Marketing to the Senses

Aradhna Krishna’s new book on sensory marketing “Customer Sense” is a welcome addition to a very select list of reading on the topic. Aradhna has already edited “Sensory Marketing”, which contains chapters by experts in each of the five senses, many full of interesting insights and examples of how the senses work and how brands can create more engaging product and service experiences.

Aradhna defines sensory marketing as “marketing that engages the consumers’ senses and affects their perception, judgment and behaviour.” She opens the book with a discussion of e-books (in a story about the Ross School of business in Ann Arbor) – I personally much prefer the feel of a real book in my hands – and Dippin’ Dots ice cream (which sounds wonderful – I hope to try soon) and how a change in texture and format can create a completely different (and premium) eating experience.

Aradhna uses the term ‘sensory signature’ to describe the recognizable attributes that many successful products have based on an appeal to one or more of the senses, and devotes a chapter to each of the five main senses, starting with vision which she admits is often the main focus of marketers in developing brand identity. She describes the many biases in our visual perception which are the basis of visual illusions (discussing a number of such illusions), including distance bias and sizing bias which were new concepts to me, with important implications for designing retail spaces and pricing different sized product options. Sizing bias also explains our poor judgment of volume (eg in beer glasses).

In the chapter on audition, she discusses the role of sound in marketing, including sonic logos and icons (eg Intel), jingles, slogans (eg “I’m lovin’ it”, “Because you’re worth it”), song and retail ambience, including a discussion of naming and the role of hearing (as well as reading) in interpreting brand names and of product noises (eg the Harley-Davidson engine rumble). There is also a discussion of voices and speech and how the characteristics of a brand spokesperson’s voice can influence perceptions of power, strength and quality.

The chapter on smell starts with a discussion of the role of incense in Egyptian temples, Roman baths and religious mythology (think of frankincense and the three wise men, and Buddhist, Hindu and Catholic rituals). Unlike tastes, our reaction to smells is primarily learnt by association (if we always smell lavender in the massage parlour, we learn to associate the smell with relaxation). The same materials can smell of ‘vomit’ or ‘parmesan cheese’ depending on our previous experience and how the smell is primed or described to us. Scent marketing is a growing business: for cars, hotels, spas and many other products and services. Here in Singapore many of the large and small hotels, have their own ‘signature’ fragrance (as they do in many other countries), although it is important to ensure that the smell is congruent with the intended experience.

Although taste is a much more limited sense, it is intimately linked to other senses, so that the taste of, for example, a Hershey’s Kiss is influenced by the taste, texture, shape and feel of the packaging. Taste is strongly influenced by our prior expectations, so making products look more appealing improves their taste. There are five major tastes including umami (and arguably two more), and they are all distributed across all areas of the tongue (contrary to popular myth). A taste experience, ignoring the impact of vision, sound and other senses) is still dominated by smell (in the process of chewing food) above that of the taste receptors on our tongue. In Dr Krishna’s own experiments she has shown how even the shape and material of a cup can influence the taste of water (something I remember from my time in sensory research 20 years ago). Another interesting piece of research showed that a potato chip bag which was harder to open led to higher ratings of the taste of the contents!

Touch is an important human social sense, encompassing our whole body and allowing us to perceive hardness, texture, weight, temperature and shape. Our skin is packed full of different  and highly sensitive receptors, although there is evidence that some of us value touch-based experiences more than others (leading to the development of the NFT Рneed for touch Рscale). Importantly, our need for touch influences the impact of packaging on our perception of the product inside and the amount we will pay for it. And touch can also increase the size of your tips if you work in a restaurant.

The book closes with the example of how casinos are designed to control the environment and stimulate the senses to encourage punters to stay and spend. Anyone interested in building engaging customer experiences will enjoy reading Customer Sense and its insights into the increasingly important role of sensory marketing. And watch out for another addition to the list soon.


Customer Sense: How the 5 Senses Influence Buying Behaviour by Aradhna Krishna (2013)

Sensory Marketing: Research on the Sensuality of Products by Aradhna Krishna (2010)

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