Romancing the Reptile

Marketers and retailers spend time, money, and energy learning what motivates people to buy products, where they prefer to purchase, what products they want, and how to make products that meet their needs.

Figuring out the whims of the masses—which shift as the world changes—is a messy business. Trends suddenly appear, technology changes the way consumers purchase goods and how they learn about them, shifting economies create new wealth, and shoppers don’t always appear to act rationally. Famed shopping researcher Paco Underhill declared the study of shopping to be a science in his landmark book Why We Buy, but he added that it’s “a science that has grown up in the real world,” not in academia.

G. Clotaire Rapaille, founder of the marketing, advertising, research, and development firm Archetype Discoveries Worldwide, practices his particular branch of the science in both a laboratory setting and in the real world. His research differs significantly from standard market research practiced by people like Underhill. Rapaille says marketers don’t much like his methods.

But many decision makers do. Rapaille has been credited with design innovations for the PT Cruiser, SUVs, and the Hummer that include large cup holders and headlights that he says look like eyes. He advised the Lego company that Americans do not read instructions. His insights helped companies sell coffee in Japan, whiskey in Argentina, and digital watches in Europe. He’s even tackling the issue of obesity in America. Presidential candidates in both major parties have sought his insights but balked at his six-figure fees.

“They tell me that I should do it because I believe in the cause,” he tells JCK in his French accent. “But I am apolitical.”

Yes, Rapaille is French. But he says he loves America and proved it several years ago by becoming an American citizen. He relies on his experience and expertise as a psychiatrist (he worked with autistic children), cultural anthropologist, and former diplomat to develop ways for organizations to sell their products to a particular market segment by finding that segment’s archetype.


Rapaille’s work focuses on finding the “code” for a particular market segment, no matter how broad—whether it’s a targeted consumer segment or an entire country. (Rapaille recently developed codes for India and China.) He describes the code as a mental and emotional connection imprinted when the brain is at the earliest stage of development. He says the evolutionary development of the human brain came in three stages. The first is the reptilian brain, or “R complex,” which performs the basic functions of survival, such as eating and breathing. The next stage, the limbic brain, governs emotions. The third stage is the cerebral cortex, the seat of human intelligence.

Rapaille says it’s the reptilian brain that controls why people do the things they do. “The reptilian always wins,” he says.

He adds, “We believe that once you know ‘the code’ you have more choices, you are more consistent, and you have tremendously more chances to reach your goals and be more successful.”

He learns the code through an unorthodox process, which he calls an “imprinting session,” held at his home and corporate headquarters in a Tuxedo Park, N.Y., mansion. He uses about 30 volunteers for a three-hour session divided into three one-hour periods designed to appeal to each part of the brain—from reason (the cortex), through emotion (the limbic), and finally to the primal core (reptilian). He ignores the responses of the first two sessions. It’s during the third session, when people relate their first impressions of a given topic, that he learns the code.

After learning the code, he helps companies design, develop, package, and sell products, making sure everything about the product is “on code.”

“The code can be applied to sell jewelry, diamonds, food, anything,” he says.


Just as marketers don’t like Rapaille’s methods, he doesn’t care for theirs. He says they are too cortex oriented, focusing too much on what people say.

“I don’t listen to what people say,” he declares. “I’m happiest when people say, ‘Wow! I want it but I don’t know why.’”

He says the reason someone gives for wanting to go to the mall isn’t the real reason he or she goes.

“When a woman says she is going shopping because she’s bored, I don’t believe her,” he says. “People go shopping to reconnect with life. In a mall you find baby products, products for old people, teens. Products come from all over the world. There are people in the mall. She is there to reconnect with life.”

He continues, “Why do people go shopping when it’s back to school? Because they are growing and being reconnected with life.”

He recently completed research on the code for luxury in America for a group of clients that include jewelry retailers.

“A key element in America is 80 percent of people who have money didn’t have any money 10 years ago,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the first time in their life that they have money.”

Rapaille says members of the new wealthy class wants to show off their wealth. They want big cars and large diamonds.

“What’s wrong with that?” he asks. “Many companies with European origins don’t understand this. They still live in a world of discretion and class. People don’t give a damn about that in America.”

Rapaille doesn’t work for Ralph Lauren or David Yurman, but he’s a big fan of their brands and how they’re presented.

“Ralph Lauren is honest, and I respect him a lot,” Rapaille says. “He sells privilege in America at $25 (also at a much higher price). Polo is the king of sports, and he can sell it. It’s popular, it’s luxury, and it’s available at all price levels.” He says Lauren is consistent and calls him “a genius in brands.”

He admires a David Yurman advertisement geared toward men that shows no jewelry. Instead, it shows a man with his wife and children. Rapaille says the ad presents a story about why a man will buy jewelry for a woman he loves. “The ad doesn’t show jewelry,” he says. “He is selling the product benefit.”

He uses the Yurman ad as a way to chastise the majority of luxury watch companies for ads that he says don’t provide a reason to buy their product. “Watch companies are ruined by dumb people,” he says. “They all just show you a watch. What is the idea?”

When it’s suggested that the jewelry industry does try to appeal to customers’ emotional needs, Rapaille responds that the jewelry industry can’t define emotional needs.

“Luxury is more than just selling product,” he says. “Luxury is a goal. Set some goals for people who want to move up.”

He continues, “Everybody has a dream. And in America people want proof of success. The luxury business is the proof business.”

A world traveler and shopper, Rapaille also is a critic of the commoditization of the luxury shopping experience, and he disapproves of luxury brands creating stores that are similar anywhere in the world.

“We are trying to create a global way to shop,” he says. “I don’t like that. If I can buy it in New York, why should I go to an international destination to buy it?”

He adds, “There’s something unique in New York, and I don’t want that to change. I can eat some stuff in Quebec that I can’t find anywhere else. … Big companies have to invest in products that can be only available in a given culture. I want to be able to find products that are local and archetypical. I’m not going to Paris if I can find the same French food here.”

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