It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Priming

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Priming

December 15, 2011

Tis’ the season for eggnog, holiday parties and carefully stringing lights and tinsel. Not to mention the season for excessive and rushed shopping. In a country, and season, when thousands of retailers are competing for consumers’ time and money, how do stores stay ahead of the competition? Of course there are more obvious solutions such as increasing television advertising length and frequency, but one of the more subtle and affordable tactics is actually borrowed from the field of psychology – the act of priming.

The Truth is in the Stockings

Priming is defined as deliberately influencing one’s subconscious mind and altering their perception of reality without them consciously knowing it. More simply, it’s an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to a prior experience. In a classic example, an experiment was conducted in a Michigan shopping mall in the 70’s. Female shoppers were asked to approach a stand with an array of women’s stockings. After picking up each pair and examining it, they were asked to note the stockings’ differences and name their favorite. Each woman had no difficulty selecting her favorite and listing reasons why it was better than the rest – i.e. low shine, good texture, etc. The kicker? All the stockers were identical. But by framing the question with the words “differences” and “favorite,” the respondents’ brains were primed to find this information, even though it did not exist.

A “Green” Christmas

So how does this translate to the shopping world? Retailers everywhere, especially during the hyper-competitive holiday shopping months, are taking advantage of priming. Psychology Today in a website article entitled, “The Neuroscience of Holiday Shopping,” examines ways that companies motivate shoppers to spend more.

One tactic is that many retailers offer discounts not on the individual products they sell but on the total purchase cost. This causes shoppers to defocus from the total amount they’re spending and instead zero in on that number relative to what they would have paid, had they paid full price. Research shows that we tend to devalue things that cost less, and this devaluing may result in our actually experiencing the product as less pleasurable or satisfying. But by offering discounts on the total purchase, consumers are less likely to devalue any particular product that was a part of that purchase.

Whole Foods, Whole Priming

Fast Company recently profiled a great example of how the grocery chain, Whole Foods, utilizes priming in its article, “How Whole Foods ‘Primes’ You To Shop.” While consumers’ purchase decisions may seem random, retailers leave nothing to chance and carefully plan every detail of the consumer’s experience to maximize sales. For example, flowers, a fresh, perishable object, are placed in the front of Whole Foods stores to encourage respondents to think of freshness as soon as they enter the store – and therefore associate other products the store sells – such as produce, meat and dairy – with freshness.

Whole Foods also primes shoppers by using signs that suggest that the stores are locally produced, like farmer’s markets, with cues such as prices scrawled in chalk on black slate. The grocery chain is smart to incorporate social psychology into its business practices and to attract consumers with the subtle signs of priming instead of intrusive, in-your-face, advertisements.

Our Gift to You

At Brandtrust®, we’re in the business of positive priming, and we encourage our clients to utilize it, and other proven, psychology-grounded tactics, to resonate with their consumers. But we go to great depths to avoid other types of priming during our one-on-one Emotional Inquiry® interviews. We want to hear respondents’ authentic emotions and stories, so we avoid priming them through the meticulous way we structure our questions and by introducing topics or brand names at the right time in the conversation, when there is the least risk that they would taint the research results. We find this keeps our insights as fresh as possible!

As you enjoy your holiday season, please prime responsibly.

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