Brand Priming

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Mentalist performing an illusion. Logos of Red Bull, Nike, McDonald's, American Express, and Apple.

The power of brands can seem mysterious; why does the mention Nike have so much more influence than a lesser-known brand? How do we manage our brands to have that power? I wonder that all the time, and you may too.

One of the reasons branding works is because of brand priming. Pairing the brand to feelings, ideas, and actions can influence consumers. This article will help you understand the nature of that influence.

When it comes to branding, subtle marketing techniques impact the way people view your company and products. Knowing ahead of time what impact different actions might have allows you to control much of the narrative.

Brand priming is about controlling your business’s image. You put out into the world how you want others to see you. Understanding the psychology behind priming helps ensure your branding efforts are successful. 


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Brand Priming Definition

What is brand priming? Brand priming the psychological impact a brand has on the future thoughts and actions of consumers.

Priming happens when the human brain connects a stimulus (like a logo) to other memories and concepts. The next time a person is exposed to the stimulus, their mind pull those memories and concepts into their thoughts quicker and more efficiently. 

Any type of stimulus can be used for priming, including a word, sound, or image. That initial exposure influences the way we respond in the immediate future.

Brand priming is when the name or logo of a brand influences a person’s immediate thoughts actions. That can help increase revenue if the primed reaction is to purchase or use the product or service.

The only way to truly understand priming and brand priming is through examples. 

Examples of Brand Priming

Below are some well-known examples of brand priming:

Red Bull

Red Bull primes feelings energy and speed.

A Boston College study looked at the impact of logos on a video racing game. The racecars were branded with different company logos. Red Bull’s logo had already primed players to have more energy and be faster if they chose that particular brand. Whether this actually worked or not, the study showed consumers felt the Red Bull logo with wings could actually “give them wings” in the race and make them faster. 

McDonald’s

McDonald’s primes for happy feelings and pit stops.

McDonald’s marketing always includes the golden arches. People associate the emblem with happy tunes and time with family and friends. When they are out and about and need a quick bite to eat, they naturally turn to the familiar golden arches when they see them. 

Nike

Nike primes for feelings of achievement and exercise.

Nike uses elite athletes in their promotions and employs taglines such as “Just Do It” to indicate the athletes’ strength and perseverance. When someone undertakes a new sport or wants to get fit, they naturally think of Nike products as something that might help them achieve their goals. 

American Express

Amex primes for feelings of safety and to pay with credit.

American Express takes something we’ve already been primed to react to emotionally and uses it for their website color palette. The color blue is calming and trustworthy, so the marketers of Amex tap into the color’s psychological reaction to put new customers at ease. 


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Priming Is a Psychological Effect

A subconscious effect; we can by “primed” for feelings, thoughts, and behaviors by a stimulus.

A piece of information can affect how we take in subsequent pieces of information. The entire process works on a subconscious level. We may not even be aware we see the color red as exciting. Still, our brain registers the color and elicits the emotion on autopilot.

You also might learn to associate an object with another, such as a facemask with a pair of gloves if you frequently see people wearing both objects together. For another example, if a child finds a stuffed toy by a plate of spinach, they might associate spinach with something positive. Every time they see spinach, they think of their favorite plush.

Priming is how “mentalists” and “magicians” can seemingly control an audience’s responses. For example, mentalist Lior Suchard used priming to illicit planned reactions from the guests and audience of The Late Late Show with James Corden.


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Types of Priming in Psychology

All the types of priming are:

  • Positive / Negative priming
  • Perceptual /Conceptual priming
  • Repetition
  • Semantic
  • Associative priming
  • Response priming
  • Masked priming
  • Kindness priming
  • Affective priming
  • Cultural priming
  • Anti-priming

The ones that marketers and brand managers need to understand are Repetition Priming and Semantic Priming.

Repetition Priming

Repeat concepts together, and they will be prime for each other.

Our memories are quite complex. It’s hard to fully understand why we remember some things and forget others, for example.

There are multiple theories on how we store and retrieve memories. Repeating something over and over makes the brain recall it faster. We also tie those memories to the senses.

The priming effect of repeating something is part of the reason why advertising and promotion work so well. When we are repeatedly exposed to ads, they are priming our brains to recall the brand and product. This priming makes us more likely to think of the brand the next time we need a solution to a problem or shopping for a product.

When we say “top of mind,” we are referring to the priming effect of repetition. 

Repetition priming is part of the reason we brand products with logos. We see the logos almost every time we use the product. You can probably remember jingles from commercials when you were a young child. You recall the chant because you heard the song until it stayed in your memory. 

The more you repeat a logo, saying or jingle, the more likely people will remember it and associate it with your brand. 

Semantic Priming

Say “pen” and think “paper”; Similar thoughts and ideas are primed for each other.

Dog and cat are different concepts in our minds, but they have so many features in common that they are primed to each other by association. If I say “dog,” you are more likely to think “cat” for some time.

Suppose there is a word you want to be associated with your brand, such as “endurance” for Nike. In that case, you must start using the two words together and planting the message in your target audience’s brains. 

The best way of building brand associations is by associating multiple triggers with the same idea. For example, Downy is known for softness. They use soft pastel colors on their products. They advertise the softness and show soft things in their imagery, such as fluffy towels and kittens. Everything about the brand points to the idea of soft. 


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Psychological Tests

Psychology researchers have tests for measuring the priming effect. One way to measure priming is through testing implicit memory. Do a focus group study where participants view an advertisement and then complete word stems or word fragments. These exercises can tell a lot about the associations with your product. 

When participants view the ad, you are using the brand priming theory. Your goal is to get them to associate your brand with a specific trigger. You must consistently relate your brand or product to the image you want to convey.

The brand priming effect is how well you got your message across. When you ask users to complete word stems, do they associate the desired words with your brand? What emotions does your logo or name evoke?

Knowing what words people associate with your products can help you with tweaks to your website landing pages. You should be able to improve your conversion rates by swapping a few words on your calls to action (CTAs). 

Brand Priming’s Effect on Behavior

The mention of specific brands can affect consumer behavior. In one study, researchers found the brand we interact with almost every day may have more influence on our behavior than we think. 

When you need a pick-me-up, do you think you should swing through a Starbucks drive-through and grab a coffee? Why do you automatically associate the brand with wakefulness? Do you feel a little happier when you eat a bag of Skittles? Is it because you’re tasting the rainbow and laughing over the silly commercials they put out? 

Brands impact what we buy, when we buy, and even how we feel when purchasing an item. 


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The Brand Priming Effect on Risk-Taking

Experiments prove that people take more risks after being primed with particular brands. If consumers associate the brand with audacity, they are more likely to act boldly when using the company’s products. Such behavior seems to be particularly true for financial risk-taking and those participating in both professional and recreational sports. 

Subtle Brand Priming

Less obvious branding cues may also influence behavior. For example, an ad includes images of highly attractive people. The consumer feels drawn to the people in the promotion and wants to be more like them. They subconsciously believe that using a beauty product makes them more like the people in the advertisement.

There are a million tiny clues the average person sees every day. Our brains take these in and shoot out messages to us, helping us interact with our world and the products we use.


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Why Priming Matters

Brand priming matters to your company because it shows how important every small interaction with a potential customer is. Every single aspect of your image needs to align with the associations you want users to have. Even the colors and words you choose in your marketing have an impact and stick with the person for future interactions. Be aware of your end goals, and seek out the best ways to establish the brand associations you most want. 

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Lexie Lu

Lexie is a branding enthusiast and web designer. She loves checking out local flea markets and taking her goldendoodle on hikes. Follow her on Twitter (@lexieludesigner) and check out her design blog, Design Roast

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