The Future of Sensory Branding

“Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how things look. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how things work.”  – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was no fan of branding and marketing and is revered as a design hero. But the reality is that he was a supremely successful brand manager, because he was a great designer. In fact, I believe that branding is all about design, and no area of branding highlights this more than sensory branding.

Sensory branding is a relatively new concept, best known through Martin Lindstrom and his book Brand Sense. Although the discipline is so young, even in the last year concepts of cross-modal design and multi-sensory marketing have gained great traction, as the work of Charles Spence and others has shown.

I believe that there are three key themes to the development of sensory branding: the importance of thinking beyond the classic five senses, the role that the senses play in creating symbolic meanings and how this helps bridge the connection between the senses and customer emotions (in the broadest sense of the word).

Singapore Airlines’ use of Stefan Floridian Waters fragrance is well known and cited by Martin Lindstrom as one of the best examples of sensory branding, and was certainly a creative touch by Singapore Airlines when it was introduced in the late 1990s. However, Singapore Airlines were not the first company to use scent as a marketing tool. Coco Chanel was spraying a certain scent in her Paris shop 70 years before and one the earliest examples of sensory branding came 250 years before that when William of Orange inspired farmers to grow carrots in the colour we know them today.

There is an increasing acceptance that there is more to the senses than the five that are most usually discussed. Neuroscientists can count many more than five separate sensory modalities. For myself, I am quite fond of the classification of J.J. Gibson, first published in 1966, which grouped together the senses of smell and taste into one system, and separated haptic and orienting systems to make a rather different five. Whatever system we choose to use, the sense of space and distance is much under-used in considerations of retail design and customer experience management. However, some visionary architects have thought about the role of the senses in building design, as in this quote from Juhani Pallasmaa, “The door handle is the handshake of the building”.

It’s important to remember that the senses are not independent, but work holistically to provide patterns of information that symbolize deeper truths about the world and about the experience of our bodies within the world. That’s why sensory metaphors are so pervasive in language. Arguably, they are the very essence of language itself, creating connections between how we experience the world around us, and how we mentally process and socially share that experience.

Take for example the words soft and hard. Hopefully we can all agree that a towel and a metal sheet represent soft and hard experiences (in terms of tactile experience). Do still and sparkling water represent soft and hard tastes? And do these two abstract shapes represent soft and hard shapes?

Finally, if you are familiar with these two brands of antiseptic do you consider them soft and/or hard?  Hopefully many of you will associate Johnson & Johnson with softness and Dettol more with hardness (although it does have a soft underbelly).

Branding is all about building relevant associations, called mental salience. The process of building mental connections has a strong connection to signal detection theory, where success is all about maximizing the ratio between “signal” and “noise”. A brand’s signal includes all the information about the brand that is put out in the world, including advertising and, even more importantly, the experience of using the brand.

This means that a successful brand evokes instant meanings, connected to the use of the brand, that are relevant to the customer across as wide a range of occasions as possible.

In the case of Dettol, these meanings are highly relevant to the brand’s function as an antiseptic product. Dettol is a great example of a brand that uses the senses at many levels to evoke relevant associations. It has a unique sensory signature, including a potent smell and the formation of a white cloud when dissolved in water. And it also uses the symbolism of a sword in the brand logo and pack design, and an underlying story of a “Mission for health”.

These meanings have a symbolic link to the goals of many customers in using the product.  The language, imagery and sensory experience of Dettol all build associations with archetypes of strength and power, mixed with much gentler ones of protection and nurture (Dettol talk about family protection).

The archetype of protection and nurturing leads me back to Singapore Airlines, whose values are very focused around the importance of ‘service’. But is their reputation for sensory branding justified?

In my opinion it is, at least compared with other leading airlines flying between the UK and Asia. In a branding audit undertaken by TapestryWorks, Singapore Airlines had the strongest brand identity, and performed particularly well on using the senses to create brand identity. You can see that Virgin Airlines also performed well overall, because of their strength in communicating an underlying brand story rather than through the senses. They are especially strong in terms of using language, names, rituals, staff training and behaviors to create a mood that fits with the brand personality.

I want to finish by tying these two pieces together. In a separate piece of work, I have looked at the performance of airline lounges, using a mobile app for data collection (in conjunction with ABN Impact and Lumi). The emotional profiling showed that “Care” is the most important emotional goal for passengers.

We can see that the experience of this airline lounge delivers on these emotional goals quite well, although it is slightly too ordered with a need to allow a little more self-expression. When we linked these findings back to measurements of the sensory experience, it was clear that a focus on interior design and lighting were key factors in increasing the feeling of self-expression to create the feeling of individualized spaces, Meanwhile, food and drink selection was key to creating a greater feeling of intimacy and indulgence in the lounge.

In summary, I believe the future is about taking a more holistic view of the senses, considering the symbolism that they bring to experience, and building total brand experiences which communicate and deliver consistently against the core values of a brand.

Put another way, we all need to think about the role of product design as a branding tool. And those working in branding need to think of themselves as designers. To go back to Steve Jobs, “Branding is not just about how things look. It’s about how they work.”

[This is an edited version of a talk for SenseAsia in Singapore on 12 May 2014.]

Brand Sense by Martin Lindstrom

Brand esSense by Neil Gains

The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses by Juhani Pallasmaa

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