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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Primed: changing behaviours by communicating with the subconscious

Priming an audience by changing the default option

Healthcare marketing tends to focus on rational data driven arguments to change audience behaviours – be that increasing patient compliance, encouraging payers to grant formulary access or convincing healthcare professionals to prescribe.

This is a logical approach but it doesn't explain why we see brands with almost identical data performing very differently. One important, but often hidden factor affecting our behaviour is the way we are influenced by things we are not really consciously aware of.

One such factor is the default option presented to us when making a decision. Research published in The New Journal of Medicine highlighted that ventilators (used to aid a patient's breathing when in intensive care) can damage the lungs if the volumes are set too high. The study investigated the effect of reducing the default volume setting and found that mortality was reduced by 25 per cent. Nothing but the default had changed. The doctors were still free to set the machine to any setting they wanted.

Why did this work? It's likely that changing the default changed the way the volume level setting decision was 'primed' in the mind of the doctor. The new default lowered the perception of what was normal and created a need to 'dial up' the volume for most patients. This changed behaviour without the doctor ever being consciously aware of why it had changed.

Priming can subconsciously affect our behaviour in many ways – for example:

  • Psychological Science published a study showing that when people eating in self-service restaurants can smell cleaning products, they keep their own table cleaner
  • If you're given a 240g container of popcorn you will eat 45 per cent more than if you're given a 120g container
  • If the recipient of a placebo believes it will make them feel better, then the act of taking it stimulates endorphins, making them feel better. However, if you tell the recipient it's a placebo, no endorphins are released and the placebo has no effect.

The above examples show that default options, environmental cues and our pre-conceptions can profoundly affect behaviours and responses. So how can we make use of this information to enhance the way we communicate, here are a few suggestions:

  • Start an interaction by showing the audience the impact of changing the 'default choice' from A to B – highlighting the improved outcomes, reduced side effects, or cost savings as a way of priming the audience to see the brand's data in the context of its value to them
  • Think carefully about the first visual, chart, slide or piece of information you are showing – first impressions 'prime' and presenting your most compelling information upfront is likely to help set a positive, agreeable tone for the meeting
  • Specific words or questions can 'prime' behaviour, so starting a conversation by asking what the considerations for specific patient types are, will get the audience thinking about a specific challenge. They should then be more open to hearing about information that can help address this challenge later in the meeting.
  • Priming an audience to receive a message can dramatically affect the likelihood of behaviour change. It's vital therefore, to consider the default option, environmental cues and the opening few seconds of any interaction to give your argument the best possible chance of being acted upon.

Article by
Chris Bartley

is Director, Havas Life Medicom

27th September 2013

From: Sales, Marketing



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