May 3, 2023

Brand Strategy and the Priming Effect

By: Alana Haramaty


Brand strategy is an art form.

What I have come to love about the art of brand strategy is the opportunity to bring a brand to life through the written word and visual storytelling. It enables me to dig in deep with our clients to develop an understanding of who they are at their core so we can shine a light on it and help them share that unique story with the world. 

Brand strategy is also deeply rooted in science.

My husband and I share a passion for psychology — we love to analyze human behavior to gain a better understanding of what makes people tick. Sometimes we put this to practice via the thorough analysis of the emotions and behaviors of the types of people who star in our favorite trashy reality TV shows like Love Island and Married at First Sight…but when we are feeling slightly more intellectual than that, we swap books on psychology with each other. 

Recently, he shared with me a book called: You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney, a book that explains various psychological phenomena that prove human thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are all influenced by cognitive biases without us even being aware of it. 

During my reading of this book, I had an “aha” moment recognizing that at the heart of everything we do in brand strategy is a psychological theory called the Priming Effect: the effect in which a stimulus in the past affects the way you behave and think or perceive another stimulus later on. 

Author David McRaney describes this scientific phenomenon as “THE MISCONCEPTION: You know when you are being influenced and how it is affecting your behavior. THE TRUTH: You are unaware of the constant nudging you receive from ideas formed in your unconscious mind.”


This theory is exemplified by a study conducted in 2003 by Aaron Kay, Christian Wheeler, John Barghand, and Lee Ross. Here’s how…

Participants were separated into two groups and then isolated in two respective rooms. The first group was situated in a room with completely neutral items — a backpack, a cardboard box, and a wooden pencil. The second group was placed in a room with a briefcase and leather portfolio at the far end of a table along with a fountain pen set in front of the participants — all items that can be associated with a business setting. 

In each room, participants were then paired off with other “participants” (actors who were in on the experiment) and told to play a game in which they could earn up to $10. With some science experiment trickery, each participant was put in a position to make an offer to the other “participant” that they thought was reasonable enough to accept, because if the other person rejected the offer, no one would receive any money. 

The differing results of the game in each room were telling. In the neutral room, 100% of participants chose to split the money evenly, $5 each. In the room filled with business-related items, only 50% of the participants split the money evenly while the other half chose to keep more for themselves. 

What is even more interesting is that when researchers debriefed the participants to ask why they behaved the way they did, not a single person mentioned the objects in the room. They told stories to provide the rationale for their decision-making, often mentioning their own feelings of fairness or the other person’s “vibe” as an explanation. They stood by these explanations and firmly believed in the truth of what they were saying.

Yet, in reality, the only variable truly affecting the differences in behaviors is the exposures in their environment making them act more competitively or greedily. 

As human beings, when there is an ambiguous path forward and we are unsure how to proceed, our subconscious steps in to help point us in a direction without us even realizing it. Rarely do we take conscious notice of how a word creates associations or how an image makes us feel, but all of those stimuli have a profound effect on our behaviors. 

Therein is the value of a strong brand strategy. 



Every single communication that is put out into the world, from the most subtle cues in color and tone to even the most overtly suggestive photographs and messages, has a direct impact on the perceptions and associations created in the minds of your audience, which ultimately influences behavior. That is why having a strong brand strategy foundation is absolutely critical — to drive awareness, influence both conscious and subconscious associations with your brand, and increase customer engagement so you can effectively move the needle of your business.

While mindlessly watching a commercial as you wait for your YouTube video to play may not drive you to make a conscious decision/action at the moment, there are wires being sparked, associations being made, and memories being formed in your subconscious mind without you even realizing it.

A great example of how brands can access our subconscious minds and influence behavior is demonstrated in a research study conducted by Boston College professors back in 2011. In the study, the subject behavior was analyzed while playing a car racing video game. Each participant was given a functionally identical car, the only difference being each was decorated with various brand logos and colors of some of the leading beverage brands, including Red Bull, Tropicana, Guinness, Coca Cola, among others. The results of the study showed that the subjects driving the Red Bull branded cars displayed much faster, more aggressive driving behavior.

“In a performance context, what we see is that people racing the Red Bull car race faster and more aggressively, sometimes recklessly,” said Professor S. Adam Brasel, an assistant professor of marketing.

This behavior is the effect of nonconscious priming. At the time of the study, Red Bull was building a brand identity to intentionally associate their products with speed and risk-taking — “Red Bull Gives You Wings.” They sponsored events like street luge contests and airplane races and sponsored many extreme sports “adrenaline junkies” like Travis Pastrana who can be seen here drinking a Red Bull, exclaiming, “I hope this stuff works,” and jumping out of a plane without a parachute (don’t worry, Travis Pastrana was not harmed in the making of this ridiculously insane stunt). 

Through intentional, consistent, and robust brand strategy, Red Bull has been able to create clear associations with their brand and proved how it can be subconsciously accessed to ultimately influence consumer behavior. 

Every word, every image, every sponsorship, and every communication can create meaningful connections in the minds of our audiences — this is the science of brand strategy. 

Discover the impact a strong foundational, science-driven brand strategy can have on your business.

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