The Spreading Activation Model of Marketing


I have just primed you. Before you even finished reading the word above, you had things popping into your mind. Perhaps it was a mental image of an individual Beatle – either John, Paul, George or Ringo. Perhaps it was a snippet of song. Perhaps it was grainy black and white footage of the Ed Sullivan show appearance. But as the concept “Beatle” entered your working memory, your brain was hard at work retrieving what you believed were relevant concepts from your long-term memory. (By the way, if your reaction was “What’s a Beatle?” – substitute “Imagine Dragons.”)

1-brain-neural-network-pasiekaThat’s a working example of spreading activation. The activation of your working memory pulls associated concepts from your long-term memory to create a mental construct that creates your internal definition of whatever that first label was.

Now, an important second step may or may not happen. First, you have to decide how long you’re going to let the “Beatle” prime occupy your working memory. If it’s of fleeting interest, you’ve probably already wiped the slate clear, ready for the next thing that catches your interest. But if that prime is strong enough to establish a firm grip on your attention, then you have a choice to make. Is your internal representation complete, or do you require more information? If you require more information then you have to turn to external sources for that information.

Believe it or not, this column is not intended as a 101 primer in Cognitive Psych. But the mental gymnastics I describe are important when we think about marketing, as we go through exactly the same process when we think about potential purchases. If we can understand that process better, we gain some valuable hints about how to more effectively market in an exceedingly fluid technological environment.

Much of advertising is built on the first half of the process – building associative brand concepts and triggering the prime that retrieves those concepts into working memory. Most of what isn’t working about advertising lies on this side of the cognitive map. We’ve been overly focused on the internal activation, at the expense of the external. But thanks to an explosion of available (and objective) information we’re less reliant on using our internal knowledge when making purchase decisions. Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen explain in their book “Absolute Value”: “A person’s decision to buy is affected by a mix of three related sources: The individual’s Prior preferences, beliefs, and experiences (P) Others. Other people and information services (O) and Marketers (M).”

Simonson and Rosen say that with near perfect information available for the consumer, we now rely more on (O) and less on (P) and (M). Let’s leave (M) and (O) aside for the moment and focus on the (P) in this equation. (P) represents our internal spreading activation. After we’re primed, we retrieve a representation of the product or service we’re thinking of. At this point, we make an internal calculation. We balance how confident we are that our internal representation is adequate to make a purchase against how much effort we have to expend to gather further information. This calculation is largely made subconsciously. It follows Herbert Simon’s principle of Bounded Rationality. It also depends on how much risk is involved in the purchase we’re contemplating. If all the factors dictate that we’re reasonably confident in our internal representation and the risk we’re assuming, we’ll pull out our wallets and buy. If, however, we aren’t confident, we’ll start seeking more information. And that’s where (O) and (M) come in.

Simonson and Rosen lay out a purchase behaviour continuum, from (O) Dependent to (O) Independent. It’s at the (O) Dependent end, where internal confidence in retrieved beliefs and experience is low, that buying behaviors are changing dramatically. And it’s there where conventional approaches to advertising are falling far short of the mark. They are still stuck in the mythical times of Mad Men, where marketers relied on a “Prime, Retrieve (Internal beliefs), Purchase” path. Today, it’s much more likely that the Prime and Retrieve stages will be followed by an external spreading activation. We’ll pick up that thread in next week’s Online Spin.


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