green food package. Red is full of passion and power, which may evoke more expressive feelings (anger or love). Blue tends to calm you down and yellow makes you happy.

Take Woolworths, for example. To me, their brand colours evoke feelings of health, freshness, and nature.

  • Brand identity

The most important element of your brand, in the minds of your customers, is its connections. The idea of the brand is connected with other ideas, feelings, and experiences. 

For example, McDonald’s’ big, yellow M might be quite present in our minds. Whether we’re driving home or feeling lost in a new city, when we see this M shine, our brain activates associations. Soon after, a juicy burger, coke or ice cream will pop into mind and make our mouths water. 

This is an example of positive priming. The association of good memories from your past may drive your decision to take the exit directed to the drive-through.

Another perfect example of the power of priming in a brand logo, which was demonstrated in a fun research project, is Red Bull

Researchers aimed to influence driving style during a computer game. They did this by creating two different types of cars: One group of vehicles displayed the Red Bull logo and the other, the logo of either Guinness or Tropicana. 

Researchers found that when people drove the Red Bull car, they indeed got wings! They drove fast, powerfully and more aggressively compared to people in the other vehicles. People took more risks and were unaware of their driving style in the Red Bull car. 

  • Persuasion

Using persuasion, you can guide someone’s attention and get their agreement with a message before they experience anything. There is an entire school of thought built on ‘persuasion marketing,’ which applies to the techniques that are used to act on a customer’s impulsive behaviour to lead them to make purchase decisions.

A perfect example of this is Coca-Cola. Their brand identity revolves around the feeling of happiness, which is persuasive and positive. Even its slogan basically says that you will be happy if you open a coke. 

Priming is akin to influencing

The concept of priming is very powerful and it has been known to change how we perceive images, sounds, morality, and even other people. If you’ve ever watched a scary movie late at night, it can amplify the noises you typically hear in your home, making them feel far more terrifying than they actually are.

This works according to a principle called associative activation. Associative activation describes how exposure to one idea automatically activates other associated ideas. This is an in-built phenomenon in our mind that prompts the perception of a pair of events that occur as a cause and its effect.

Priming is actually valuable for survival because it has the power to get you ready for future events that are most likely to happen. This way, we prepare ourselves for possible actions we need to take. From a neuromarketing perspective, ‘primes’ are supposed to influence immediate choices. It’s a key mechanism, deeply rooted in the brain. In all forms, it impacts your customer’s attitude and the behaviour that follows.

According to years of psychological research, psychologists have identified multiple types of priming, each with their distinct use. 

These include:

  • Conceptual priming

Conceptual priming means that the activation of a concept activates similar items in different parts of the brain. The similarity between the first item and the items that are activated, subsequently, may be based on one or different categories of things.

For example, reading the word banana may result in faster recognition of the word mango because they belong to the same conceptual category.

  • Repetitive priming

This is the repeated use of a stimulus to trigger behaviour. You see this every day when you respond to notifications on your phone. A number and icon appear, and your brain is primed to believe something important is waiting for you.

  • Semantic priming

In this type of priming, both stimuli share similar features, such as the words cat and lion, as both animals belong to the cat family. When we think of a single word from a category, related items are brought to mind. Semantic priming, as a trigger, happens and fades rapidly.

  • Kindness priming

In this process, individuals exposed to a kind or generous act are more likely to elicit a positive response. If you recall brand promotions, you tend to remember how they always revolve around a free giveaway of some sort, only asking the user to perform a simple action. This is a perfect example of kindness priming.

  • Positive and negative priming

Positive priming focusses on processing speed and reaction time. Exposure to positivity speeds up the processing speed and the opposite is true for negative priming.

A perfect example of positive priming is smelling bread near a bakery, because this stimulus usually leads to positive behaviour, which is the act of purchasing the bread.

Be aware of negative priming

Priming can have negative effects too and is known, simply, as negative priming. 

Think about it: If you ask a customer to sign up with their email and send them an email telling them you’re not going to spam them, all you’re doing is priming them to think about spam. That should be the last word that should be associated with your business.

Take Adidas slogans for example. Unlike their prime competitor, Nike, who sports the ‘Just do it’ slogan, which conveys the spirit of motivation, Adidas slogan has two words that have negative connotations, ‘impossible’ and ‘nothing’. As a whole, it doesn’t drive the same values as Nike.

Your brand, product, services or business should strive to facilitate expected behaviours. No matter how unique or niche your market is, there are expected actions you want your customer to make. So use priming strategies to evoke these expectations rather than driving them away.

With priming, the more thought to details, the better!

Priming is a powerful marketing tool. That being said, using it the wrong way can lead to irreparable damage, especially when it comes to branding. Make sure you use priming as a tool in your efforts but prime lightly.

If you’re trying to make use of priming in your marketing, think about the small details. They could be the difference between someone buying your highest-value product and bouncing from your page.

At Hype Insight, our goal is to help you create positive associations with your brand. We are passionate about conveying values of strength, accomplishment, and success. So, as we’re in the habit of saying, ‘Are you ready to outpace your competition?


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