The Priming Effect & Red Bull: Why sheer presence might be - but isn't sufficient.

Priming is an effect known in psychology since quite a while. Priming means: exposure to a certain stimulus facilitates the recall of/response to a later similar stimulus. In effect, priming "brings old thoughts close to the surface of the subconscious, thus making them more accessible and more likely to be used over less accessible (and possibly more relevant) thoughts." Priming is commonly seen as a pre-activation of a "node" in memory, making its re-activation (and that of connected memory elements) more likely.

An example would be a faster recognition of bird pictures vs non-bird pictures if a person was previously exposed to the "bird" notion.
Another example is this one: when people have been exposed to words related to "elder people" they move around more slowly than people who have not been primed.

One could say, that priming is simply a warming-up of certain concepts - making them more mentally available for being processed. There's no need for thoughts or beliefs to be involved in this process. It's really simply an increased mental availability. It even works if the initial priming stimulus was not consciously perceived or if it was not completely decoded. Basically, the brain is seen as a wired machine with some wires' conductivity being selectively increased by priming.

Well, while this concept of the psyche is not very welcome in our consumer-worshiping marketing rhetoric it nevertheless seems to be true to a great extent. Mere exposure to stimuli seems to pave the way for reactions to similar stimuli later on. All this without the person's awareness or consent. This potentially raises questions about the predominant conception of branding as something that works through provision of "sense" and through persuasion. Branding professionals tend to talk about "meaningful connections" and "brand belief systems" all the time. But there seem to be a lot of powerful effects going on far beneath this level of meaning. One of which is the priming effect.

In his book "How Brands Grow" Byron Sharp makes a strong case against the notion of meaningful branding. He rather argues that branding is simply about a facilitated recognition and mental availability vs other brands. So for him it's all about differentiation, but not meaningful differentiation. The more a brand gets correctly recognized and remembered in certain consumption and purchase situtations - the better. That's it. The only kind of "relevance" the brand needs is its connectedness to the category or occasion in question. So Coke's branding should be remembered when you are thirsty - or tired/unfresh, maybe. That's it. For him, the whole "Coke = Happiness" thing would be just marketing ideology (say, b*******). I highly recommend his book. It contains further very controversial but empirically backed claims. Here's a video of a lecture given by Mr. Sharp which features some of his findings:


Well, while this whole array of views seems to make "meaning" obsolete I believe that this is not the complete picture. I really do sympathize with the whole "less conscious" processing view of the consumer; but I also think that relevance, meaning and story do have their impact, too. And by this I don't mean that there are two types of processing - an conscious and a subconscious one - although such a theory definitely exists and is widely accepted (The Theory of Central vs. Peripheral Processing - also called the Elaboration Likelihood Model). What I rather mean is that - even assumed branding is ALL about priming and sheer mental availability - we as communicators still need ways to expose people to those stimuli and to make them process them. And we need to do this in a way we can afford.

My take on "meaningful brands" and "meaningful connections with consumers" is this:
It might well be that the meaning produced by brands is not directly causing people to buy. But it probably is a way to foster awareness and perception in the mediascape - hopefully for less money spent.

Let's take an example: Indeed, I do not actually believe that people drink Red Bull because it has this whole view on man's potential capabilities etc. (It's hard to accept this because marketers want to feel sincere about what they do and they want to feel like preacher men - that simply is the modern marketing habitus.) But, even if I don't believe in the actual direct effect of such a "brand ideology" on purchase I seriously do believe in its effect on communication clout. It's a way to integrate priming cues in a well packaged, retellable(!) narrative and most of all to legitimize the sheer communicative assault on the consumer. What often is forgotten is that consumers do not want to be advertised to. "Meaning", "emotional relevance", "storytelling" (and all the other alleged b*******) are ways to legitimize the intrusion in people's lives. Yes, a brand could get there by sheer pressure of stimuli exposure but is simply not clever and quite expensive.

Another important perspective is the one of the marketer herself. I believe that the mere creation of advertising and brand content needs "meaning" as a management tool. We need "internal narratives" to come up with ideas. And we need to persuade each other to employ certain cues. This might sound irrational, but actually it is quite efficient because a certain agreed on "meaningful ideology" helps everybody to meet decisions. And honestly, meeting decisions is the greatest problem in enterprises.

To sum this all up: Meaningful narrative is a lubricant for communications - internally and externally. Yes, it might well be that communication effect is all about priming brains with brand stimuli. But meaningful narratives are a smarter way to get to these effects. What needs to be challenged though is the euphoric and exaggerated rhetoric of "brand ideologies" as having real purpose and cultural value in this world. Marketing suffers from an excessive self-idealization.

I believe that with this view I managed to mediate between the two extremes:
a) brands as the sum of priming cues simply increasing mental availability and
b) brands as meaningful ideologies playing a real role in people's lives.

Still, I will remain interested in this whole issue and try to follow up on this in upcoming posts.