Leader-Driven Primacy: Using Attribute Order to Affect Consumer Choice


Making a positive first impression may be just as important for a product as it is for people.When evaluating products, consumers often construct new preferences to support existingones. This tendency was once thought to be confined to strongly held preferences, but it is actually far more pervasive, occurring even for emerging preferences. Because of its widespread impact, the preference-altering bias has a significant impact on consumer choice. In fact, the ultimate purchase decision between products can be a function of which elicits the superior first impression.

Carlson and colleagues refer to this phenomenon as ‘leader-driven primacy’. Products that gain an early ‘leader’ status (roughly equitable to a positive first impression) benefit from a cascading bias in consumers’ evaluations of subsequently encountered attributes of the product. That is, if a consumer views the first attribute of a product they encounter positively, then they are likely to favorably evaluate other features of that product. Accordingly, attributes that would be rated as average (or even negatively), when encountered in isolation, are often evaluated more favorably. This effect is strong enough to dictate which brand consumers select, merely by changing the presentation order of the information.

Carlson and colleagues conducted several studies to demonstrate the impact leader driven primacy can have on product preferences. In one study, consumers were sequentially shown 6 attributes describing a backpack (the attributes of each back-back were pre-tested to ensure they were equally preferred). Of the 6 attributes, one favored backpack “A,” one favored backpack “B,” and the remaining 4 were neutral. In the study, the non-neutral attributes were presented first and fourth in the sequence. After the presentation of each attribute consumers rated the attribute and indicated their preferred backpack at that time.


Carlson and colleagues observed two very interesting patterns. Consumers were significantly more likely to choose the backpack that was favored by the attribute which was presented first. That is, if the attribute favoring backpack “A” (“B”) was presented first, the consumer was more likely to choose backpack “A” (“B”) in the end. Additionally, Carlson observed that consumers biased their ratings of attributes two through six, based on the first attribute they encountered. That is, if the first attribute favored backpack “A”, then consumer would perceive the following neutral attributes to favor backpack “A”, and perceive the attribute that favored backpack B to be neutral. Carlson explains that the initial attribute favoring one product over another causes that product to become the ‘leader’; participants then bias evaluations of later attributes to support the ‘leader’ product. Carlson and colleagues replicated the leader-driven primacy effect when consumers chose between equivalent restaurants.


Carlson then asked whether the effect could cause consumers to choose a brand that was inferior to a competitor. They constructed attributes for two winter coats that favored one coat over the other but left a slight amount of ambiguity so the inferior coat would be appealing to some. They found that overall consumers preferred the superior brand. However, when an attribute favoring the inferior brand was presented first, consumers were significantly more likely to choose it (the inferior brand) than when an attribute favoring the superior brand was presented first.


Leader-driven primacy has wide implications for consumer decision making. Many agents have the ability to influence consumer choice of a brand or product through control of information order. For example, salespeople can use information order to install a self-serving leader via direct-to consumer sales pitches, online information displays, and comparative advertising. Marketers have the substantial advantage that consumers seem unaware that they are biasing their own evaluation of new information to support whichever brand is leading. It is also possible that marketers can use other tactics to install a leader in consumers’ minds. For instance, mere exposure to a brand name or a humorous ad might create a positive initial disposition toward the sponsoring brand.

Kurt Carlson

Researcher at the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research and Professor of Marketing, McDonough School of Business

Kurt Carlson is the Associate Dean at the Raymond A. Mason Business School. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin and his Ph.D. in marketing from Cornell University. Prior to joining William and Mary, Carlson was on the faculty of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University from 2001 to 2009 and the faculty of McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University from 2009-2017.

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