03 November 2008

Brand priming or why Reidel glasses make wine taste better.

What makes wine in a Reidel glass taste better? Is it because Reidel is called “The Wine Glass Company” and it claims its glasses make wine taste all the more better than any other? How come a Tiffany diamond engagement ring set the benchmark for all others? And why do people queue for the latest release of the Apple iPhone, when they wouldn’t for any other phone? Does brand exposure influence a wider range of behaviours than we previously thought? Can exposure to specific types of brands and their associate brand messages really unconsciously influence our behaviour?

That’s the inference from a Canadian study Automatic Effects of Brand Exposure on Motivated Behaviour: How Apple Makes You "Think Different", which explored whether our unconscious can be so primed by exposure to certain brands they can create automatic and predictable behaviours and performance.

Published early this year by the University of Waterloo in Ontario Canada and Duke University in the US, the study looked at whether the generally accepted priming effects applied to our social behaviours can be applied to consumer behaviour and how brands can influence this. If so, can so-called brand primes shape our behaviour and how do they does this happen?

Priming occurs when mental constructs are created around or by a particular situation. For example, it’s been well documented that exposure to the “elderly” can often cause behaviour we have already hard wired around this stereotype: so people who have been primed “elderly” may walk more slowly and display poorer memory than those who haven’t primed. Traditionally Most behavioural priming research hasfocussed on activating such these constructs via exposure to related words. If you prime someone with words related to “rudeness” they’ll probably behave rudely.

It is already accepted that exposure to brands can shape consumer decision-making. One US study found that consumers exposed to low-end brand names such as Wal-Mart chose products of higher value but lower prestige in contrast to those people who have been exposed to high-end brand names such as Barneys New York. Another found that as the frequency of exposure to a brand increases, so too does our tendency to choose that brand (this is not the same as frequency of message or frequency of advertising). Yet most research has been limited to exploring the consequences of brand exposure for subsequent brand or product choice. Does the impact of brand exposure end with purchasing decisions or can it actually extend to behaviours unrelated to the products the brand represents? In other words, so if words and exposure to certain people can cause people to behave rudely or walk more slowly, can brands also evoke both cognitive and motivational effects?

Much of the psychological value we get from brands appears to come from their ability to help fulfill our personality and identity. In representing desired personal qualities such as sophistication or manliness, brands such as Tiffany's or Jeep are goal-relevant in nature, symbolizing our aspirations and unattained goals. In particular, some brands may come to represent "be" or ideal-self goals (e.g., to be sophisticated), which describe people's aims to improve themselves. Just as exposure to certain role models such as people who represent success can inspire certain goal-directed actions, so too should exposure to brands that symbolise success at a given goal. Through associations with desired human qualities, goal-relevant brands can trigger these ideal-self goals and shape behaviour. For example, Nike is associated with traits such as 'active' and 'confident.' These characteristics are generally seen as positive, so the brand plays a motivational role, symbolising a desirable future and an ideal self.

Brands are often linked to our personality traits in the same way symbols or representations of people can (i.e.Virgin is a young, fun out-there brand and if we use a Virgin product therefore it may represent who we think we are). Brands can also be symbols of aspiration, representing desired personal qualities such as sophistication or power (Bentley versus Maserati) and brand-priming may well motivate performance-based behaviour. The study wanted to know whether these types of behaviours actually do result from priming by brands.

In a series of lab experiments, the researchers had subjects look at a screen that displayed a series of flashing numbers and kept a running tally of the results. Interspersed between the numbers were subliminal flashes of Apple or IBM logos. The same subject group was then asked to perform a creativity-measurement task, in which they were asked to come up with as many uses as they could for the common house brick. In many replications of the experiment as well as with control groups, the researchers found that people exposed to the Apple brand not only came up with more uses for the brick but that these were also more creative than those exposed to the IBM logo or no logo at all. In effect, Apple made you more behave and think more creatively.

These experiments measured and manipulated qualities of priming but this new research demonstrates that brands can also serve as sources of unconscious performance-based behaviour. Recent theory has it that brand primes initiated goal-directed behaviour only when those brands were associated with qualities desired by the individual i.e. I want to be more creative (Apple) or I want to be more active (Nike) Meaning a brand can affect your output and, in the case of Apple’s brand, it may make you think and work more creatively What these findings may also enable us to predict is when the various types of priming effects occur and what the behaviours are likely to be.

In blind taste tests even the best Reidel glasses, as well as they are made, don’t actually make your wine taste any better than say a $10 glass from Target. Apple’s iPhone looks and performs well but it does is no better on a benchmarked performance basis than a Blackberry Bold or a HTC Touch Diamond. What these brands and so few others have has been able to achieve is what these researchers do indeed prove – regardless of the efficacy of a product or its service attributes, the prospect of superior performance can be primed and can directly our purchase decisions.

Brand priming might help to explain why brand promise is no longer going to be enough; the point of difference is going to have to be buried deep in a brand’s DNA. The saliency of a brand can no longer just be determined by more dominant operational and visual attributes but by triggers that prime our unconscious.

This is a longer version of a blog which originally appeared in Marketing Magazine on November 5. http://www.marketingmag.com.au/blogs