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Unlock the Power of Priming in Your Customer Experience

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First demonstrated in the 1970s, priming occurs when our brains call on unconscious connections in response to a stimulus (also called primes). This happens without our conscious awareness, and can effect our future behavior.

In other words, what we’re exposed to now changes our behavior later.

Priming is passive, subtle, and people aren’t aware it’s happening. And it can be activated with almost any kind of stimulus. Images, words, smells, light, sound, tasks, touch, or temperature can all unconsciously affect our choices. As long as someone has a strong, existing association with one of these stimuli, it can affect our judgment and behavior.

Consider the case of Marmite. After the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, the yeast extract got into a public price dispute with a major British grocer, Tesco. 

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

The spat with Tesco severely damaged customers’ perception of Marmite. Their reputation declined by 11.6 points, and purchase intent dropped -3.9 points.

But because of the press generated by Marmite’s public fight with Tesco, sales of Marmite increased by 61%.

Why? Because when customers heard the word “Marmite” over and over, despite the context, they were primed to buy the brand.

So when they went to the supermarket, customers were unconsciously driven to choose Marmite. Not because they were persuaded by an ad, but because the news coverage primed their subconscious minds to buy.

Controversy Concerning the Power of Priming

In any modern discussion of priming, it’s worth noting that much of the initial research in this field has recently been subject to intense scrutiny.

Specifically, the repeatability of specific studies has been called into question. However, according to some researchers, the general principle of priming has retained merit. "I still have no doubts whatsoever that in real life, behaviour priming works, despite the fact that in the old days, we didn’t study it properly relative to current standards,” said Ap Dijksterhuis, a researcher at the Radboud University.

When applying a behavioral science principle, it pays to approach applications with a skeptic’s mind. Always keep up with the latest developments in the field, and experiment with small applications before applying to large parts of your business.

6 Kinds of Environmental Primes

Because priming works with subconscious associations, it can be triggered by any number of stimuli. For example:

1. Images

Probably the most common type of priming used by marketing and advertising firms, priming with images uses visuals to create associations and trigger behavior.

For example:

  • People will behave more creatively when they’re primed with the Apple logo. When primed with the Disney logo, they’re more honest.
  • Women can be primed to feel more confident when giving a speech, if they are primed with a photo of a powerful woman, like Hillary Clinton.
  • Brand codes, like colors and logos, can be unconsciously primed. Marlboro, unable to display their real logo on their sponsored Formula 1 car, attempted to prime customers using a sneaky paint job.

When the car was in motion, this logo blurred just enough to look like the Marlboro logo. This way, Marlboro was able to prime customers and stay on the right side of the law (at least for a while).



2. Light

It turns out, there is some truth to the saying “good lamps are the best police”. In a series of three experiments, lighting conditions were shown to vastly affect people’s behavior. For example:

  • People in darkened rooms are more likely to cheat. According to one study, 61% of people in a dimly lit room cheated, but only 24% of people cheated in a brightly lit room.

3. Smell

Smell has proven to be a powerful prime that affects whether customers will buy a product, and how much they’ll pay for it.

  • Psychologists at a university in the Netherlands found that when students were primed with the smell of lemon-scented cleaner, they were more likely to clean up after themselves.
  • study conducted by researcher Alan Hirsch found that gamblers played 45% more at slot machines when the room was filled with a “pleasant smell” than when no smell was added.
  • In another study, Dr. Hisch found customers would pay $10 more for a pair of Nike tennis shoes in a flower-scented shop. 84% of the subjects also said they were more inclined to buy the sneakers in the scented room.

4. Words

In several studies, researchers found that priming with words related to credit cards or cash can have huge effects on customer behavior. For example, they found that:

  • Priming subjects with words related to credit cards can subconsciously make them focus on the benefits of a product as opposed to the costs.
  • Another study found that those primed with credit cards responded faster to the benefits of an iPhone than those primed with cash. They were also prepared to pay more for the phone ($205) than the cash prime group ($163).
  • In an additional study, people were primed with credit card concepts or cash concepts. Researchers then asked participants to choose an MP3 player. Either an expensive iPod or a Zune which was much cheaper, but had fewer features and benefits. 76% of those in the credit card prime group chose the iPod. But, only 25% of the cash prime group chose the iPod. Most of them went for the Zune.

It's worth noting that many of the "priming with words" studies have failed the repeatability test in research environments, so this is one to experiment with in the real world before rolling out. 

5. Touch and temperature

People’s behavior can even be influenced by heat, cold, texture or weight.

  • Yale study showed that holding a hot or cold beverage before an interview could change the opinions about the interviewee.
  • Another study found that the weight of objects can affect the perception of importance. Subjects were asked to answer a survey about whether various public issues should get more funding. The heavier the clipboard, the more money the person felt should be allocated to the cause. The hypothesis being that the metaphorical weight of the issue was primed by the physical weight of a clipboard.

6. Sound

Music and auditory feedback can influence our perceptions of an experience. For example, a study by Massimiliano Zampini and Charles Spence found that people think chips are fresher if a bite is accompanied by a loud and satisfying “crunch” sound (even if the chips are stale).

How to Applying Priming to Your Customer Experience

Here are 3 things to keep in mind, when applying priming to your customer experience

1. Priming must be subconscious

As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote:

“An effective prime needs to be strong enough to impact behavior, but not so strong that it enters conscious thought — the effect must remain subconscious.”

In other words, it can’t be obvious to customers that they’re being primed, or the effect doesn’t have the same power. This obviously brings some ethical considerations to bear when applying priming.

2. You can leverage unconscious and aspirational brand associations

With the proper application of priming, you can amplify existing mental associations.

For example, a restaurant chain that wants to be seen as healthier could consider adding fresh fruit as a side in all of their ads. An athletic shoe brand could pump the smell of fresh-cut grass in their stores to evoke running through sports fields in spring.

Ask yourself: What are the association we want customers to make with our brand?

Consider which primes that could stimulate these unconscious associations, and experiment with how and where to use them.

3. Priming works best in people who already care about the thing being primed

In 2016, Professor Dolores AlbarracĂ­n at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign conducted a meta-analysis of “Priming” research papers. She focused her analysis on finding smaller effects on people who already care about the thing being primed.

Albarracín found that people who want to become thinner are more likely to make healthy food choices if they are primed with “thin” words. But if the subject doesn’t care about watching their waistline, the priming effect was not nearly as strong.

Ask yourself: What goals do most of our customers share when interacting with our brand?

The Bottom Line

When considering how to prime customers, ask yourself:

  • What are the key moments in our customer journey?
  • What are the emotions we want customers to experience?
  • What are the actions we want people to take?

In these key moments, we will find the perfect opportunities to prime customers.

About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi đź‘‹ I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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