Business Ideas

An introduction to behavioural economics and the priming effect

You may not be familiar with the world of behavioural economics, but this way of analysing and shaping human economic behaviour is one of the fastest growing areas of marketing and business. In fact, it’s even in use by the government.

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A famous paper in the Journal of Marketing, by an academic named Milliman, was an early contributor to the debate. It found that the type and tempo of music in a supermarket environment affected how much people spent and how quickly they moved through the store –

One of the key discoveries in the field is the “priming effect”. If we give people subconscious cues to act in a certain way, they are primed to take the opportunity to behave that way, when presented with it. One of the simplest ways to prime people is to subject them to an aroma, then give them the opportunity to buy a product associated with that smell. The key is to pick the time when the consumer is most receptive to the priming prompt.

Strawberry scented escalators

So for example, when it was launching its strawberry gin, London Dry Gin bought up the ads all the way down the escalators that would be taking weary London office workers to the tube, and so to their homes. They plastered the walls in strawberry pink paper and inserted strawberry scented panels advertising the new gin. Any worker dropping into a supermarket on their way home for a chilled Piri Piri chicken, was already primed for a purchase when they came to the alcohol display.

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Similarly, McCain experimented with wafting baked potato smells over miserable bus queues in winter.

Music also provokes chain reactions

However, these are very simple examples. Scent can be used to evoke much subtler reactions. It’s the same with in store music. Originally designed to evoke simple behaviours such as moving quickly, it’s now being used in much more subtle ways, to prime consumers to act in a particular way.

Nostalgic smells of childhood food, or aspirational scents of leather and clean linen, can be used to prime people to buy goods or services that are only indirectly connected to the aroma itself. Scents and sounds can set off a train of associations that will prime consumers for an offered experience or product.