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Effective Marketing Appeals to the Reptilian Brain – Here’s How

Sales and marketing are fundamentally about communicating with decision-makers and influencers in such a way that they see how your product or service solves a problem they have.

To do this you need them to be interested, once they are interested they will listen to what you do, then they will buy it.

The problem is that most people talk about what they do long before their audience (their target market, their prospects) are interested.

This ends up turning people off – and there is a biological, physical, reason for this: our brains are wired to for interest first and thinking second.

The part of the brain focused on interest an evolutionarily old part of the brain – it is responsible for managing all of the sensory inputs gauging interest and telling us when to fight or run away.

We call this the reptilian brain and if you want your messaging to connect, it must appeal to it. You must learn to speak to the reptilian brain.

There are six simple ways to appeal to the reptilian brain and make your marketing more effective:

  1. Make it about the person you are selling to.
  2. Use contrast.
  3. Use tangible concepts.
  4. Focus on the beginning and the end.
  5. Be visual.
  6. Get emotional.

We go through this in more detail below.

Effective Marketing Is Reptilian Brain Marketing

Imagine a room full of marketers and business executives primed for an exciting conversation on marketing trends.  The keynote presenter is from a prominent consultancy and has been breathlessly promoted to the whole group as the marketing expert.

Everybody sits up straight as he takes the stage.

Five minutes later the majority are looking at their phones.

Ten minutes later people are leaving.

The small group that crowds the speaker after his talk is more interested in asking for a job than discussing a project.

I was in the audience for this talk, and the guy knew his stuff.  The research that had gone into the work that he presented was phenomenal.

His purpose in giving the presentation was to raise his image and promote himself as a consultant. He was marketing himself.  But he failed, not because he didn’t have his facts straight but because,  

Facts don’t engage people, they don’t care

Well, not at first anyway. At some point people will want to get into the facts. But you have to earn that interest by first creating an emotional connection. Marketing strategy must focus on engagement first, facts second – good marketing is emotional marketing.

This is biology: it is in the way the human brain is wired.

The oldest part of our brain is a knot sensory processing and automatic systems that evolved some 500 million years ago.  It is the part of the brain that every animal shares and one that we have in common with the oldest creatures on the planet: reptiles.

 To grow, appeal to the reptilian brain.  To grow, appeal to the reptilian brain.

In some ways it has been a long time since we thought like a lizard. Our brains have evolved, and we are now one of the very few species with a high-end neocortex capable of thinking and reasoning. But the neocortex is evolutionarily only 3-4 million years old – which makes it brand new.

The neocortex is great at thinking but it is slow and ponderous. This is where ll of our great innovative ideas and new thoughts come from. This type of thinking is work and it takes effort; great capacity for new ideas but slow and hard work. We use the neocortex when creating ideas, creating strategy or building things. This is the “brainy” part of the brain.

The reptilian brain is fast and has a lot of processing capacity. It manages key systems like digestion, the beating of the heart and running away really fast when something is chasing you. These are not things you want to spend a lot of time thinking about, but are nice to have taken care of. This is the heart part of the brain – the feeling, gut part.

Even though we have this nice new Neo-Cortex, we still perceive the world around us and make decisions about whether we like or are interested in something using that old part of the brain.

Our senses tie directly into the reptilian core. New information and new concepts are processed first here, then it passes information on to the middle brain which decides whether or not you care and only then does the brain involve the neocortex:

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This triage process is key to survival. When a saber tooth tiger springs into your cave you must run away fast. You don’t want to sit there for a few minutes, consider the implications of a saber tooth tiger being in the room and then make a decision that running might be a good thing to do.

For much of our existence we needed to act not ponder.

The brain also uses a significant amount of the body’s energy. 20% of resting energy is used by the brain. Again, for most of our existence getting enough calories was a huge issue – so the brain is hard wired to avoid work, save energy be efficient.

That reptilian brain is very busy protecting us, guarding us, making sure all of the vital systems work. It doesn’t think, it isn’t very interested in what goes on in the real world and you must appeal to it if you are going to interest your future clients in anything that you do.

Effective marketing, communications and presentations connect with the reptilian brain first, then the neocortex

The challenge is that you create your ideas with the neocortex but your audience is listening as if they were reptiles. It is as if you were communicating with a 4K television signal and they are receiving with cave drawings.

The fundamental mistake the presenter above made was to try to impress people at the wrong level.  He showed slide after slide of charts that were all interesting and relevant, but all required deep neocortex neurons to understand.

The audience didn’t care. Their inner reptile took one look at the first slide and went for the buffet.

Another way to think of this is heart brain marketing. Appeal to the heart first, create that connection, then appeal to the brain with an emotional, logical approach.

In our experience appealing to the thinking brain is the most common mistake marketers make. They try to interest their prospects with facts, from what they have done in the past to a litany of products and services – but nobody is listening. Instead you must market to the heart (the reptilian brain), then then engage the brain (the neocortex).

How to speak to the reptilian brain

We have found six ways to appeal to the reptilian brain and we go through them here.

The reptilian brain is very self centered – it is exists to keep you alive. It is also tied directly into the senses. Because of this there are some simple ways to appeal to it. And simplicity is the key: the reptilian brain can’t comprehend complexity.

When you are creating a marketing plan and crafting your marketing efforts remember how your target audience is listening and integrate these six elements.

Number 1: Make It About The Person You Are Selling To

Check out this advertisement from Coke (note that I find myself in the odd position of sharing lots of commercials from Coke and Pepsi,I am really not promoting these companies… but if you think about it, they are selling boring, unhealthy products so they MUST create good ads.):

They don’t talk a lot about Coke here, instead they celebrate all of the “tailgaters” of the country. Whoever you are you can see yourself reflected someone in one of these characters. This is about you.

One aspect of this is to talk to the person watching. Here all of the tailgaters are talking to the viewer, that puts the viewer front and center. In writing do this by using second person: addressing “you” in the writing you do (see how I did that). Generally we all like to talk in generalities using we, or they, but using you is key to engaging with your audience.

Another trick is to use point of view imagery. In keeping with the theme here is another Coke add that uses POV effectively:

So to make your marketing more effective appeal to the person, make them front and center in your sales and marketing communications. Put yourself in the role of the decision maker.

Number 2: Use Contrast

The reptilian brain gets contrast: before and after, big and small anything put together that doesn’t quite fit is appealing. Some examples of this are the HSBC ads from a few years ago. They have contrast on contrast and stand out beautifully – it is hard not to see or connect with these ads.


Another example of this is this advertisement for news, the contrast is right there in the eye. It isn’t even immediately apparent what the contrast means, but the contrast combined with the eye looking directly at you is striking and draws you in to read the advertisement itself:

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Number 3: Use Tangible Concepts

Our oldest brain is not smart, that is the way it evolved. Thinking comes later. So you want to make your sales and marketing communication, your copy and every aspect of how you communicate very tangible.

For example, this advertisement for Mr. Clean drives home the point immediately:


You don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about what they are communicating here. It helps that Mr. Clean is very well known – the moment you see the bright white stripe with the iconic character, you know at an instinctual level what they are communicating.

Number 4: Focus On The Beginning And End

The reptilian brain has amazing fast data processing capability. But it does not think. It engages at the beginning and end of an interaction but tunes out in the middle. So keep this in mind with every interaction: engage by having a great beginning and great ending.

George Lucas even identified this as a key to good film making. In his words: “the secret to a good movie is a hot opening, a hot close and … just don’t screw up the middle.


Here is the best news about the beginning and end concept: you do have a second chance to make a first impression. End well. If you meet someone and things aren’t going well, all you have to do is end with something that lands – they will likely forget the rest.

Number 5: Be Visual

The optic nerve ties directly into the reptilian brain and is 40-50 times faster than the auditory sense. So the most direct way into the brain is through your visual communications. You can see here on this page how powerful visual communications are. Be more visual.

A great example of this is the global antismoking campaign. Check out this warning on packs of cigarettes:

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And compare to these ads:

creative anti smoking ads 17

I doubt the warning ever gave anybody pause. These other two make a point. The difference is visualization.

Number 6: Get Emotional

When you are presenting, engaging or selling to people, don’t lead with the facts. Lead with something more interesting, more emotionally engaging.

Think of the Mac and PC ads from a decade ago. The PC character is always struggling and the Mac characters is always cool and collected. They are both likable but you definitely want to be more like the Mac than the PC.

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Watch a couple here and note how they appeal to the human side of things. They talk about computers and functionality but only in terms of what it delivers to the end user. And despite being computer commercials they don’t dwell on any computing facts at all, they make a human connection.

So next time you are presenting, pitching or marketing remember to make it about them, remember to engage that reptilian brain

The way to do this is to:

  • Make it about the audience
  • Use Contrast
  • Use tangible concepts
  • Focus on the beginning and the end
  • Be visual
  • Get emotional

Stop talking before you bore your audience – like a card trick magician, always leave them wanting more, and be ready for questions.

Because if you engage your audience and your prospects well, they will want to talk to you for more information.  They will want your solution.

If you do they will be interested and you will stand apart

Appealing to the emotional side of your market and backing that up with facts is a powerful way to sell and market your services. People will want to know more, they will want to buy from you. The conversations will shift from hard work of trying to figure out how to be relevant to the more rewarding task of solving real problems.

And since so few marketers do this you will stand apart as the person or company or team with the answers that people want to hear. Prospects will be more interested in doing business with you, it will be easier to generate word of mouth referrals because people remember you, and you will have more loyal customers because they will connect with you.

The best part: you will be happy to have a few job seekers in the crowd because you will need the help.

Ready for a marketing strategy that drives traffic, interest, and… well… sales?

Download our one pager on the Reptilian Brain here.

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