Optimise your marketing: understand the reptilian brain

While the world constantly evolves, the one thing that hasn’t changed is people. Great marketing doesn’t only come from a degree or a LinkedIn title – it comes from a deep understanding of people. And while technology changes every year, people – and the way we make decisions – does not.

Dave Gerhardt’s ‘The 10 Laws of Copywriting’ guide (my sister highly recommended this to me and it’s absolute gold), mentions Claude Hopkin’s book, Scientific Advertising. The book was written in 1923, but is still relevant today. This is because we’re trying to tackle the same challenges in 2020 as we were in 1920.

This bring us to Gerhardt’s law #1 is: you must learn how people make decisions.

We would all love to think that we buy that air fryer with logic instead of emotion, but that is not the case. We’re all emotional creatures – we buy with emotion and then justify with logic.

This is because we have two systems of thinking (you can read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow if you want more detail on this). System 1 (otherwise known as the reptilian brain) is fast, intuitive and emotional, whereas system 2 is slower, more deliberative and logical. The reptilian brain is the decision-maker – so it’s what we’re using when we buy that air fryer.

The five key factors that drive the reptilian brain are pain, fear, emotion, ego, and contrast. A marketer’s job (if you’re doing it well), is to understand how to use these five factors so that you appeal to the reptilian brain.


The primitive brain is concerned with avoiding pain (for example, not wanting to spend over R1 000 on an online purchase that may not even fit properly). Because Mango’s physical stores have closed down in South Africa, you can only buy their clothes online. They have addressed the ‘will this fit properly’ pain point so well on their site by taking you through a detailed fitting process, from your height and weight measurements all the way through to your age and past jean size purchases.


Our reptilian brains may not be fearing something as grim as being eaten by a lion, but we fear missing out. One Day Only has addressed this fear brilliantly (they even have a countdown for the day – see above). They make you think: “I need that Speedo, right?” and decide “I need to act now or I’ll miss it forever.”


Our reptilian brain operates on emotion instead of logic, but what’s most important is that we are less persuaded by positive emotion. The easiest way to appeal to emotion is to trigger a pain. SPCA do this well (and for good reason), by triggering your pain about animal cruelty.


The reptilian brain is self-centred because of its survivalist mentality. That’s why you have to be a customer and ask: “What’s in it for me?”. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty range always keeps the customer at the centre by adding the words ‘you’ or ‘your’ wherever possible.


The reptilian brain loves contrast, which is why before and after pictures work so well. Kayla Itsines has nailed this from the start because she has shown you (visually) the contrast between using her fitness product, and not using it at all.

How often do you think of these desires before you create a marketing campaign?

It’s so important to pay attention – to see what people react to in real life so that you can use this for your marketing tactics. If you pay attention, you can find your customer’s pain points, describe the contrast between using your product or services and using an inferior product (or no product at all), and inject simple emotional appeal into your marketing (preferably using visuals that the brain can process easily).

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