Using Priming in Marketing—Good Strategy or Manipulation?

Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and author of the bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, observed:

What we think of as freewill is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act—and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment—are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.

Ten years later, that statement is still true.

Gladwell was referring to a psychological phenomenon known as priming. As humans, our actions and decisions are often largely determined by input we do not even consciously categorize as having occurred at all. We are, for better or worse, highly susceptible to even the most subtle suggestions.

Behavioral Economics and Attribute Priming

Those in advertising and marketing know this better than most. Billions of dollars are spent in finely crafting content that leverages this human tendency to maximum effect. Behavioral economics—the study of how psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors affect economic decisions—indicates that attribute priming is a powerful tool for an effective marketing strategy.

What is attribute priming?

To illustrate, consider the results of a related study mentioned in a Forbes article. The designers of the study theorized that simply talking to consumers about certain attributes of a product would make those features more attractive to the consumer.

To prove their point, they approached customers in an electronics store who were looking for laptop computers. Half of the customers were asked about their memory needs, while the other half were asked about their processor-speed needs. The researchers did not recommend one product over the other. Nor did they in any way use language that would be considered as advertisement.

However, when the consumers made their purchase decisions, those who had been asked about memory needs purchased laptops with greater memory capacity than did those who were not asked about memory. Similarly, those who were asked about processor speeds purchased laptops with faster processors.

Consider a similar study, “How Attribute Quantity Influences Option Choice,” conducted by Aner Sela and Jonah Berger. The study found that the number of attributes tends to benefit certain types of options more than others and consequently has systematic effects on choice. And that it was all about pleasure. They discovered:

increasing attribute quantity equally across the choice set shifts choice toward hedonic options, regardless of whether the attributes are hedonic, utilitarian, or mixed in nature.

Marketing and Priming

What does this actually mean? It points to the fact that consumers can be inclined toward one product or brand over another by simply talking about an attribute of that product or brand.

Subtle cues in the environment—including pictures, text, and sound—can subconsciously affect how consumers react to a marketing message. Market strategists can use the power of priming effectively by exerting control over the media context in which their brand message is conveyed. They then ensure that persuasiveness of that message is enhanced.

Attribute priming is not simply providing information about product features to consumers or listing a series of facts and figures. It does not include listing benefits or advantages for the consumer, nor does it overtly offer suggestions as to purchase. Rather, it is a subtle influence that the consumer is largely unconscious of receiving.

It cannot be used as a blunt force marketing tool. But it can enhance a marketing message by engaging the consumer on an unconscious level and making purchase more likely.

Is Priming Just Trickery?

At worst, attribute priming is a manipulation of a consumer for a purpose that will negatively impact that consumer to purchase a product for which he/she has no need or prior desire.

At best, priming can be used as a way to painlessly ease a consumer into a purchase of a product or service that will be beneficial and useful.

It falls upon the market strategist to determine its ethical uses. Priming in marketing is not trickery. Rather, it involves a deep understanding of consumers. It speaks to their needs, desires, goals, and it integrates seamlessly with their environment.

For priming to work long-term, it must align with the core beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions of the consumer. Sending a message misaligned with the customer’s own value system will not lead to sales. Rather, it will turn consumers off. They may not be able to explain why, but they may develop a negative view of the brand.

Using Priming for Good

There are many benefits to using priming in marketing strategy. If used carefully and ethically, it can be effective in a wide range of uses. Either way, it shouldn’t be ignored as an element of strategy. While there is still much to learn about the complexities of the human psyche, marketing strategies at their best incorporate what science has revealed about the human mind.

By seeking to understand the needs, desires, and motivating forces behind consumer behavior, those who design marketing campaigns can use the knowledge learned to increase consumer engagement and satisfaction, ultimately driving sales growth and better brand recognition.

Photo Credit: Genista via Compfight

This post has been cited multiple times by academics, by professionals, and in journals. If you link to this post or cite it in your work, please shoot us a note to let us know or mention us on @816nyc if you promote it. We’d love to help you spread it far and wide—for free!

Management consultant and brand strategist for small teams. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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Jack Molloy
Jack Molloy
5 years ago

HI, I am doing a research paper for my senior humanities class. I have read this piece and was wondering if you could tell me what the small study involving the electronics store was so I could use it as a reference in my paper. Thank you so much this would be much appreciated.

5 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Williams

Thank you so much, this was greatly appreciated.

11 months ago

Hi Sarah, I was just wondering what the date of publication of this blog was so I am able to cite it in my essay. Many thanks Sally.