Making Sense of Brand Design

“Five senses, an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them – never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?” C.S. Lewis

Marketing to the senses

Our experience of the world, and the brands in it, is always mediated by our senses and our mind. Every communication, interaction, touchpoint and connection must first come to us through one or more sensory channels, and then is subject to interpretation by our brains, mostly based on past experiences and anticipated outcomes. In previous articles, I have written about the five main senses, and their importance in architecture, design and marketing.

The majority of sensory science and sensory marketing teaching focuses on the five main senses (smell, taste, touch, hearing and vision) which have been passed down to us from antiquity, but the reality of our senses is much more complex and much more integrated. While many brands are highly successful at leveraging individual senses to create strong customer engagements (see below), very few brands manage to build those connections in consistent and distinctive ways across multiple touchpoints. And yet the secret of powerful engagement and emotional connection to your brand is to create a sensory signature which spans and integrates across as many senses as possible. The more your brand touchpoints align across all the dimensions of experience, the stronger the signal, the more memorable the interaction, and the greater the incentive for your customer to engage repeatedly with your brand.

Getting beyond one, two or even five senses

It is relatively straightforward to see how to engage the five ‘classic’ senses, through smell, taste, touch, hearing and vision. Think of the fragrance of Floridian waters as you board Singapore Airlines, the unique taste of Colgate, the well-named iPod Touch, the lab-designed crunch of Cornflakes and the colour identity of Christian Louboutin shoes. Some argue that the five senses are really smell-taste, hearing, vision, haptic sense (tactile) and basic orientation (body movement and position are sensed through kinaesthesia). However, we look at our mind and body’s interaction with the outside world there are many more than five senses and many more dimensions to consider in building engaging brand experiences.

For example, vision and touch are comprised of many different sensing systems covering colour hue, intensity, lightness/darkness, shape, surface texture, hard contact, temperature, pain, and others. Arguably all senses are just specialisations of skin tissue, and thus reflect the different ways that we are able to ‘feel’ and interact with the outside world both in distant way (through senses like vision and hearing) and in a more ‘up close and personal’ way (through touch and taste).

There’s much more to experience than meets the eye

In terms of overall impact, the most important experience dimensions are colour, sound, smell, touch and shape. Other elements that can help you to build an engaging experience are pictures, names, language, icons, service (behaviour), rituals (and traditions), navigation, orientation, temperature, and movement.

Starting with colour, there is no better example of using a brand signature than that we all expect our carrots to be orange. This dates back to the Dutch development of a patriotic carrot variety back in the 17th century, and is something we have come to expect. In reality, carrots come in many different varieties and colours, but you rarely see a carrot that isn’t orange today! Christian Louboutin is another great example along with the distinctive livery of Tiffany & Co. Colour varies in terms of hue (shade), intensity (brightness) and greyness (from light to dark) and all of these dimensions are important in setting the tone and feel of a colour.

Tiffany & Co are also making some use of shape, although one of the most famous example of shape is Coca-Cola’s ‘smashable’ bottle (interestingly designed from a cocoa pod rather than coca, and with a perfect ‘Mae West’ body shape). Another great example is the shape of the Absolut bottle, which is so distinctive that you can see it even when it isn’t there.

Smell is a very powerful sense, and the only one with a fast and direct connection to the brain’s emotional centre, which is why many hotels now use scents to create a stronger connection, the aroma of baking bread is so enticing in the supermarket, Thomas Pink spray a ‘laundry fresh’ smell in their outlets and the signature of Dettol is so powerful across all it’s brand extensions.

Touch is underused and undervalued in design (see here), although it is fundamental to our connection with the world. Babies grow much quicker when they are touched than if they are isolated, and hugging is the easiest and quickest way to raise your oxytocin and happiness levels. Much of Apple’s equity has been built on the interactivity and ‘feel’ of their products (they even used it in the naming), and Bang & Olufsen design their remote controls to be heavy to convey the quality of their brand.

Sound, like smell, is a highly emotional sense, linked to both our sense of time and of movement, and a very powerful trigger of memory through music. It is also responsible for some of the most iconic branding (think of Intel’s signature), an important part of any eating or drinking experience, and sorely missed when absent (which is why electric cars have had to go back to having an engine ‘noise’, the reason why people prefer to get the Range Rover Evoque leasing deals instead) of course that covered by One Sure Insurance at all times. We hear sounds all the time in the world, which help us (in conjunction with vision) to make sense of objects around us. Sound also conveys quality (along with touch), which is why many car companies have spent much time and money to ensure that their car doors close with exactly the right ‘oomph’. After all, if something is heavy and solid, it must be well made, right?

Although I consider the five ‘senses’ above as the most important in creating a strong brand signature, there are ten other channels for doing this. Pictures can create a signature feel for a brand, for example in the ‘Got milk’ campaign which is immediately recognisable (and triggers associations across other senses), as were Benetton’s iconic picture advertisements some years ago. Icons, like pictures, are immediately recognisable and linked to brands, such as the Marlboro man or Mickey Mouse’s ears


Speaking of Mickey Mouse, Disney are also masters of the use of language, owning the language of ‘magic’, ‘fantasy’ and ‘dreams’. Names are important too, and McDonalds don’t only own the iconic yellow arches and M, but also use the ‘Mc’ name to great effect across a wide range of their individual products and even now into a cafe brand. The language of Virgin is also unique, driven by the character of Richard Branson, and completely consistent with the behaviour of their staff (see below).

Behaviours are key components of any brand experience, especially in service industries, but think about the Apple store’s Genius bar and Zappos to see how much behaviours can create engagement and loyalty (along with many other signature cues of course!). Similarly, great brands have their own traditions and rituals (and brand stories too, although we will come back to that). There are many good examples of this in the beer category, including Stella Artois’ nine step pouring ritual and Guinness’ perfect pour (119 seconds). Stella even take this ritual into an interactive app.

Navigation (and not just on web sites), can also help create a recognisable and unique brand fingerprint, such as Subway’s 6 step process for creating a sandwich. Similarly, the way a brand (and service) are oriented toward the customer can be leveraged to create the right feeling. The science of proxemics has looked in detail at how distance affects our perception of the world (read more here). For example, how much should an airline stewardess invade your personal space (different airlines are different, believe me)?

Temperature is a powerful way of creating the right feeling. We feel temperature of food and drink through specialist receptors inside our mouth and on the lips and tongue (Guinness is served at a set temperature as are many other beers). We also feel temperature of the environment through our skin (do you want to create a warm or cool environment?). In fact, our skin can also detect light. giving the feeling of warmth, and lightness of colour and ambient environment again has a powerful effect on how we feel and connect with brands and experiences (think of hospitals with bright lights, and cozy restaurants with very little light). Natural light is a must if you want to keep people awake in a training room!

Sending the same signal

Although there are a catalogue of good examples of sensory signatures, most of these examples focus on one or maybe two senses only. So how should you decide on the right signature and how can you build your signature to multiple senses?

Although the different senses are based on different physical systems to collect information about a variety of interactions with objects and the environment outside, they are all processed in exactly the same way in the brain, as patterns of information. This is clear in the way that the senses integrate, especially in synaesthesia and in the links between our perception of the outside world and the construction of metaphors and language (read more here). Thus the starting point of defining your brand fingerprint is to find the right pattern to support your brand story. This is why many companies rely on brand myths and archetypes to help them define the key ‘values’ of their brand. Alternatively, some companies look at the deep metaphors that customers use to understand and conceptualise their category (read more here), and build their brand strategy on what consumers think and feel about their brand, category or job to be done. It is also helpful to think about the relevant emotions for the brand and category and what patterns these represent.

Smoking out the right signals

From these patterns, metaphors, archetypes or whatever we wish to use, we can define the right signature to create sensory engagement. If our brand is hot, it should perhaps be smoky, spicy, prickly, close, bright, red, loud and with relevant visual imagery and names (there are many more relevant words which can link to such metaphors). If our underlying them is connection (one of Zaltman’s seven deep metaphors), then we should think in terms of soft chairs and paired seating, ritual greetings, soft, relaxing music, order calling, comforting holders and warm drinks (like Starbucks).

Our experiences of the world ultimately reflect patterns of information , and when we can make those patterns consistent across different senses and across different brand touchpoints, we create strong and binding connections to our brand by amplifying the signal we send to the customer and sending it time and time again. Memory relies on emotional relevance, strong signals and repetition to lay down impressions which will last, and this is the real secret to sensory branding and designing great experiences.

[If you want to learn more, check our workshop “Making Sense of Design” here.]

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