Understand how the brain works to unlock buying behaviour.

How does the brain work? 

To understand buying behaviour you need to have a basic grasp of how the brain works. There’s nothing straightforward about the brain; it’s a magical, awe inspiring neural engine that beggars belief. Science has come a long way in the past thirty years; we have learned so much about how the brain functions and, more importantly, how it affects our behaviour.

There are two main systems at work in the brain. The primal brain (brain stem & limbic system) and the rational brain (the neocortex).

The primal brain is the oldest – and fastest – part of our brains in evolutionary terms (500 million years in the making) consists of the brain stem, the spinal cord (proto-reptilian brain) and the limbic system. The primal brain is the emotional centre of our brain, where feelings and expressive reactions that are important to the preservation of life – anger, fear, happiness, excitement etc. – are housed.  This part of our brain is also responsible for deep seated motivations (instinct, gut reactions) such as a man’s need to protect and fight as well as a woman’s need to nurture.

The vast majority of our decisions are made in the emotional core of our brain and we have virtually no control over them. More than 95% of the decisions we make are made at a subconscious level, and here’s the kicker, this part of our brain can’t read. Yes, the part of your brain that is making all  your decisions can’t read. That little nugget changes everything when it comes to marketing and how we structure messages.

The Rational Brain (Neocortex) is the largest, and newest, part of our brain as it’s only 5,000,000 years in development.  It is the centre of higher brain functions such as speaking, understanding language, thinking, reading, music, ethics etc. This is essentially our hard drive where inputs are processed and interpreted. It’s sophisticated, but slow. It’s priority is to process decisions already made by the primal brain. In the absence of a convincing (logical) argument, the brain will defer to heuristics (emotions).

Brain system diagram - bark like a big dog ltdThe best way to think about how the brain works in terms of priority, is that we decide long before we choose. That is, the emotional brain makes the decision, the rational brain is there to justify the decision.

That is why it’s essential that marketing messages are structured to appeal to the emotional core of our brain and not the rational brain. That’s not to say the rational brain doesn’t play a part, but if the emotional brain isn’t happy, the logical brain rarely overcomes that initial decision. If you don’t acknowledge how the brain works you will be at a huge disadvantage.

Emotional decisions rule

The primal brain not only reacts faster, but it does also so with a high degree of certainty.  Our rational brain needs a lot more time to arrive at a decision.  The majority of our emotions happen below the conscious threshold, so we are blissfully unaware of them, but they play a large role in how we perceive and react to a situation.  When we do become aware of an emotion we are literally only ‘feeling’ the tip of the iceberg.  In addition to being slower, the evaluations made by our rational brain are provisional; that is, we are willing to adjust our interpretation if new evidence gives us good reason.  But our emotional brain believes its reactions to be true and sends signals which eliminate certain options, and it can also convince us of certain views regardless of them being right or wrong.  In the absence of a logical solution the brain will resort to purely emotional input (heuristics) to make a determination.

The emotional brain feeds the thought process, which is a continuous stream of activity; our logical brain refines the emotional input. But whenever thinking conflicts with emotions, emotions will always win.  In general, we follow our emotions which we may (or may not) be subject to rational analysis.  All logical thoughts have emotional associations.

So, understanding how the brain works is pretty simple. Emotion trumps logic. Every. Single. Time.



Thinking is exhausting

We have over 40 billion neurons in our brains.  These complex and varied cells contain one fibre for sending – the axon – and a bunch of fibres for receiving – the dendrite tree.  These fibres are equipped with synapses which act as connectors to other neurons.  The electrical activity – action potentials – stimulates the release of chemicals (neurotransmitters) which are the real messengers in our brains.  Every minute of every day, up to one million different chemical reactions are happening inside our brain.  Our brain equates to just 3% of our body weight and yet takes a whopping 30% of our total energy usage at rest.




All this electrical and chemical activity happens for the sole purpose of creating neural networks in our brains.  Our memory consists of billions of these networks.  Each neuron participates in thousands of networks, but specialized neurons connect our brain to the outside world, these neurons form our senses.  These senses supply input to the brain, but the largest part of the brain only receives input from other parts of the brain and in turn gives output to other parts without any interference from the outside world.   Bottom line, our brain talks to itself more than it does the outside world.

Our brains are in a constant state of development which is often referred to as plasticity or changeability.  Networks are constantly being established.  But, significantly, the brain rejects networks as well as accepts them.  Only networks which are reinforced by experiences are retained. That is, neural networks consist of connections of varying strengths, the more frequently specific connections are activated, the stronger they become.  The intensity of an experience also accelerates the formation of a permanent network.  Connections that aren’t activated gradually weaken over time.   Scientists have been able to map out the physiological processes involved in forming a memory, but nobody has yet to decode how we recall them.

The net result of all this activity is a memory – an engram.  The process of forming a fully established, permanent memory can last up to 2 years and at any time during that process it can easily be erased.  However, repetition and the intensity of an experience can accelerate this process.

Our memories are stored using a very sensitive rating scheme, which is essentially linked to emotional associations.

Emotional Memories

When something happens that reminds us of a past emotional experience, the emotional brain reacts by activating the same feelings that accompanied the earlier experience.  There is a difference between recalling an emotion and an emotional memory.  Recalling an emotion is like recalling any fact; its nature is purely cognitive.  This is particularly relevant to brand memories.

It is likely that, for most people, their memories of a brand (particularly if the brand is relatively new to the person) are more cognitive in nature.  There may well be some emotion coded to the memory, but it isn’t as strong, or the same as an experienced emotion.  For example, if we watch a commercial that portrays a very negative situation we can relate to the emotional impact of the situation being described, but it doesn’t have any immediate consequences for us, so the emotion isn’t as urgent or influential.  It can still make you feel something, but not in the same way it would if you were actually in that situation.  Humour works this way too, a positive association with a brand (like laughing your ass off) can create a stronger association, but in the end, it’s still more logic than ‘real’.  Over time (and depending how integrated the brand is into your life) it can become associated to genuine emotions – but these vary from person to person enormously.

The basic rule is that the earlier in the branding process you can stimulate a strong emotional response, the more likely the brand memory will be coded to long term memory.

It’s also worth noting that putting people in a positive frame of mind can dramatically affect the way in which they purchase.  People come to a decision much faster if they are feeling positive and if you can add lots of positive emotional associations with your brand then you’re onto a winner.


The different systems within our brain work in harmony to make, rationalise and act upon the thousands of decisions we make everyday. The takeaway for marketers is pretty simple. If you aren’t marketing to emotional brain you’re missing a trick.

If you can get the subconscious brain to like you,  it might hang around long enough to buy from you.

Make brainy choices and you’ll light a fire under your marketing.

Joanne Emmerson - Marketing Consultant at Bark Like A Big DogJoanne Emmerson FCIM

Joanne is a fellow of the Royal Chartered Institute of Marketing and has 30+ years marketing experience. She has worked all around the world, is published in 7 countries and teaches marketing communication theory at Post Graduate level both in the UK and USA. She is an expert in the application of neuromarketing research to everyday marketing and has helped hundreds of organisations transform their results.