Mark Whiting and Sandrine McClure

The importance of emotions in building strong relationships between brands and consumers is well-documented. But nowadays, marketers are increasingly finding that words alone struggle to create an impactful story, and that instead the most powerful emotions are those which are accessed through multiple senses. Creating an engaging experience now means knowing how to tell a story that uses colours, aromas, sounds and sensations as part of a multifaceted and multi-layered narrative.

Part of the reason why senses can be so evocative is to do with the way in which our brains function. Smell is perhaps the sense which is least harnessed by marketers, yet it is the only one which is directly hard-wired to our brains, with no transformation of the olfactory signal (scent) taking place on the way to the brain. This is why smell is particularly evocative and capable of triggering such strong emotions and memories.

Research suggests that smell is a strong mood shifter, with particular scents capable of altering our emotional state in different ways: the smell of vanilla, for example, has been proven to put people more at ease. Singapore Airlines is one of only a few brands to capitalize on the power of smell, and does so by consistently deploying its signature scent throughout a range of consumer touch points: it is worn by the cabin crew, added to towels handed out to passengers and diffused around the cabin before takeoff.

If smell is an emotionally powerful sense, other sensory stimuli such as sound are capable of influencing our behavior physiologically and psychologically. Sound can increase or decrease our heart rate, or literally give us the shivers, while tone of voice experiments have shown how sound can inspire feelings of trust or suspicion. It can also distort our perception of a price, of a place or even of time: music with a slow-tempo, for example, has been shown to make us perceive waiting times to be shorter. Essentially, sound has the powerful capacity to deeply influence our behaviors, impacting the pace at which we walk or even how long we stay in a store or restaurant. A clearly-defined sound identity is an excellent way of building top of mind awareness, but globally, it has been estimated that less than one in ten brands have one. Underwear brand DIM has successfully defined one, using a core musical gimmick of a few proprietary notes, consistently leveraged over time and constantly refreshed with different variations.

Touch has been called the demystifying sense. It brings tangibility and a sense of objectivity to what surrounds us. From an emotional standpoint, touch provides the feeling of having made an intimate encounter: touching something makes it your own. Researchers have found that shoppers who touch a product are more likely to purchase it. So touch is a pivotal, intimate sense that “closes the deal.” Brands are getting wise to the power of touch to add surprise and excitement to potentially banal brand experiences. Starbucks tactically places a variety of coffee beans on its waiting lines for people to touch, to enable buyers to imagine their tasting before it happens. They also place craft-paper flyers and cards in store to further cue authenticity, freshness and genuineness to their customers.

With extended product offerings and an ever increasing pace of life, immediacy of impact will prove vital for brands in years to come. Sight is the first sense to come into play as consumers near a touch point, and many experiments have shown that is also central to product selection: 40% of all perfume purchase decisions are estimated to be based on the design of the bottle. Savvier consumers are increasingly expecting more visual sophistication from brands and as visual codes gain in maturity, brands will have to work hard to cue finer nuances.

There is a common belief that taste holds little potential for brands whose core equity is not rooted in food, but for many it could be an avenue worth exploring. Taste has an enviable stopping power, since flavour appreciation usually implies pausing, indulging and taking one’s time. So what could be taste’s contribution to a brand, especially a non-food or beverage related one? During a recent Kenzo catwalk show, guests were given patisseries designed by Lenôtre so they could “taste” the creativity of the brand’s designs as well as see it. More literally, Fanta’s ‘Drink your Magazine’ campaign used edible paper to pre-seed their product’s taste before the actual product experience. Consumers were invited to tear off a piece of the magazine and taste the flavour of Fanta.

Clearly each one of our five senses is capable of delivering exciting and powerful marketing opportunities. But brands preparing to take the sensory plunge must be careful to define exactly the feelings and associations they are trying to create, and to reflect this in a sensory identity that is unique, engaging and consistent with their brand’s personality. Even after achieving this, each sense brings its own set of deployment challenges for marketers.

For example, scent based marketing can be particularly tricky in terms of isolating the impact of each sense on consumer response: an excessive number of fragrances at retail points can be off-putting to consumers, while mobile living and the multiplication of touch points can generate olfactory chaos, with consumers moving quickly from one touch point to another. To avoid this, we can think about deploying senses “negatively”: retailers including Selfridges department store in London are increasingly using in-store silence as a key way to disrupt sound conventions in a world constantly polluted by sound nuisance.

Another challenge is the reproduction in a uniform and targeted way of a particular stimulus across consumer touch points. With smell and touch this can be difficult, but in terms of sound, something as simple as a repeated jingle can effectively work on short term awareness (think Windows four-chord sound which reflects its logo’s four colours), whereas a proprietary piece of music can help associate deeply-rooted emotions with a brand.

Senses might sometimes seem to be beyond the reach of a particular brand, and we might ask how a non-food brand could incorporate taste into their marketing mix, particularly when only 16% of Fortune 1000 brands currently do so. Senses are often not as inaccessible as we might at first believe, and taste is easily reached through adjacent senses. For example, we strongly associate colors with tastes: red and orange are sweet, green and yellow are sour, while white tends to be salty. Even for brands whose only opportunity to deploy taste as a marketing tool comes through a PR or in-store event, it’s definitely time to stop relying on the standard fare from the caterer round the corner and think about how choice of flavours could actually strengthen the brand’s message; the fastest way to a consumer’s heart is often through their mouths.

The growth of online shopping and the propagation of digital experiences in all aspects of our daily life risk disconnecting consumers from sensory experiences. In terms of touch, brands have so far largely focused on how their packaging or products feel in a consumer’s hands. But increasingly, we are living with stream-lined devices and tactile interfaces: a new standard of touch has arisen. On the other hand, as remote/ e-purchasing comes to dominate, consumers may grow into the belief that touch is optional. Perhaps the only way to get around this issue is for marketers to invest more time and energy not just meeting consumers, but experiencing their brands as consumers experience them themselves. Whether working on alcohol (how does that glass feel in your hand?) or working in luxury (does prohibiting touch actually create more desire?), hands-on experience of the power of touch is ever more essential.

Finally, we must not forget that the triggers we associate with senses are culturally-biased and ever evolving: in visual terms, shape, symmetry, colour and materials often carry deeper meanings which are culturally conditioned. In a world with ever-renewing codes and signifiers, visual future-proofing is something which brands cannot afford to neglect. That’s why it is important to explore ‘raw culture’ for insight. We need to look for patterns, visual or otherwise, across a variety of creative genres, forms, markets and categories that collectively make up the cultural fabric used—typically subconsciously—by consumers to make sense of brands, products and communication. We must bear in mind the visual overload of consumers’ everyday experiences, and account for the chaotic and varying contexts in which a brand’s visual identity exists

Multisensory / Synaesthesia
We’ve chosen to look at each of the five senses one by one, but they can of course be deployed in tandem to greater effect. One of the best examples is from South Korea where Dunkin’ Donuts set out to increase their sales by playing the company’s jingle in buses whilst simultaneously diffusing the smell of the brand’s signature coffee. Visits to stores near bus stops grew 16 % and the chain saw a 29 % overall increase in coffee sales during the campaign.

And imagine how powerful it could be to activate all five senses at once to create a multi-faceted emotional experience for your brand. For this, we can look for inspiration from the neurological condition synaesthesia, in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to an automatic, involuntary experience in another. It manifests itself through inter-modal experiences across senses such as: a sound triggering a concurrent color experience (e.g. a clicking evoking the color red) or a touch-olfactory convergence (e.g. an image of a chair being linked with a banana smell).

Although most of us don’t experience such extreme connections between the senses, a recent study revealed that something as basic as the utensils we use can very much affect the way we perceive everything from the sweetness to the expensiveness of food. They report that blue utensils make food seem saltier, lighter utensils make food seem richer, and contrasting food and utensils affect how much people like food.

Through our journey exploring the senses, we’ve seen several examples that show how the ability to create engaging brand experiences relies increasingly on appealing to one or more senses. However, it is less obvious where and when brands should be seeking out congruency across all five senses as opposed to providing unexpected sensory contradictions. Inevitably, it will involve much trial and error, but our view is that brands that have the courage to make the leap into the new worlds of haptic technology (touch) and flavor replicators, or who delve into sound theory and semiotics to develop stronger visual and sound signatures will be amongst the winners in the race to be amongst the world’s best loved brands.

Mark Whiting is a Director and Sandrine McClure is a Director at Added Value