an old photo of an A1 sauce billboard

The Power of Priming on Mental Models

I have always been interested in the power of priming (see for example here and here. What fascinates me about it is that the primes don’t have to be related in any way to the behavior you want to evoke. One of the original studies in this area had participants solve anagrams that had a few old age related terms (with a control group that did not) and then they watched them walk to the elevators after the study. Those who solved the old age anagrams walked slower.

So it is no surprise that companies try to leverage this in their marketing. This example is a great one.

Just as Kentucky Fried Chicken (YUM) switched to the meatless name “KFC” and Radio Shack (RSH) momentarily thought about removing the outdated “radio” from its name and just going by “The Shack,” Kraft’s (KRFT) A.1. Steak Sauce will now simply be called “A.1. Sauce,” the product’s original name until the 1960s.

Kraft A1 Steak Sauce has had this name for years. The word “Steak” in the name primes us to think of it as something that you put on steak. This strong relationship has the advantage that when you think of steak, you automatically think of A1 (if it is a product you have a mental model for in the first place). But it is also limiting because when you think of other foods, you don’t think of A1, and might even inhibit this mental model as “inappropriate”. So Kraft is removing the word “Steak” from the name. Do you think this will make a difference? I would love to see them run an A/B test using matched markets to study this in a systematic way. But I doubt it.

Here is a much more complicated example from Chipotle. Chipotle’s brand image is not supposed to be good Mexican food. It is supposed to encompass a variety of value-driven attributes like ecofriendliness and intellectualism. So will putting essays from famous writers on the packaging help to (not so subtly) prime these values? Let me know in the comments.

For those who don’t already see poetry in a steak burrito, Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) is offering something else to lift the soul: essays by famous writers and comedians, such as Jonathan Safran Foer (who approached Chipotle with the idea), Toni Morrison, and Judd Apatow. They’ll be printed on the chain’s cups and bags as long as customers are interested.

Image credit: “A1 steak sauce sign” by R.C. Maxwell Co. used under Public domain

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