From Subtle Cues to Strong Desires: How Brands Use Priming Effect

Shah Mohammed
13 min readSep 13, 2023

Imagine walking into a cosy café on a crisp autumn morning. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the air, and you’re greeted by the comforting sight of pastries displayed behind a glass counter. As you approach the counter to place your order, your eyes land on a chalkboard menu featuring a beautifully handwritten list of beverages. At the top, it reads, “Today’s Special: Caramel Macchiato.”

In that moment, without even realizing it, you’ve just experienced the subtle yet potent influence of the priming effect. That artfully designed chalkboard, the aroma, and the word “special” have all primed your brain to lean towards choosing the caramel macchiato, even if you originally intended to order a simple black coffee.

Welcome to the world of priming, a psychological phenomenon that shapes the choices we make every day, often without our conscious awareness.

Understanding Priming Effect

The priming effect is a psychological phenomenon that involves the activation of particular concepts or ideas in a person’s mind, which then influences their subsequent thoughts, behaviours, or decisions. It occurs when exposure to a stimulus, often subtle or indirect, triggers mental associations that shape a person’s perception or actions without conscious awareness.

The psychological basis of the priming effect lies in the brain’s ability to create and strengthen connections between related concepts or ideas. When one concept is activated, it can lead to the activation of related concepts due to the brain’s associative nature. This activation primes the individual to be more receptive to ideas, behaviours, or decisions associated with the initially activated concept.

Individuals are influenced by subconscious cues and associations because much of human cognition operates beneath the surface of conscious thought. The brain processes an immense amount of information, and to manage this load, it relies on shortcuts and automatic processes. Priming is one of these shortcuts.

For instance, if you see images of lush green forests, it might prime thoughts related to nature, tranquillity, or outdoor activities. Consequently, you might be more inclined to choose a hiking trip over a city break when presented with vacation options, even if you’re not consciously aware of the connection. This subconscious influence can significantly impact consumer behaviour, making priming a potent tool for marketers.

Priming Effect in Everyday Life

Individuals experience the priming effect in various aspects of life, often without realizing it. Here are some examples:

  1. Shopping Choices: In a grocery store, playing French music can prime shoppers with a French association. As a result, they may be more likely to purchase French wine or cheese, even if they hadn’t planned to.
  2. Restaurant Menus: Restaurants may use certain words like “homemade” or “farm-fresh” to prime diners into thinking the food is of higher quality and healthier, influencing their choices.
  3. Political Priming: Political candidates often use specific colours, symbols, or phrases to prime voters with ideas like strength, trustworthiness, or change. These cues can impact how individuals perceive and vote for a candidate.
  4. Advertising: Car commercials may show images of speed, performance, and adventure before displaying the car. This primes viewers to associate the vehicle with excitement and a sense of freedom.
  5. Online Shopping: E-commerce websites frequently use personalized recommendations to prime customers with products related to their previous purchases. This primes them to consider additional items they might want to buy.
  6. Social Interactions: In a job interview, mentioning community involvement and teamwork before discussing qualifications can prime the interviewer to view the candidate as a team player.
  7. Education: When educators introduce a new topic by discussing its real-world applications, they prime students to be more engaged and curious about the subject matter.
  8. Product Packaging: Packaging that includes images of healthy ingredients or people engaged in outdoor activities can prime consumers to perceive the product as wholesome and suitable for an active lifestyle.
  9. Environmental Cues: Walking into a cosy cafe with dim lighting and soft jazz music can prime patrons to feel relaxed and indulge in desserts and coffee.
  10. Safety Precautions: Signs displaying a wet floor or caution tape around a hazard prime individuals to be cautious and avoid accidents.

These examples demonstrate how priming can subtly influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in various contexts, making it a valuable tool for businesses and communicators looking to shape perceptions and choices.

How do Brands Leverage the Priming Effect?

Brands leverage the priming effect through various strategies and tactics to influence consumer behaviour. Here are some ways they do it:

  1. Colour and Design: Brands use specific colours, logos, and design elements in their marketing materials to prime consumers with certain emotions or associations. For example, a fast-food chain might use red and yellow to prime hunger and excitement.
  2. Slogans and Taglines: Catchy slogans and taglines are designed to prime consumers with key brand messages. When they hear or see these phrases repeatedly, they associate them with the brand and its values.
  3. Product Placement: Placing products in certain contexts or alongside other items can prime consumers to make specific choices. For instance, featuring a sports drink at a fitness centre primes customers to associate it with a healthy lifestyle.
  4. Advertising Imagery: Brands carefully select images and visuals in their advertisements to prime consumers with desired emotions or aspirations. A perfume brand, for example, may use images of romance and luxury to prime consumers with a sense of desire.
  5. Narratives and Stories: Brands often tell stories or create narratives that prime consumers with specific values or ideals. This can create an emotional connection and influence purchasing decisions.
  6. Personalization: E-commerce platforms use data-driven personalization to prime consumers with product recommendations based on their previous browsing and purchasing behaviour. This primes them to consider additional items.
  7. Word Choice: The language used in marketing materials and product descriptions can prime consumers with certain expectations or perceptions. For example, using words like “premium,” “luxury,” or “eco-friendly” primes consumers to expect higher quality or sustainability.
  8. Scents and Sounds: Retailers may use scents and background music to prime shoppers with specific moods or feelings. The scent of fresh-baked bread in a grocery store can prime hunger, for instance.
  9. Social Proof: Brands often display reviews, ratings, or endorsements from other consumers to prime potential buyers with a sense of trust and positive association.
  10. Website Layout: The layout and organization of a brand’s website can prime visitors to navigate in a certain way or focus on specific products or content.
  11. Limited-Time Offers: Promotions with countdowns or limited-time offers prime consumers to make quicker decisions, fearing they might miss out on a deal.
  12. Environmental Cues: Physical stores can use store layout and signage to prime shoppers with a sense of value or urgency.
  13. Storytelling: Brands that tell a compelling story about their origin, values, or mission can prime consumers to feel emotionally connected and supportive.

By strategically employing these tactics, brands can effectively use the priming effect to shape consumer perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours in ways that align with their marketing goals.

Priming in Advertising

Brands are masters at using priming techniques in their advertisements to shape consumer perceptions, trigger emotions, and ultimately influence behaviour. Priming in advertising involves the strategic use of cues, images, and messages to activate specific thoughts or feelings in the minds of consumers. Here’s how it works and some examples of memorable ad campaigns that employed priming effectively:

Visual Cues: Advertisements often use carefully chosen visuals to prime viewers with certain associations. For instance, a car commercial might show a sleek and luxurious vehicle driving through scenic landscapes, priming viewers to associate the car with adventure and status.

Example: The Volvo “Epic Split” commercial featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme showcased the precision and stability of Volvo trucks by having the action star perform a split between two moving trucks. This visual spectacle primed viewers to associate Volvo trucks with exceptional control and stability.

Music and Sound: The choice of music or sound effects in ads can prime emotions and create strong associations. Upbeat music can prime feelings of happiness and excitement, while soothing melodies can prime relaxation and comfort.

Example: Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” campaign uses music that evokes a sense of wonder and inspiration. The music primes viewers to see iPhone-captured moments as beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Storytelling: Advertisers often use storytelling to prime consumers with narratives that align with their brand values. These narratives create emotional connections and influence buying decisions.

Example: Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign used personalization and storytelling to prime consumers to associate Coke with sharing moments of happiness with loved ones. By featuring names on the bottles, it encouraged consumers to buy and share a Coke with friends and family.

Celebrity Endorsements: Brands frequently use celebrities to endorse their products. When consumers see a beloved celebrity associated with a brand, it primes them to transfer positive feelings towards that celebrity to the product.

Example: Nike’s long-standing partnership with Michael Jordan is a classic example. By associating the legendary basketball player with their brand, Nike primed consumers to perceive their athletic products as top-tier and aspirational.

Color Psychology: Colors play a significant role in priming. Advertisers choose colours that align with the emotions and associations they want to create.

Example: Red Bull uses the colour red in its branding to prime consumers with feelings of energy and excitement, reinforcing its “gives you wings” message.

Humour: Humorous ads prime viewers with positive emotions and make the brand more memorable.

Example: Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign used humour to prime viewers with a sense of humour and playfulness while also positioning the product as desirable.

In each of these examples, brands carefully selected elements that would prime consumers to think and feel in a way that supports their messaging and brand image. These primed associations influence consumer behaviour by making the brand more appealing, memorable, and relatable, ultimately driving purchasing decisions.

Product Packaging and Presentation

The design of product packaging and presentation is a powerful tool for brands to prime consumers to perceive a product in a specific way. This aspect of marketing focuses on creating a visual and tactile experience that triggers desired associations and emotions. Here’s how packaging and presentation can prime consumers:

Colour Choice: Colours evoke specific emotions and associations. Brands choose colours that align with their product’s intended perception.

  • Red: Often associated with energy, passion, and excitement. Red packaging might prime consumers to perceive a product as dynamic and stimulating.
  • Blue: Conveys trust, reliability, and calmness. Blue packaging can prime consumers to see a product as dependable and soothing.
  • Green: Represents health, nature, and freshness. Green packaging primes consumers to associate the product with natural and organic qualities.

Typography: The style of fonts and text on packaging can prime consumers with certain perceptions.

  • Serif Fonts: Classic and traditional. They might prime consumers to see a product as timeless and reliable.
  • Sans-serif Fonts: Modern and clean. They can prime consumers to perceive a product as sleek and contemporary.

Imagery: The images or illustrations on packaging can prime consumers with associations related to the product.

  • Product in Use: Showing the product being used in real-life situations can prime consumers with the idea that it’s practical and user-friendly.
  • Nature or Ingredients: Displaying natural elements or ingredients can prime consumers to perceive the product as wholesome and beneficial.

Shape and Material: The physical form of packaging can also prime perceptions.

  • Eco-Friendly Materials: Using eco-friendly materials like recycled cardboard primes consumers to associate the product with sustainability and environmental consciousness.
  • Sleek and Minimalistic Design: A minimalist design can prime consumers to see the product as modern and high-end.

Packaging Texture: The tactile experience of handling packaging can prime consumers.

  • Smooth and Glossy: This can prime consumers to associate the product with luxury and quality.
  • Rough or Textured: Might prime consumers to see the product as rustic or natural.

Packaging Size and Weight: The size and weight of packaging can influence perceptions of value.

  • Heavier Packaging: Might prime consumers to perceive the product as substantial and high-quality.
  • Compact Packaging: This can prime consumers to see the product as convenient and portable.

Unboxing Experience: The process of opening and unboxing a product can create a lasting impression. Brands often design packaging with this experience in mind, priming consumers to feel excitement and anticipation.

Example: Apple’s product packaging is a prime example of meticulous design. The minimalist white boxes with high-quality imagery and the experience of unboxing an Apple product all prime consumers to perceive Apple products as premium, cutting-edge, and user-friendly.

In essence, product packaging and presentation serve as the first point of contact between the consumer and the product. By carefully considering the design elements and sensory experiences, brands can prime consumers to perceive their products in a way that aligns with their desired image and message. This can significantly impact consumer perceptions and purchasing decisions.

Online Shopping and Website Design

E-commerce websites employ various priming techniques to guide customers towards specific choices, optimize user experience, and ultimately increase sales. Here’s how they do it:

User Interface (UI) Design:

  • Colour Schemes: Websites often use colour schemes to prime emotions and associations. For instance, using warm colours like red or orange for sale banners can prime users to associate discounts with urgency and excitement.
  • Layout and Navigation: The arrangement of elements on a webpage can prime user behaviour. Placing related items or accessories near a product can prime customers to make additional purchases.

Product Recommendations:

  • “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought”: By suggesting related or complementary products based on a customer’s browsing and purchase history, websites prime users to consider additional items, increasing the chances of upselling.
  • “Frequently Bought Together”: This technique primes users to perceive certain products as naturally bundled, encouraging them to add multiple items to their cart.

Social Proof:

  • Customer Reviews: Displaying positive customer reviews and ratings next to a product primes potential buyers to trust the product and be more likely to make a purchase.
  • “Trending” or “Best-Selling” Sections: These sections highlight popular products, creating a bandwagon effect by priming users to believe that these items are highly desired by others.

Scarcity and Urgency:

  • Countdown Timers: Websites use timers to create a sense of urgency, priming users to make quicker decisions before a sale or promotion ends.
  • Limited Stock Notifications: Informing customers about low stock levels primes them to act fast to avoid missing out on a product.


  • User Account Data: Leveraging user data such as past purchases and browsing history, websites can personalize product recommendations and content. This primes users to see products that align with their preferences.

Visual Cues:

  • Arrows and Highlighting: Visual cues like arrows and highlighting can prime users to focus on specific elements, such as call-to-action buttons like “Add to Cart” or “Buy Now.”

Easy Checkout Process:

  • One-Click Purchases: By offering an option for one-click purchases, websites prime users to complete transactions quickly and effortlessly.

Cart Reminders:

  • “Items in Your Cart”: Displaying items in a user’s shopping cart reminds them of their selections, priming them to complete the purchase.


  • Ad Remarketing: After visiting an e-commerce website, users often see ads for the same or related products on other websites or social media. This priming technique aims to re-engage users and remind them of their interest in the products.

Example: Amazon uses a combination of these priming techniques effectively. Its homepage showcases personalized recommendations based on a user’s browsing history and purchase behaviour, priming users to consider products aligned with their interests. Additionally, Amazon often includes elements like countdown timers for deals and prominent customer reviews, priming users to trust the quality and value of the products.

In summary, e-commerce websites employ various priming strategies to shape user behaviour, encourage specific actions, and enhance the overall shopping experience. By strategically using these techniques, they can influence customer choices and drive sales.

Priming in Brand Loyalty

Consistent branding and messaging play a crucial role in priming customers to associate positive feelings with a brand. Here’s how it works and some examples of brands that have successfully employed this strategy:

Consistent Visual Identity:

  • Logo: Brands that maintain a consistent logo design over the years prime customers to recognize and trust their products. For example, Coca-Cola’s timeless logo has remained largely unchanged, reinforcing brand recognition and positive associations.
  • Colour Palette: Using consistent brand colours in marketing materials, packaging, and products primes customers to associate those colours with the brand. Think of the distinct blue used by Facebook or the red associated with Netflix.

Slogan or Tagline:

  • Repetition: Brands often repeat slogans or taglines across various marketing channels. This repetition primes customers to remember and identify with the brand. Nike’s “Just Do It” is a prime example of a slogan that has become synonymous with the brand’s values.

Emotional Branding:

  • Storytelling: Brands that tell compelling stories and consistently convey certain emotions in their marketing materials prime customers to associate those emotions with the brand. Apple’s emotional ads, which often focus on creativity and innovation, prime customers to feel inspired when they think about Apple.

Product Quality and Consistency:

  • Consistent Quality: Brands that maintain a high standard of product quality prime customers to expect excellence. For example, Toyota’s reputation for reliability primes customers to trust the brand for dependable vehicles.

Customer Engagement:

  • Personalization: Brands that personalize customer interactions, such as sending birthday offers or tailored recommendations, prime customers to feel valued and understood. Starbucks, with its personalized rewards program, effectively uses this strategy.

Social Responsibility:

  • Consistent Values: Brands that consistently support social or environmental causes prime customers to associate the brand with positive values. Patagonia’s commitment to sustainability primes customers to feel good about supporting the brand.

Exclusive Offers and Loyalty Programs:

  • Consistent Rewards: Brands that offer consistent rewards and benefits through loyalty programs prime customers to stay loyal and expect ongoing perks. Amazon Prime’s consistent free shipping and streaming benefits are a prime example.

Example: Apple is a prime example of a brand that has successfully employed consistent branding to drive customer loyalty. Apple’s minimalist and sleek product designs, combined with its emotional marketing emphasizing innovation and creativity, prime customers to associate the brand with premium quality and forward-thinking. This consistency has led to a strong, loyal customer base.

In summary, consistent branding and messaging prime customers to form positive associations with a brand, leading to increased loyalty and trust. When customers consistently experience a brand’s values, quality, and emotional appeal, they are more likely to choose and stick with that brand.

In conclusion, the priming effect is a powerful tool that brands use to shape consumer perceptions, influence choices, and create lasting positive associations. From advertising campaigns to product design and even brand loyalty strategies, the subtle cues and associations of priming play a significant role in the world of marketing. By understanding how the priming effect works, brands can effectively connect with their audience and leave a lasting impression that drives success in a competitive marketplace.