What makes us ‘like’ a brand or product? How do we choose one brand over another? Why do we keep buying certain brands?

It turns out that we all make decisions in a similar way, just not in the way you may think.

As a species, part of what helps us define ourselves as ‘evolved’ when comparing ourselves to other animals, is our ability to think logically and rationally. But it’s a relatively unknown fact that in most situations, our brains don’t act in that way at all.

The brain’s preferred mode is actually to work intuitively and quickly, and to rely on mental shortcuts wherever possible. Key behavioural science research can help us understand how brains react to information, and that in turn can help us figure out what really works when it comes to creating effective marketing.

The evolving brain

We can attribute humans’ domination as the most evolved species to several factors. The single most important one being something that weighs in at about three pounds, is grey in colour and sits between your ears. Your brain.

Compared to our ice age ancestors you may think that our brains have evolved to function at a much higher-level of thinking: after all, these days we do have social media and celebrity news to ponder on, right?

As it turns out, not so much has changed in the ‘way‘ we think at all.

Ice Age humans made life or death decisions every day. Making the right decision quickly is what ensured survival – where to take shelter, when to run or fight etc.

Some decisions early humans made were learnt experiences, like recognising patterns for tracking animals and some were more complex, often governed by emotion, like judging whether a stranger could be trusted. All of these decisions ultimately involved choices that were reduced to quick judgements that became intuitive.

For situations where ‘quick’ responses couldn’t be used, and where the governing factors were more complex, it was necessary to stop, reflect and reason.

This is altogether a different kind of thought process.

Fast forward to today and although we think we think about choices, in reality, we actually do that less than we think. Our brain’s default position is that it doesn’t like to think that much. It likes to propose intuitive answers to problems as they arise. Behavioural science has actually identified that the brain tends to work through a process of associative memory: it continually finds connections between words, images, feelings, actions and memories to build a way to interpret experiences. It’s the mental equivalent to jumping to a conclusion.

When our brain needs more time to consider something, it uses the deliberate, logical part of the mind. But this requires more energy.

Modern psychology has given us names for the two ways humans make decisions. They are called System 1 and System 2.

What is System 1 and System 2 thinking?

System 1 thinking is fast and frugal thinking. It’s automatic, guided by emotions and feelings, and doesn’t consider what we don’t know. It only works with ideas that have been primed in the system, for example through using pattern recognition but with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. 

System 2 thinking is a more critical type of thinking. It is effortful, slow and requires conscious reasoning and more attention. It’s the type of thinking required for problem solving and analysis.

In Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, the psychologist and Nobel laureate gave these ideas mainsteam prominence and popularised the fact that System 2 thinking isn’t just more difficult for us: if we can avoid it, we usually do.


“Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats; they can do it, but they’d prefer not to.” Daniel Kahneman


How do you think you think?

Most of us identify with System 2 thinking. We consider ourselves rational, analytical human beings. Thus, we think we spend most of our time engaged in System 2 thinking. In actual fact, we spend almost all of our daily lives engaged in System 1 (fast thinking) – it governs most of our decisions and is in charge. However, it’s a dual system and when we encounter something unexpected, or if we make a conscious effort and need to evaluate, we go on to engage System 2 (slow thinking). Both systems work together, but most of the time System 1 ‘calls the shots’ and seldom asks System 2 to intervene.

Why is the ‘way’ we think so important to marketers?

Understanding the mechanics of how the brain works is crucial if you want to be an effective influencer. The way System 1 thinking works can help marketers think like their customers. Humans always engage System 1 first (without thinking) and all decision making involves it. It’s therefore very powerful and influential and uses processes or mental short-cuts that help us think fast. These processes include experienceemotion and pattern recognition. Let’s look at these in a bit more depth.


If we experience something repeatedly, we are able to recall the event and the associated information more quickly than if we had had the same experience only once or twice. Information becomes subconscious. Athletes use subconscious experience or ‘muscle memory‘ to improve their performance. But it’s not the muscles that are remembering anything – it’s the brain. We use our memories to select the best response to a situation from our past experiences. This is vital in our ability to make choices quickly.


Our emotions are essential to making decisions. With experience we recall information, but it’s our emotions (how we ‘feel’) that allow us to make judgements and simplify them. Psychologist Paul Ekman identified that all humans, regardless of culture, share a set of seven core emotions that we express and can recognise as facial expressions – happiness, surprise, contempt, sadness, fear, disgust and anger.

Our human evolution has depended on this common, non-verbal language of communication. If something makes us feel happy our System 1 decides that it’s most likely a good thing. A positive emotion (happiness) leads to a positive connection or association, of a choice. Daniel Kahneman, explains it like this,


“The answer to a simple question – how do I feel about it? – is an excellent proxy for the answer to a far more complex question – what do I think about it?”

Pattern recognition

As humans we have evolved to recognise patterns. It’s been essential to our survival: “Which berries should I eat?” or “Where should I hunt?” We can’t help ourselves, we see shapes and try to make sense of them, like when we see faces in everyday objects. It’s instinctive. We hear patterns in sounds – again, essential for survival, for language and ultimately music. We identify patterns in colours too. System 1 constantly looks for patterns and associations in our lives and given a choice, we will always process the thing that is recognisable first. And that is such an important feature for brands to consider.

The famous Louis Vuitton monogram (brand initials letters repeated many times that characterize the pattern) is 123 years old and was designed by Georges Vuitton inspired by Japanese symbolism, to honor the founding father of the Parisian house.

Tapping into System 1 to communicate more effectively

So, if experienceemotion and pattern recognition are the three most important ways our System 1 minds help us process the world around us, it’s crucial that marketers include these processes in the creative approach to marketing materials to maximise impact. This can be done by:

  • Building familiarity
  • Creating positive emotion
  • Making things easy to process

Our restless brand movie for Sylvania Lighting uses system 1 thinking to create an inspirational mood, evoking emotions and empowering people.

The British Airways India, A Ticket to Visit Mum campaign also uses system 1 thinking to great effect. Gaining market share from competitors and achieving 50% growth in this area through the use of nostalgia and emotion.

Making things easy to process through pattern recognition

A logo is generally one of a brand’s most important distinctive assets. The Nike swoosh, McDonald’s golden arches, the WWF panda and the Apple logo, are all examples of brands where the logo is simple, doesn’t need text and works across language barriers. Most recently, Mastercard announced that it’s dropping its name from the logo after 50 years, and will simply use the red and orange intersecting circles to represent the brand.

Ultimately, if you’re involved in marketing, communication, or brand building, it’s a good idea to focus primarily on the way we all think, all the time. That’s System 1.

  • For greater long-term brand success, create positive emotions, which will in turn lead to actions. The more we feel the more we buy. 
  • Make your brand easily recognised: be distinctive and consistent (think brand assets like logos, colour scheme, templates, straplines and sound idents etc.).
  • Lastly, make your brand available, get and stay noticed, so you are on your customers’ mental shortlist when they are ready to consume.

At restless, we believe that brands need to truly resonate with people’s emotions and be visually distinctive for long-term success.

System 1 and System 2 thinking fascinates us – so we’ll keep thinking about it.

If you’d like us to think about your brand, contact us at hello@therestless.co.uk or call 01279 797 250 and ask for Lawrence or Anthony.