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  • Writer's pictureKanhaiya Maheshwary

Understanding Reptile Brain Marketing - How brands use neuroscience to lure you!

Humans have evolved to become the master of all species; it is ironical, however, that they still continue to be slaves to their own primitive brains. We still make a bulk of our judgments using instincts instead of logic, but then try to wrap that decision around logic to make ourselves feel a little better. We buy big homes, large cars, and expensive dresses and then try to reason it out with 'comfort' and what-nots. If humans truly made their decisions solely based on logic, we wouldn't have homes bigger than 400 square feet per person or cars larger than a hatchback. This is not to say that buying fancy things is wrong. Just that these instances illustrate that we can't base our decisions solely logic.

Neuroscientists have shown that our brain is made up of 3 parts -

  1. Outer Brain - Neocortex, as it is called, is responsible for the analytical part of the brain;

  2. Middle Brain - The limbic brain is where our emotions reside;

  3. Inner Brain - The reptilian brain, or the primitive brain. This is responsible for our basics instincts and the fight-or-flight reaction.

And as always, I will come back to the fact that I consider marketers as part-psychologists. They understand the human brain, its needs, wants, and the psychology of emotions very well, and create their campaigns with an intention to arouse the same. But you will be fascinated to know how marketers target the reptilian brain specifically, because it is the most difficult to control.

As described above, the reptilian brain is our primitive brain. We have been carrying it since the time of our forefathers who were hunters and gatherers. Given that our ancestors had to deal with a lot of threats, such as never-seen-before creatures, animals looking for prey, other unknown tribes from different regions etc., they would always have two choices - fight, or flight. Fight meant going in for a combat, and flight meant running away. To date, we still behave in the same way. And marketers try to create a 'threat' by building a story in which if we don't buy their product or service, our status-quo will get disrupted or disturbed, thereby making our situation unsustainable. With survival being one of the reptilian brain's main concerns, we often cave in.

Reptile Brain Marketing Tactics

Neuroscientists might have taken a long time to establish the presence of our reptilian brain and how it affects our decision making. But marketers were quick to take the learnings and create some fundamental tenets which we commonly see being utilized in ads.

Keep it Simple

Unlike the neocortex, the reptile brain is unable to process any logical information or do analytical computations. It can only take in simple information, and it remembers the first and the last. That's why your first point of contact, and your last point of contact should both appeal to the customer. Tide detergent ads play on this very well by showing something so obvious that customers don't have to think or connect 2+2 to make 4.

Even though the ad copy is in Hindi, you can still understand what is is trying to convey. The visual cues make it very simple.

Create a Safety Net

Let me burst a myth right here. Whenever you buy a product and check its rating, you think that you are making a logical decision by relying on data, right? Well, you are relying on data for sure but that alone doesn't make it a logical decision. Your reptilian brain wants to secure itself and create a safety net, and looking at the reviews or ratings offers exactly that. Companies like Amazon understood this early on and have been able to build a thriving business on a multitude of such decisions. That's why some of Amazon's practices are considered gold standard in the field of e-commerce and emulated by a large majority of online marketing companies.

Amazon's ratings and reviews offer a safety net to the reptilian brain

Use Visuals

This ties back in to the first point of keeping it simple. Because the reptilian brain can't process complex information, it tries to avoid reading anything that is text heavy. It can be best reached with tell-it-all visuals which make it easier for it to digest and process information.

Psychological studies have shown that people's primitive brains can often make judgments within a snap, which is at least 10 times faster than the blink of an eye.

Visuals can help create faster sub-conscious decisions. And it helps to keep the fonts simple, because again, the reptilian brain can't deal with complexity.

This witty ad from Audi showed 4 key-rings of various top car brands ranging from BMW to Mercedes coming together to form Audi's famous ring logo. That last frame visually gives out the message that Audi has the power of the best of elements from all these cars. Now imagine instead if they chose to write a huge copy describing how they follow 6-sigma manufacturing, and how much extra horsepower their car has as compared to another brand and so on. It just wouldn't have the same impact.

Create Contrasts

The reptilian brain finds it easier to choose if there is another option. That's why a lot of brands regularly indulge in competitive advertising. I have even written a blog about guerrilla marketing, which features some examples of competitive advertising, especially between Pepsi and Coke. Contrast can be things beyond just comparative advertising too, though. For example, showing a 'before' and 'after' situation can be a contrast too. In this type of marketing, you will usually appeal to the reptilian brain by creating a feeling is discontentment with your current lifestyle.

This is one of the classic uses of 'contrast'. Showing an undesirable 'before' situation and creating a threat in the minds of the viewer, and then showing a remedy in the form of an 'after' state which will compel the viewer to enroll for this hair transplant service or buy this hair replenishment product.

Satisfy the Ego

The primitive brain is all about 'me, me, me!'. Brands try to satisfy the reptilian brain by using the words 'you', and 'yours' a lot. In fact, the entire direct marketing industry is based on this, because they try to address you directly, making you feel that it is all about you.

This ad combines both ego satisfaction and visual cues. The words 'Your ride, on demand' appeal to the ego, whereas the smirky-happiness on the fact of the lady gives a visual clue that if you have your personalized cab on demand, you will be as content and happy. If either the words or the image conveyed anything different, this ad might have not been half as effective.

Appeal to the Senses

One of the ways our ancestors determined whether something was threatening or not was by touching, smelling, and/or tasting. This technique is often used in the food and cosmetics industry by showing images of raw ingredients in the advertisements.

This herbal toothpaste ad shows a collection of traditional herbs that have gone into this product. The aloe-vera lotion ad features aloe-vera both in the ad as well as on the product packaging.

Marketers talk about appealing to a customers' needs and wants all the time. But in order to appeal to the reptilian brain, they need to focus on the 'need' part. And it is not very difficult to do - if your product or service will genuinely make their lives much more convenient, all you have to do is list down the USP and the customer will automatically make a purchase. However, never try to purposely attack the reptilian brain if your product doesn't call for it. It will only create an unnecessary dissonance.


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