How Brand Priming Influences Consumer Behavior

A Red Bull race car driver

Mirco Lazzari gp / Bongarts / Getty Images

Most people in developed countries are surrounded by brands most of the time. Product placement is big business. Ambient advertising is a continuous intrusion. At one level, we are all aware of the products around us. Research indicates that the influence of brands on consumers occurs at another level, too—the non-conscious level. 

Researchers have become increasingly aware of the influence of brand priming on consumers. Subtle cues come from many directions in marketing and advertising, such as brand logos, packaging colors, and typology, the attractiveness of people featured in commercials.

Why Red Bull Racers Are Faster

S. Adam Brasel and James Gips, professors at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, conducted a fascinating study on the effect of the Red Bull brand on the racing performance of video game players. The only thing is if the racers had been driving actual cars instead of playing video games, many of them would have crashed and could have been severely injured, or worse. The researchers wrote that the Red Bull logo did indeed give the racers "wings," which might be mistaken for "a heavy dose of attitude."

Here Is What Happened

The researchers engaged video game enthusiasts to play a car racing video game. Two different cars were used in the video game. One car was decorated with a red and gold Red Bull logo while the other cars were decorated with a different color scheme and a different brand logo. The other prominent brands represented in the video car racing game included Coca-Cola, Guinness, and Tropicana.

There were no inherent differences in the cars: they had the same performance features and the same paint job. The only real differences between the cars were the brand logos—and, as we will see, the assumed attitudes of the drivers of the cars. The video players driving the Red Bull cars drove fast, powerfully, aggressively, and took many risks. Some players raced very effectively around the racecourse, while others were so reckless that they crashed, losing badly to their opponents because of time lost during the crash. 

Brand Logos Do Matter

What is astonishing about this research experiment is that the video players were unaware of how differently they were racing from the drivers in the other cars with different brands. Their non-conscious performance was the result of brand priming. The edgy marketing of Red Bull had a powerful effect on the racers that they didn't recognize. 

The Red Bull brand identity has been crafted largely by the marketing promotions conducted by the company, such as airplane races, luge contests in the streets, and ice skating obstacle courses navigated in a full-contact manner that gave the event its name—"Crashed Ice." The characteristics attributed to the Red Bull beverage and logo triggered the behaviors that the race car drivers exhibited as they played the video game.

The researchers theorized that the brands that we live with every day more strongly mold our behavior than we might imagine. Where marketers once believed that exposure to brands only influenced consumers thinking, this research by Brasel and Gips showed that brands could effectively shape the actual performance of consumers. And this brand priming has been shown to have both positive and negative effects, all without the awareness of the person being influenced.