August 9th, 2010

Priming Bunches of Oats

By Kyle Morich

I have a cereal habit.  Every morning, I eat two bowls of cereal for breakfast. This week my cereal options were Honey Bunches of Oats and Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds (yes, they actually taste exactly the same, but there was a 2-for-1 deal at my grocery store and I couldn’t bring myself to buy two of the same box).  If I have the supplies, I almost always add some fresh fruit to the bowl – usually bananas, strawberries, or blueberries, depending on what strikes my fancy.  I’ve been doing this for years, and with the exception of Lent and other periods of time where I try to consciously cut my carb intake, I do it automatically.

This morning, I had a shocking revelation.  With the regular Honey Bunches of Oats, I usually add bananas or strawberries.  But unless I’m actively trying to use up some overripe fruit, I almost always add blueberries to the Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds.  Remember, except for the slivers of almonds, these cereals taste identical.  My only explanation is that the color of the box (a vibrant blue for the Almond variety) is subconsciously priming me to choose the blueberries to accompany my cereal.

Priming occurs when something perceived by the brain on the non-conscious level influences a future behavior.  Scientists have demonstrated priming through a variety of ways.  In one study, participants who were shown pictures of stadiums and other loud settings unknowingly increased the volume at which they spoke.  In another, students were asked to write down the last two numbers of their social security number and then bid on a bottle of wine.  The students with higher SS digits tended to bid higher.  In yet another, participants completed a word search puzzle before playing a card game.  Some of the word search puzzles contained words associated with achievement.  The participants who were primed by the achievement-laden puzzles were shown to play the card game much more competitively.

I’m not advocating subliminal advertising or manipulation here, nor implying a vast conspiracy between Post Cereals and the Blueberry Industry.  I like the cereal and I like the blueberries, and at some point in my life I made a conscious decision to use both products.  The Blue Box wouldn’t have primed me to choose blueberries over strawberries if I didn’t like blueberries.  Priming is a powerful tool, but a subtle one.

This is a good lesson for marketers.  Priming behavior is extremely important when it comes to establishing consumer habits for products and services.  It is basically giving the unconscious mind clues about what it should be doing.  The unconscious mind is responsible for up to 95% of behavior, but most advertising and marketing efforts consist of verbal, conscious-level appeals.  Priming is silent and non-verbal, and is a way to speak to the part of the mind that controls the majority of consumer behavior.

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