The Subtlety of Priming: Consumer Behavior for Your Sales and Marketing Strategies

The Priming Effect in Sales and Marketing

The subtle art of influencing consumer choices: Use the Priming effect for Sales, Marketing, and Brand Growth

Oct 2023

The Priming Effect and its Implications for Sales and Marketing

Scientific Background on the Priming Effect

Priming is where when you are exposed to a priming stimulus (often called the "prime"), your next response is influenced by said stimulus: Peanut butter!

The Priming Effect a psychological phenomenon grounded in cognitive psychology.

It refers to the effect by which a subject's exposure to a stimulus can influence the response to a subsequent, related stimulus.

This influence can manifest in various ways, such the subject being quicker to recognize or to respond to a related target or concept; or altering behavior.

The effect can be very subtle, sometimes without conscious guidance or intention, and can have a duration ranging from moments to potentially days or longer.

Essentially, priming happens whenever one piece of information activates certain pathways in our brain, that subsequently affect how we process related information.

Mechanisms Underpinning Priming

Priming works largely because of the associative networks in our brains.

Our brain contains an intricate web of associative memories, where concepts, words, and ideas are interlinked. By activating one node in this network (the prime), it can set off a chain reaction, activating other related nodes (or concepts), thus influencing subsequent thoughts or behaviors.

That activation can happen automatically and even without conscious awareness.

For example, if you read the word "doctor," you might be quicker to recognize the word "nurse" afterward.

Or, if someone says to the word "yellow," you might be quicker to recognize the word "banana" afterward, since the two concepts are interlinked in our associative memory.

So whenever one concept (the prime) is activated, it can set off a chain reaction, leading to the activation of related concepts in our memory.

Now, of course, context matters here as well, that’s why there are different types of priming techniques.

Different Types of Priming

Semantic Priming involves concepts that are related in meaning. For example, the word "doctor" might prime for the word "nurse."
The priming of words or concepts that are semantically related is perhaps the most commonly discussed type.

Perceptual Priming is based on the form of the stimulus. For example, if you see a silhouette or an partial outline of an apple, you might more quickly recognize a full drawing of an apple later on (you did think of the Apple logo, didn’t you?).
This type of priming involves our ability to recognize patterns and shapes.

Associative Priming involves the relationship between two stimuli based on past experiences.
For instance, if you frequently hear two words together, like "peanut butter" and "jelly," seeing or hearing "peanut butter" might make you think of jelly even though their meanings aren't directly related (and immediately of “peanut butter jelly time”).
So even if two words aren't semantically related, if they're often paired together, they can prime each other.

Positive and Negative Priming. Positive priming speeds up the recognition of a stimulus due to a preceding stimulus, while negative priming slows down the recognition.
For example, if a person is shown the word "green" and then given a task to identify the word "grass," they might do so faster than if they hadn't been shown the word "green" first (positive priming). Conversely, if they're slower to identify "grass" after seeing "green," it's an example of negative priming.

Applying the Priming Effect in Sales and Marketing

Priming isn't just an abstract psychological concept; it has real-world applications.

It can influence our daily decisions, behaviors, and perceptions in subtle ways. Because priming taps into the vast, interconnected network of our brain's associations, it influences our thought processes and behaviors when we are in sales and marketing situations as well.

Take luxury Brands for example. Their physical stores often have a minimalist design with plenty of open space. This primes customers to think of exclusivity and luxury, justifying the higher prices. Apple is dong something similar with their websites. Lots of whitespace and just the right amount of information creates a great user experience.

Since priming can operate subconsciously, there's a debate about the extent to which consumers are being manipulated without their awareness or consent. We marketers and salespeople should Be aware of the power that using the priming effect comes with, use it responsibly to get our customers what they genuinely want and avoid any deceptive practices.

Priming in Marketing

In the context of marketing, priming can be a powerful tool to shape consumer perceptions and behaviors.

Advertisement Sequencing

The order in which advertisements are presented can influence a viewer's reception. Advertisers often sequence ads in a way that the first advertisement primes the viewer for the second. An ad evoking positive emotions can make the viewer more receptive to a subsequent product-focused ad from the same brand. For example, a brand may first run an ad that evokes strong emotions (like happiness or nostalgia), and then follow it with an ad that highlights the product. The viewer, already in an emotional state from the first ad, might then associate those feelings with the product in the second ad.

Desing and Ambiance

Colors and designs can evoke specific emotions or associations. For instance, green might be associated with nature or environmental friendliness. Brands that wish to position themselves as eco-friendly might use green in their branding to prime consumers to think of them as environmentally conscious.

Background music in stores or restaurants can prime customers. Classical music played while choosing wine for example might prime thoughts of sophistication and justify higher prices.

Product Descriptions and Language

The language used in marketing materials can prime consumers. Words like "luxurious" or "artisan" can prime consumers to think of a product as high-quality or handcrafted, even if they have no other information about it.

Priming in Sales

Priming can be leveraged in sales to influence purchase decisions, too.

Sales Pitches and Conversations

During sales pitches a sales representative might start a conversation by discussing a widely accepted fact or a common pain point. This primes the customer to be in agreement, making it easier to introduce a product or service as a solution.

Priming in sales is predisposing a potential buyer to be more receptive to the sales pitch or more inclined to make a purchase – all without making direct comparisons or setting explicit reference points (these are other cognitive biases).

Case of a Priming Strategy in Sales

A salesperson is trying to sell an exclusive membership service that offers members unique networking opportunities, expert workshops, and access to private events.

A “pure priming strategy” would look like this:

  • Storytelling: Before diving into the specifics of the membership or its price, the salesperson shares a story of a past member who, through the networking opportunities provided by the service, met a business partner and together they launched a successful startup.
  • Descriptive Language: The salesperson uses words like "elite," "select group," and "exclusive access" throughout the conversation, emphasizing the exclusivity and prestige of the membership.
  • Emotional Appeal: The salesperson discusses the feelings of empowerment, confidence, and opportunity that come with being part of such an exclusive group.

By the time the salesperson introduces the price of the membership, the potential buyer (if, that is, he or she is receptive to these kinds of things!) has been primed to perceive it as a gateway to unique opportunities, success, and prestige. The storytelling, language, and emotional appeal have all set a backdrop that makes the membership seem highly desirable. The potential buyer is now more inclined to see the price as an investment in unparalleled opportunities rather than a mere cost.

This beautifully exemplifies how marketing and sales beautifully come together to create a symphony. No salesperson would usually craft such a beautiful orchestrated.

Customer Journey and Buyer Journey Store Layout and Product Placement

Retailers often design store layouts to prime customers. Retail environments guide customers through a specific journey their customers should take. For instance, supermarkets might place fresh flowers or baked goods near entrances, priming shoppers with thoughts of freshness and quality.

You find similar designed buyer journeys in the digital realm as well.

Pricing Strategies

Priming regarding Pricing Strategies usually is the anchoring effect. So you really have to ask when is it a anchoring effect/strategy and when a priming effect/strategy?

  • Showing a higher "original" price that is then slashed to a "sale" price? Anchoring effect.
  • A higher-priced item is shown first to set an expectation. And then a lower-priced item is shown afterward? A combination of anchoring and priming.

Examples for both are discussed in the appendix.

Priming in a Customer-Centric Growth Strategy

A customer-centric growth strategy places the customer at the heart of all business decisions. Priming, in this context, is about creating positive, seamless experiences that lead to increased loyalty and advocacy.

Four your onboarding processes priming entails that when a new customer starts using a product or service, their initial experiences can prime their overall perception of the brand. A smooth, intuitive onboarding can prime users to view the brand as user-friendly and reliable.

Positive interactions with customer service during their customer lifecycle can prime customers to have a favorable view of the brand, even if they initially reached out with a complaint. This can lead to increased loyalty and positive word-of-mouth.

By leveraging data to help your customers get the best out of your product i.e., their job done, or by creating personalized shopping or user experiences, brands can prime customers to feel valued and understood and getting their job done, thus deepening the relationship.

Websites can prime visitors through the use of specific colors, images, or words. For example, a website selling outdoor equipment might use images of adventurous activities to prime visitors to think about adventure, pushing them towards finally getting into nature and away from their computer.

Priming Scenario: A Launch Strategy Using Priming

You want to introduce a new premium coffee. Although you are already a well-known coffee brand you launch it as a new label of premium blend of coffee sourced from exclusive farms around the world. You want to ensure that when your customers see the price of this new blend, they perceive it as fair and reflective of its premium quality.

Priming for Pre-launch

  1. Educational Campaign: Before introducing the price or even the product itself, the brand starts an educational campaign. Through a series of blog posts, videos, and social media content, they discuss the unique attributes of premium coffee. They delve into the art of coffee cultivation, the rarity of certain beans, and the meticulous process that goes into creating a premium blend.
  2. Customer Testimonials: They share testimonials and interviews with coffee connoisseurs who talk about their experiences savoring premium blends and how it's a completely different experience from regular coffee.
  3. Imagery: The brand uses high-quality, evocative imagery — lush coffee plantations, close-ups of coffee beans glistening with natural oils, and artisans at work. This imagery subtly conveys the richness and exclusivity of premium coffee.

Product Launch

A few weeks into the educational campaign, the brand finally introduces its new premium blend. By now, customers have been primed to understand and appreciate the intricacies of premium coffee.

Result of the Priming Effect

When the price is revealed, which is higher than the brand's regular blends, customers are less likely to experience sticker shock. Instead, having been primed with the knowledge of what goes into making such a blend, they are more likely to perceive the price as justified and reflective of the product's superior quality.

In this scenario, the brand doesn't set a direct price anchor or reference point. Instead, they use priming to predispose customers to view the product (and its price) in a certain light. The educational content and imagery create an atmosphere of exclusivity and quality, ensuring that when the product is finally introduced, customers are already in the right mindset to appreciate its value.


Priming, as a cognitive tool, has vast applications across marketing, sales, and customer-centric strategies. By understanding and harnessing the power of priming, businesses can subtly influence perceptions and behaviors in ways that foster growth and strengthen customer relationships.

The priming effect is a powerful tool in sales and marketing. By understanding the psychology behind it, marketers can craft strategies that resonate with consumers on a deeper level. However, with this power comes the responsibility to use it ethically, ensuring that consumers are treated fairly and with respect.

Learn more about other cognitive biases and understand why we buy

Understanding the distinction between anchoring and priming within the realm of pricing strategies

Scenario 1: Showing a higher "original" price that is then slashed to a "sale" price.

In this scenario, the "original" price serves as a reference point against which the "sale" price is compared. The very act of presenting the original price first establishes a cognitive benchmark. When the sale price is subsequently introduced, it's instinctively evaluated in relation to the original price.

This is an example of the anchoring effect/strategy. The "original" price anchors the consumer's perception of value, making the "sale" price seem more attractive in direct comparison.

Scenario 2: A higher-priced item is shown first to set an expectation. When a lower-priced item is shown afterward, it appears to be a better deal in comparison.

Here, the introduction of the higher-priced item is intended to shape subsequent perceptions. When the lower-priced item is presented, it's not just evaluated on its own merits but in relation to the previously seen higher-priced item. This situation might also involve some priming, as the presentation of the higher-priced item primes consumers to expect certain price ranges or value propositions.

This scenario primarily demonstrates the anchoring effect/strategy because the higher-priced item serves as the anchor or reference point. However, there's also an element of priming involved because the introduction of the higher-priced item can prime or predispose consumers to perceive the value of products within that price range differently.

In Summary

  • Anchoring predominantly deals with setting a reference point (usually the first piece of information provided) that influences subsequent evaluations or decisions. Both scenarios you provided have elements of anchoring, as in each case, a price is presented first to influence perceptions of subsequent prices.
  • Priming, on the other hand, is more about predisposing an individual to think or feel a certain way based on prior exposure to a stimulus. In the context of pricing, priming might involve creating an atmosphere or setting that subtly guides perceptions of value or quality before any specific price is presented.

While the two effects can sometimes overlap, especially in nuanced marketing strategies, understanding the distinction and knowing when to leverage each can be crucial for influencing consumer behavior effectively.

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