Use ‘Pavlovian Conditioning’ for More Effective Marketing

Stop focusing on trying to sell — instead, learn to condition the consumer

Louise Morris
Oct 1 · 7 min read
Dog chewing on a treat
Dog chewing on a treat
Photo by James Lacy on Unsplash

Do you ever find yourself reaching for your phone at the sound of someone else getting a notification? Or have you ever had a bad experience with some food, and to this day, even the smell of that dish is enough to make you gag? Perhaps you’ve noticed how some children are crying before they even get their immunisation shot. Maybe you even were that kid.

As humans, our brains are wired in such a way that we’re fundamentally creatures of habit. Because of this, we’re prone to various behaviourisms — one of which being Pavlovian conditioning (also referred to as classical conditioning). Discovered by Russian psychologist Pavlov, the condition can be described as learning through association.

During an experiment wherein Pavlov was researching salivation in dogs in response to being fed, he noticed that dogs would begin salivating at the sound of the food coming rather than when it was actually placed in front of them. This led to him discovering that any object that the dogs associated with food would elicit the same response. Basically, the dogs were conditioned to respond by salivating to stimuli they associated with food.

Applying this to people — certain stimuli produce learned responses from us on the basis of our associations. That’s why you check your phone at the sound of someone else's notification or why you can’t look at sushi after that time it made you throw up.

Pavlovian conditioning is also the reason behind numerous marketing tricks such as celebrity endorsements and sponsorships. Rather than trying to sell the product, these tricks revolve around conditioning people to associate it with a stimulus. So, when that stimulus is present, people’s response will be a desire for that product.

This powerful behavioural phenomenon is the secret to generating sales and long-run, sustainable product success. Just look at McDonald’s or Coca-Cola — two companies that focus their advertising around conditioning rather than selling.

So how can you reap the benefits of Pavlovian conditioning for your company? Here are the steps you can take to effectively condition your customers to want your product.

Repetition

We all know the more you do something, the more likely it is to become a habit — there’s no news there. So naturally, given the habitual nature of Pavlovian conditioning, repetition strengthens it.

Now, it’s not difficult to come up with ways to create repetition in your marketing — be it from slogans and logos or from sheer campaign size and advertising frequency. However, your current marketing strategy may not be optimising the effects of repetition.

Studies have found that there’s a limit at which repetitive advertising causes consumer attention and retention to decline. To combat this effect, you can add variation to your advertisements either cosmetically or substantively. For example, a simple colour inversion of your current advert can grab the consumer’s attention without causing them to disassociate those colours with your brand.

Licensing

Licensing is key if you’re currently selling or planning to expand your range. Not only are their legal benefits to licensing, but in terms of conditioning, it allows you to create stimulus generalisation — the act of having the same response to slightly different stimuli.

Say, for example, you’ve been conditioned so that you feel hungry when you see a Big Mac. Stimulus generalisation will cause you to also feel hungry when you see a McChicken. Basically, stimulus generalisation gives you the ability to get the desired response from your audience for a new product without the need to recondition them.

Licensing is one of the easiest ways to go about creating stimulus generalisation as it causes people to respond to your brand rather than the product itself. Returning to the Big Mac example, it’s not the burger itself that makes you feel hungry, but rather it’s the iconic golden arches and the bright red background — two colours and a logo that McDonald’s have trademarked.

Product Differentiation

On the flipside of stimulus generalisation, there’s stimulus discrimination. This is when people are conditioned to only respond to one stimulus — the original — and not to other similar stimuli.

Stimulus discrimination is a valuable competitive technique for marketing. Rather than allowing your competitors to benefit from the conditioning you’ve created, you condition consumers in such a way that they only have the desired response to your product.

Now, depending on how generic your product is, this can be difficult. However, it’s still very possible. Continuing with the previous example of burgers — is there really much difference between a McDonald’s Big Mac and a Burger King Whopper? Not at all, but I know from my own experience that I don’t start to salivate when I see a Whopper, but a Big Mac will have me drooling.

The reason that McDonald’s has this effect on me over Burger King is because of their effective differentiation. McDonald’s separates themselves from other fast-food places by their price and convenience — they’re efficient. Everywhere I go, I know there will be a McDonald’s nearby and if I need a quick and cheap meal. However, I can’t say the same for Burger King.

Having something that differentiates your product from competitors will allow you to successfully engage in stimulus discrimination. The most effective way to differentiate is to pay attention to your company’s core values and purpose and brand yourself on the basis of them. Create a company with a culture and the differentiation will occur organically.

Using the Senses

In terms of the best methods of conditioning, playing with the consumer’s senses is the easiest to enlist as they’re the primary components of advertising regardless of your agenda. It’s just a matter of using the senses in such a way as to create the desired response.

Rather than arbitrarily picking a song for your ad, the colour for your campaign poster, or even the scent of your store, you need to analyse the psychological effects of your choices and choose options that are proven to enhance your target response.

Take the senses of hearing, seeing, and smelling for example. Here is how McDonald’s used each of them to condition us, the consumers:

Music

The McDonald’s jingle first graced our ears in 2003 and was originally sung by Justin Timberlake. The reason for this is that they wanted their brand to be associated with pop culture — therefore, using a voice as notable and relevant as Justin Timberlake’s at the time allowed McDonald’s to benefit from stimulus generalisation.

Visuals

As mentioned previously, McDonald’s have trademarked their red and yellow colours. McDonald’s knows the effectiveness of these two particular colours and wants to protect them. You see, it’s been shown in colour psychology that red stimulates the appetite whilst yellow triggers feelings of happiness. The combination of these colours creates a sense of speed.

These three emotions are the target responses that McDonald’s wants from their branding. If they had chosen other colours, they likely wouldn't have been as successful as they have been in succeeding with their conditioning.

Smell

Do you know that McDonald’s smell? It may not be particularly pleasant — it’s not like that moment when you walk into a bakery or what you’d want your home to smell like — but it’s distinct. Every McDonald’s has the same smell because they want to benefit from repetition.

McDonald’s wants you to have the same experience everywhere you go, and every detail matters — even the smell. They’ve created their own signature fast-food scent.

Anecdotes

An interesting way to incorporate conditioning into your advertising campaign is to make use of anecdotes. Stories make people feel and those feelings can be tied to your brand.

Anecdotes can be particularly useful rather than crafting your own campaign story as the desired emotional response is already known. Therefore, you can be assured that you’re attaching your target emotional response to your product.

For example, many of us are aware of Simone Bile’s success and her story. It’s one of female empowerment and strength that is rightly inspirational — making it the perfect choice for SK-II to use in their #nocompetition campaign. They want their products to make people feel empowered, so what better way than to associate them with an empowering story?

Summary

Pavlovian conditioning is the secret to long-term success and should be a goal in every marketing campaign. If you want consistent sales, you need consistent consumers. And what better way to build a consistent audience than by incorporating it into their subconscious?

By using repetition in such a way that causes a habitual response to your product, you can expand upon your success via stimulus generalisation. Along with that, stimulus discrimination can give you a competitive edge to boost your market position.

Careful attention to advertising details and little tricks such as how you play with peoples’ sensory systems and emotions are essential when the goal is conditioning. So keep these in mind to strengthen your marketing effectiveness.

Over time, with successful conditioning, trying to meet sales targets won’t be the issue — the only issue will be beating them.

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Thanks to Brittany Jezouit

Louise Morris

Written by

Currently on a break to focus on academia. A work in progress. Find me on Twitter @LouiseMorris_98

Better Marketing

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

Louise Morris

Written by

Currently on a break to focus on academia. A work in progress. Find me on Twitter @LouiseMorris_98

Better Marketing

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

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