How Priming Affects Consumer Behaviour

As modern consumers of the 21st century, we are often spoilt for choice with an endless variety of products from both physical stores and online shops, so much so that it has even created what is known as the ‘consumerist culture’. Burdened with a seemingly insatiable hunger for consumer goods, we are constantly on the hunt for the newest trends, choosing to buy the newest branded bags or drool over the latest phone models instead of saving or investing for the future. Although this culture is undoubtedly fueled by the trend-setting celebrities many of us idolise in today’s society, is that really the only reason why our material desires never seem to end? 

In 2012, Dunkin’ Doughnuts initiated an interesting marketing campaign where coffee scented fragrance would be released on buses while the Dunkin’ Doughnuts jingle played on the radio. During the few months when the experiment was carried out, there was an overall 29% increase in sales (Evergreen, 2012), but for what reason? Research suggests that  consumers’ behaviour was influenced by external stimuli to make purchasing decisions, disrupting the typical 6-step rational decision making process during this experiment (see in Annex). In other words, consumers felt more compelled to buy coffee from Dunkin’ Doughnuts after associating the coffee-scented fragrance on the buses with their own memories of drinking coffee. Sandeep Datta, M.D., Ph.D. and Assistant Professor at the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School states that there is an “incredibly direct connection” from the neurons that detect smells and the part of the brain that processes information and associates it with memory (Evergreen, 2012).This is known as priming – a psychological technique in which the introduction of visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli influences people’s response to subsequent stimuli (Barney, 2019). 

For example, take a look at this sentence:

On a warm summer day, there’s nothing I love more than going for a ride.

Now, fill in the blank. Which word first comes to mind?

B _ _ E

Most likely, you would have thought of the word ‘bike’, rather than ‘bake’ or ‘blue’. The words bike and ride are associated with each other, and the scenery described best suits that association than the ones you have with bake or blue.

This is a simple example of priming (Rawlings, 2019). Priming works by using associations made in our subconscious (Barney, 2019), and is often used by businesses in marketing strategies, as they aim to shape consumers’ purchasing decisions by catering for consumers’ inherent preferences. 

There are different types of priming, but the general idea is that the introduction and exposure to a particular event will trigger or activate some associated concepts in the person’s mind, hence subconsciously affecting their subsequent actions (Rozendal, 2018). These types of priming are: 

  1. Positive priming, which accounts for how exposure to an event can impact the speed of processing, memory retrieval and the likelihood of the person responding well to the same stimuli next time. In the case of positive priming, the presence of the initial stimuli helps enable certain associations or memory, such that when the second stimuli is introduced, less activation time is needed before taking action. For example, if we see the familiar yellow M of McDonalds’ logo when driving home or feeling lost in a new city, it stimulates images of McDonald’s trademark burgers or french fries in our brains. This may remind us of home, or make us crave the taste of fries. The association with good memories of Mcdonald’s food are likely to drive your decision to enter the drive-through (Rozendal, 2018), pun intended.
  1. Semantic priming is carried out through the introduction of a stimulus that triggers the memory of other objects that share similar characteristics or properties such as its shape or colour, allowing people to respond more quickly to subsequent stimuli of similar features.

    In 1999, researchers conducted a study on the influence of in-store music on wine selections to reveal the effects of music on decision-making in a grocery store. For two weeks, stereotypically French and German music were played on alternating days and the amount of French wine versus German wine sold was measured. The numbers told an interesting story as they indicated that more French wine was sold on days when French music was playing and more German wine was sold on the days when German music was playing. (North, A. C., Hargreaves, D. J., & McKendrick, J. 1999). This example of semantic priming through auditory stimulus showed how even something as subtle as playing a particular genre of music could alter people’s preferences and suggest to their subconscious to consume a good related to that preference.  
  2. Associative priming entails the use of two stimuli that are usually associated with each other. The related pair of words, objects or events will normally be linked together in memory. Hence, introducing one of them often will prime people to react more quickly when the other one is introduced. For example, Valentine’s Day is usually associated with the colour red which represents love, so businesses like bakeries or florists often sell red-themed cakes and red roses on Valentine’s Day to attract consumers’ attention to their products.
  3. Repetition priming takes place when the repeated use of a stimulus is used to evoke the same response consistently. Over time, the use of a particular stimulus can be used to trigger specific actions and behaviour as people’s minds are primed to anticipate this stimulus, and thus respond the same way immediately. You might experience this if you set an alarm to wake up for school at the same time every day. At the set time, the familiar sound of the alarm will ring, waking you up. Eventually, you would find yourself waking up naturally at the same time on weekends, even without setting the same alarm.

    Aside from that, as a consumer, one might experience repetition priming when the same ads keep appearing on your screens, or on posters wherever you might go. For example, regular sales promotions and song advertisements for online shopping sites such as Shopee might create anticipation and a growing trend of online purchases, as consumers are gradually primed to purchase more goods after continuous exposure to the enticing ads. 

Through these methods of priming, certain memories are more easily recalled when a particular stimulus is being activated, leading to a more rapid response or action. When applied to businesses and their marketing strategies, priming methods are helpful in steering consumers towards having certain reactions or decisions, so as to influence consumer decisions and thus increase sales revenue. 

Furthermore, because priming usually has a subconscious influence on consumer behaviour, there is a grey area or risk of consumers getting manipulated in their decision-making process. Thus, there is a need to consider to what extent priming should be used, and where the line should be drawn for firms (Ford, 2013).

Nevertheless, when used with a comprehensive understanding of the needs, desires, and motivations of consumers, priming can be used as a powerful marketing tool for profit maximisation and improving brand recognition (Woo, 2018).

Gerin Lim Wen Ting, Sarah Yeo Hui En, and Yeo Hui Min Mandy (20-E1)

Tan Yi Xuan (20-A1)


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Barney, J. (n.d.). Priming in Marketing: An Advertising Psychology Tactic. Einstein Marketer.

Cherry , K. (2020, February 21). Priming and the Psychology of Memory. verywellmind.,stimulus%20or%20task%20is%20introduced.

Evergreen, I. (2012, July 24). Dunkin’ Donuts Sprays the Smell of Coffee Onto Buses to Increase Sales [Video]. Bostinno.

Ford, M. (2013, July 1). What is Priming? A Psychological Look at Priming & Consumer Behavior.

Ganesh, S. (2019, September 23). Priming and the Science behind Onboarding.

Major Factors Influencing Consumer Behavior. Clootrack. (n.d.).

North, C., A., Hargreaves, J., D., & McKendrick, J. (n.d.). The influence of in-store music on wine selections.

Rawlings, R. (2019, July 12). A Guide on the Psychology of Priming. BetterMarketing.

Rozendal, E. (2018, April 19). Priming: an invisible power tool for online marketing., H. (2018, September 28). How Priming Influences Consumer Behaviour. customerthink.,used%20to%20influence%20consumers%27%20decisions.&text=When%20used%20correctly%2C%20i.e.%20with,sales%20growth%20and%20brand%20recognition.