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Priming and Marketing: Why It Matters and How It Can Help Your Campaigns

10 March 2017
Piccadilly Circus at night | Priming and Marketing: Why It Matters and How It Can Help Your Campaigns | Neon

Understanding how people process information is a really important aspect of crafting marketing communications in their various forms. Knowing how long people will be willing to sit through a video, how much copy they can read in a glance and getting the balance right between colourful and palatable imagery are all key to any campaign. In this article, we look at how this can be done.

What Is Priming?

Priming is defined by Psychology Today as:

…a nonconscious form of human memory concerned with perceptual identification of words and objects. It refers to activating particular representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task.

This concept should be relatively familiar to marketers as it is the basis upon which branding also works by forging a connection in the mind of the consumer that leads to an unconscious association based on stimuli or schema.

A famous example of priming from the field of psychology is the Stroop Effect. The basic elements of the experiment are replicated below, as people were asked to read out the colours of the following excerpts of text.

Diagram showing the Stroop effect in action | Priming and Marketing: Why It Matters and How It Can Help Your Campaigns | Neon

You will notice that it takes longer to read the colours of the words on the first line, which is down to the priming effect of seeing a written word incongruent with the information that you are asked to relay. The words on the second line have less of a clash with the colours, making it easier to read them out.

Although this example is fairly simplistic it serves to represent how priming can affect the congruence of the information presented to an individual. If a stimulus is at odds with an existing understanding of a given schema, it will take longer to understand.

Why Should Priming Matter To Marketers?

The effect of priming on consumer behaviour has been explored before, notably by playing German or French music to influence a consumer’s choice of wine. However, in terms of how it may affect a consumer’s reaction to advertising, there is relatively little research as most of the focus has been on how consumers can be primed rather than existing beliefs or biases that they may hold.

The crux of the issue of priming for marketing is that if a consumer has a predetermined idea relating to a campaign it may influence their reaction towards it. This sounds like a simple enough idea but as shall be examined later in this blog, it is not always considered when putting together an ad. A model of advertising and how it relates to a consumer’s attention was proposed by Thales Teixeira of the Harvard Business School in 2014 which reads as follows:

Thales Teixeira of the Harvard Business School in 2014 | Priming and Marketing: Why It Matters and How It Can Help Your Campaigns | Neon

In accordance with this model, if the ad content is not understood (for whatever reason) it will not be given the required attention needed to persuade the individual to purchase or improve the perception of the brand.

One area in which marketing confounds the idea of priming is known as the mere-exposure effect, which is often referred to in social psychology as the familiarity principle. If someone is exposed to a stimulus enough times they will naturally develop an affinity towards it albeit with the caveat the over exposure can have an adverse effect. Nonetheless, with consumers exposed to so many brands, building a niche shouldn’t rely on this method and should only be viewed as a by-product of an effective long-term campaign.

What Problems Does Priming Create For Marketers?

When creating any new campaign the dilemma that many marketers find themselves in is whether to create something that breaks free from the conventions of the medium or sticks to the tried and tested formula – the classic stick or twist. Creating a campaign at odds with traditional schema and tropes may be a good way to stand out, but going too far could upset the applecart.

A good example of this problem came with adverts produced by two heavy-hitters from the fast-food industry. KFC produced an advert which aimed to inform its customers of the positive welfare and good condition it claims to oversee for its chickens; however, the ad was panned as it broke one of the golden rules of advertising by showing the animal alive.

Now, the content of the ad isn’t that terrible – KFC is trying to address a real issue and show its consumers that it doesn’t add anything to the core ingredient of its menu. The more cynical among you will even stress that the idea of being uncomfortable with seeing an animal you would otherwise happily eat is rather puerile, but the point concerning priming is that reasoning doesn’t matter. If people are not used to something, they will inherently treat it with incredulity.

McDonald’s has run a similar campaign called “Good To Know” over the last few years, but it doesn’t elicit the same feeling of discomfort as KFC’s does.

Both ads are formatted in a fairly similar way; a single issue reinforced throughout the ad – albeit in different ways – with the take home that the meat has no additives. KFC’s advert suffers for the fact that it breaks one of the unwritten rules and breaks away from the normal schema associated with food advertising.

It is easy to see how such an advert could be pitched and sold as innovative and distinct, but reality bites and the point of understanding priming is that breaking free from the confines of schema is not always advisable. This isn’t to say that work should be formulaic and repetitive but rather that schemas exist for a reason and that it pays to know what aspects you can look to change and which should be kept the same. Part of the issue is that “innovation” has become a byword for improvement where in fact the emphasis should not be placed on mindless modernisation of old hat tropes and standards.

Another instance of a widely popularised ad failure from the last year is Pepsi’s ill-advised jaunt into activism. It’s far from my job to flog a dead horse, but this ad screamed of a fundamental ignorance towards the logic behind priming. At a time of social division and unrest from both sides of the political spectrum, many people were acutely aware of the reality of protesting and the harsh realities of the issues being addressed, namely institutional racism and social inequality to call out just two.

To then throw in an overly saccharine advert in which these issues are glossed over and dressed up with nitid celebrities is to completely misunderstand why they exist. A lay understanding of priming would tell you that people are unlikely to respond well to an advert that deigns to glamorise serious societal problems given the level of media coverage on the matter. This isn’t to say that if American society were somewhat more sedate the advert would have worked but that recognising how people become primed by the media around them will invariably affect their future bias and opinion.

By understanding how priming works and looking at successful (and unsuccessful) campaigns from the past, you will be able to decipher how to properly build a campaign in terms of medium, content and style.

How To Apply Priming To Your Campaigns

One viable explanation for misfiring campaigns often harks back to the old adage of too many cooks spoiling the broth. This is understandable as accounting for agencies, clients and subcontractors, input can come from a number of sources with the result being a distinctly different output from the initial campaign pitch.

The best way to assess common tropes used in other marketing campaigns similar to the one you are looking to put together is with thematic analysis. Traditionally a means of analysing qualitative data, thematic analysis will enable you to pick out certain recurring themes. Thematic analysis does what it says on the tin – it uses coding (the interpretation and categorisation of data) to comb through text and images to pick out recurring themes. There are several types of coding to be aware of before starting, and building part of each strand into your process will help give a comprehensive insight into the common working of marketing campaigns in your industry. The different types of coding are:

  • In vivo coding – The basic coding of images and words used in the campaign.
  • Process coding – Coding of action words (those ending in -ing) to look for recurrent emotions, processes and practices.
  • Versus coding – Coding the contrasting actions, organisations or groups to identify conflict.
  • Values coding – Arguably the most important from a branding perspective. Coding the implicit or explicit values demonstrated in the campaign.

It is also worth considering that codes can be prescribed before entering the process or can be realised whilst coding. Neither is right or wrong, but it often helps get the ball rolling by having a few ideas around expected dialogue or imagery before starting. The process should be flexible though, and these ideas can always be discarded if it is felt that more important themes arise during the coding. There are a number of guides and textbooks available online that go into more detail on thematic analysis, the best of which are listed below:

By conducting this process on a number of different campaigns, you will start to see recurring and divergent themes across the industry. From here you will be able to decide which schema should remain in accordance with the readily-primed demographic and which facets can be changed in order to differentiate your brand.

Giving this task to members of your company who aren’t involved in the production of the campaign and who aren’t in the marketing team is also a good idea as they are less likely to hold any biases. Recognising that priming exists as a concept outside of the realm of marketing is also important to this process and one of the major reasons that trial and error will always exist to a certain degree in the field.


In summary, understanding priming isn’t the magic fix-all for any campaign as you still have to put in the competitor research (as well as obviously coming up with a good campaign yourself). However, understanding how this process works can empower you to do better competitor research and break down which part of their campaigns worked, which parts didn’t and how you can make yours stand out.

Do you need any help with your company’s search and content strategy? Why not get in touch with one of our specialists to offer a hand! Contact us here.

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