Sensory Branding: Past, Present & Future

Sensory branding has come a long way in a very short time, and there is still much room to make an even greater impact. To date, sensory branding literature has focused on the classic five senses, with potential to move beyond these to a more integrated view of how the senses inform our experience of the world, and how they link to our emotional goals.

What is sensory branding? Sensory branding has been defined as “Marketing that forges an emotional association with customers by appealing to their senses in order to influence their feelings and behaviour” (adapted from Wikipedia).  Sensory branding (and sensory marketing) considers the feelings and experiences of customers, in contrast to traditional marketing which often focuses on visual identity, and occasionally sound (outside food and drink categories). We know that visual experiences are more distinctive when matched with other senses, and that sensory touch points that complement have a more powerful impact than those that clash. One of the most cited examples of sensory branding is that of Singapore Airlines and its introduction of Stefan Floridian Waters in the late 1990s (in hand towels, attendants’ perfume). However, in the late 1800s companies such as Cadbury and Quaker were already experimenting with logos and icons as well as more sophisticated and luxurious packaging in order to distinguish their brands from others. And Coco Chanel is reported to have sprayed Chanel No 5 inside her original store more than 70 years before Singapore Airlines used scent as a marketing tool.

Arguably the earliest (and still the greatest) example is the colour of carrots, which have been cultivated in Afghanistan and Iran for more than a thousand years in a variety of colours including purple and yellow. So why are most carrots orange today? William of Orange is responsible, as in the seventeenth century Dutch farmers started cultivating orange carrots to support the House of Orange and the struggle for independence. The Prince of Orange, Willem III, later became William II of Scotland and William III of England and Ireland, and is popularly known in Northern Ireland as King Billy (hence the Orange Order). Somehow the cultivar that was developed, with its abundance of carotene, has remained popular and is the colour by which most of us identify carrots today. The earliest writings on sensory branding were focused on the senses in experience design (Pine & Gilmore, Schmitt) who were followed by Martin Lindstrom’s Brand Sense in 2005 and Dan Hill’s exploration of the role of the senses in leveraging emotions. In 2013, Customer Sense and Brand esSense explore the role of the senses in marketing from scientific and brand identity perspectives.

A whistle stop tour of the senses The oldest sense (in evolutionary terms) is smell, often labelled as the most emotional sense because of its ability to trigger memory (a la Proust). There is strong evidence of a direct link between our sense of smell and our emotional well-being as in the tragic death of Michael Hutchence, who’s suicide has been linked to depression caused by his loss of smell in a car accident. Smell is directly connected to some of the oldest regions of the brain which regulate our emotions. Smell is the most important element of what we ‘taste’ in our mouths along with the texture of food, its sound, its bite (in Asian food) and the tastebuds on the tongue too. All these elements integrate to create our enjoyment of food and drink, summarised in Ney’s Flavorgram (see below).

Touch is fundamental to our understanding of the outside world and, perhaps more importantly, to our sense of well being. Harry Harlow and others have shown how touch is critical to the early development of babies, and Richard Gregory showed that we cannot “see” without first experiencing the world through touch. Our brain holds a “map” of our body, first discovered by Wilder Penfield (and hence called the Penfield map, in the somatosensory cortex). The Penfield map reveals the relative importance of body parts and the density (and therefore sensitivity) of tactile sensations across the body’s skin.

Not only does our brain map our body, it also maps the environment around us into different “zones”. Edward Hall argued that space and distance are an important component of touch, defining our world and social relationships (based on cultural norms). He also argued that the senses comprise two different systems: one which gives us an intimate knowledge of things, and those which work at a distance. However we break down the senses, all of them are fundamentally specialisations of skin tissue and detection systems that tell us to approach or avoid.

Our hearing helps us to keep track with the rhythm of the world. Think of what happens when we are working the gym and increase the tempo of the music in your headphones – we run faster. We also spend more time in restaurants and shops when the music slows (and pay more for wine when we hear classical music!). Experiments have shown that the way we interpret music is directly related to the way we evaluate time. Hearing helps us to place events in the outside world into order, and therefore to understand cause and effect. Our ears also helps us to keep balance and monitor movement and acceleration, and is much more sensitive to time than is our vision.

By comparison, our eyes are relatively insensitive to time. In the cinema, we typically see 24 still images (frames) per second, but our minds see a continuously moving image and never notice the gaps and changes. Our minds also seem to ignore the “blind spot” at the back of our eyes, showing clearly that what we “see” is purely a construct of our minds, and not the reality of the world. Visual perception comprises of different systems (including intensity, light/dark and colour quality). Colour is perhaps the most important of these in sensory marketing, and has direct physiological effects on our bodies. In the 2004 Olympics, a group of researchers studied the results of the Greco-Roman wrestling and other sports, and noticed that although competitors were randomly assigned red and blue kit, red competitors won more bouts, especially when the two competitors were equally matched. The scoring of judges was also affected by colour. It is well documented that red increases blood flow and nervous system responses, while blue has been shown to reduce crime rates and to mediate seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Colours are rich in symbolic meanings too, many of them grounded in specific contexts and cultures.

Are all senses equal? Each has a distinct role, although working in a highly integrated way with its sensory partners. In “The Nervous System in the Context of Information Theory” (Schmidt & Thews), Manfred Zimmerman looks at sensory perception through the lens of information theory, with each sensory system contributing a number of bits of information each second for the brain to process, with the eyes contributing 10 million pieces of information each second, the skin around 1 million, ears and smell each 100,000 and taste only 1,000. However, our conscious bandwidth (the sensory information we are aware of) is much more limited (to around 50 maximum) with the conscious bandwidth of the eyes around 40, ears 30, skin 5 and each of smell and taste 1 bit per second. This might indicate that our hearing and touch may have more potential impact than the combination of smell and taste.

James J. Gibson suggested that there is a better division of the senses than that provided by the classic five. The first two systems are Vision (which is itself comprised of a number of separate systems) and Hearing. Taste and smell are combined to form the Flavour system. The Haptic system comprises the different systems which integrate through our skin to help us understand the ‘feel’ of the world including touch, temperature and pain. The fifth system he proposed is the Orienting system, including balance (in our ears) and our body awareness (sensed through our joint muscles and all through the body).

Although the different sensory systems serve different purposes, they have much in common, relying ultimately on patterns of signals in the brain and extracting meaning from those patterns. For example, the two shapes above are typically associated with different names or sounds – Kiki is a sharp, angular and hard shape and sound (on the right) and Bouba is a rounded and softer shape and sound (on the left), as are their first letters K and B. Most people in most cultures agree with these this because they are able to make an analogy (a mental abstraction) between these ‘patterns’ from the different senses.

We know that the brain is a highly sophisticated pattern recognition machine, primed to recognise patterns that help it to make predictions about future events. The need to find patterns sometimes lead our brain astray (as when we ‘see’ faces on the moon), but most of the time patterns are incredibly useful as they can be associated with predictable outcomes of chains of events (especially when such outcomes allow us to reach our emotional goals).

The pattern recognition of perception works top down, leading to many of the visual (and other sensory) illusions that are known, and to the success of many magicians. Because our brain works by processing information from the top down, when we see things that contradict our previous experience our brains often over-ride the reality of the outside world (as in Richard Gregory’s ‘hollow mask illusion’).

Sensory branding today

Does Hershey’s Kiss taste any different from a bar of Hershey’s chocolate? What does the silver (or gold in China) wrapping add to the experience of eating? Shape can have a powerful influence on the taste of chocolate as Cadbury recently found out when they changed the shape of chocolate bars from their classic angular shape to a curved shape bar, and some consumers complained about the taste (which had become ‘oily’ and ‘sickly’). Cadbury swear that the recipe hasn’t changed, but shape determines how chocolate melts in the mouth and this would almost certainly change the order in which different flavour molecules are released (changing the taste).

Shape can also be expressed through packaging, as Coca-Cola, POM and others know.

Earlier this year, Wrangler launched an interesting innovation with a line of jeans designed to moisturise your legs as you wear them (three variants including aloe vera).

Apple have been making use of our perception of touch (tactile and orienting) with the design of their stores that our spacious, open and inviting, but also allow customers to touch and use their products creating a strong hook.

Perhaps the strangest recent example of sensory branding is the Heinz Beanz Flavour Experience by Bompas & Parr, who designed handmade bowls and musical spoons (iwth tiny MP3 players) for each of five Heinz Beanz flavours: Cheddar cheese, Garlic and herbs, Chilli, Barbecue and Curry. For example, the Chilli flavour beans use a sharp and spiky bowl made of stainless steel and wood, with a soundtrack embedded in the spoon that uses high frequency noises to reflect the searing heat of a chilli.

Sensing emotions

The challenge for advertising and branding is the challenge of signal detection. Great brands maximise their signal by focusing on core messages, and they minimise  noise by avoiding distracting signals, across all relevant touch points.

What are the most relevant signals? Our mental ‘detection’ systems constantly focus on emotional goals and current context. The way to break through background noise and distracting brands is to send a signal that is emotionally and contextually relevant.

All great brands have a distinctive personality, focusing on one or a combination of emotional goals that are relevant for some or all of their target customers. For example, nurturing and idealism in the case of Dove and creativity in the case of LEGO.

Metaphors help us to see common patterns, and archetypes are common patterns too. They have appeared in every culture’s mythology for thousands of years, and at their core they reflect the common emotional goals and stories that we all share in our lives. These appear in many psychological models as the tensions between independence and belonging and between stability and change.

Environmental cues and emotional goals are the key to understanding decision making in any category. TapestryWorks recently collected data on the emotional goals of Hong Kong residents across a wide range of different categories with the help of ABN Impact and GMI. Using archetypal characters to reveal the desired brand personality, reveals that shopping malls are much more about playfulness, originality and feeling different than hotels, expressed through the archetypes of Artist, Rebel and Joker.

Exploration is a need for shopping malls and hotels (given the association with travel), along with control, care and intimacy, expressing the need for security, comfort and connection (Caregiver, Ruler and Seducer). How do different hotel brands leverage these needs?

If you have stayed at Westin Hotel you would have experienced their Sensory Welcome program and fragrance based on White Tea (calming and soothing) as well as their Heavenly Beds and Heavenly Baths. The right cues for a brand that cares for you?

By contrast, Le Meridien has introduced the smell of “old books and parchments in a library” and a 24 hour lift soundtrack made with musicians from around the world. The right cues for a brand that helps you explore and discover?

Westin and Le Meridien’s use of sound, smell and other senses is all about telling a story about who you are and what you value.

The future of sensory branding

Great brands use all available elements of sense, symbol and story to build a distinctive and consistent emotional profile. At their heart all brand touch points are experienced through our senses, with meanings that tell a story about the brand brand and how it can help us achieve our emotional goals.

We know that the brain remembers through making analogies (associations) between ideas. For example, if you go into Abercrombie & Fitch you see young and fit bodies, you hear a loud and pulsing soundtrack and you have to pluck up courage to dive into the store. You can immediately associate the brand with a more athletic, aggressive and courageous personality and the colour red fits well with these values too. The Warrior is an archetype embedded deep in all our cultures; in the stories we read and the movies we watch.

Dettol is a very different example of the Warrior archetype, with a symbolic sword and sensory signature that sends a strong signal of hygiene and health. The brand statement “A mission for health” speaks to this and as a protector of families, Dettol combines the Warrior with the Caregiver archetype.

Caregivers are common in family oriented brands and charities too. They are less common in beauty, but Dove has achieved a very different version of the ‘Rags to riches’ myth, by focusing on natural beauty rather than the artificial beauty that typifies many other beauty care brands (and fashion). Dove’s vision of beauty is wholesome, natural, simple and pure, and communicated through the Real Beauty campaign and powerfully in sensory design and imagery that supports the brand as a nourishing and wholesome. Sensory imagery is very powerful in stirring human emotions, recreating the experience of using a product.

The Dove campaign is a very different take on the beauty myth, combining care and nurture, with a basis in strongly held ideals rather than short term fixes. Innocent brand also makes use of the Idealist archetype, through its name, a highly symbolic logo (innocent child face and saint’s halo), clear and understandable language and a purity of design that shines through all that the brand does.

One final example is LEGO brand which is all about being expressive, original and imaginative. The brand uses this personality not just in creating advertising that focuses on imagination, but in building brand experiences, including their theme parks and tie ins with movie and TV franchises, as well as stores that challenge our imagination and fantasy.

In summary, there are three key themes in the future of marketing for the senses.

  1. Understand how the senses integrate and leverage this to create impact
  2. Understand your target customers’ goals and the most relevant emotional signals to send
  3. Unify, simplify and amplify your core message to reflect these emotional goals

For more on the future of sensory branding, click here for details of Brand esSense.


Brand esSense by Neil Gains

Seeing Through Illusions by Richard Gregory

The Hidden Dimension by Edward Hall

Emotionomics by Dan Hill

Customer Sense by Aradhna Krishna

Brand Sense by Martin Lindstrom

The Experience Economy by Pine & Gilmore

Human Physiology edited by Schmidt & Thews

Experiential Marketing by Bernd Schmitt

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