Reimagine Your Career APPLY NOW

The Power of Sensory Branding: Engaging All Five Senses

By Ideas Collide

We’ve all been there: casually minding our own business when a whiff of something rockets us back through space and time. Suddenly we’re standing in our grandmother’s kitchen or drawing in art class or stepping foot into our favorite store as a teen. Of the five senses, scent is the closest linked to memory — but it’s not the only one.

You’re just as likely to have strong feelings when tasting a favorite meal, seeing a familiar logo, hearing an old song or feeling the smooth planes of the box that contains your latest tech purchase.

Our senses are how we process the world around us, form every memory we’ve ever had, and experience each moment of our day. They weave threads between our hearts and minds stronger than the most compelling argument, and often without us realizing it at all.

In other words, they’re a brand-building goldmine.

Forming unforgettable, powerful and seemingly unconscious connections between your brand and your consumers’ hearts may sound like magic, but with an understanding of the science behind our senses, your brand can be the next Houdini.

The Man Behind the Curtain (How It Works)

What is it about our senses that make them so powerful? Simply put, our senses keep us alive. It’s as true today as it was when we lived in caves.

If all you had to navigate life was your five senses, you would need the lessons they taught to be quickly absorbed and unforgettable over the course of your lifetime. As a result, our senses are incredibly powerful. They can instantly and clearly relay what we should do or how we should feel about something so we can live to see another day — even if we’re 50 years old and haven’t encountered this particular experience since we were a small child.

Of course, some reactions are learned — a loved one smelled like sandalwood so you feel happy when you smell that fragrance — but many have been almost universally ingrained in humans over time. Poisonous things tend to taste bitter, so we learned to generally dislike that flavor. Sharp things can injure us, so spiky objects (like a cactus) are typically less appealing than something soft and fluffy (like a pillow).

How does this impact our perception of brands and products? Whether the reaction to a specific stimulus is learned or universal, it’s a shortcut for the brand on its mission to hardwire itself into your brain and heart. People tend to resist blatant advertising and promotion, but with sensory marketing, they don’t even realize they’re being marketed to.

“What, my body has a mind of its own?” we hear you ask. Well, kind of. It’s known as “embodied cognition,” and it’s the idea that we unconsciously take actions because of our bodily sensations. Some are learned behaviors (think Pavlov’s dogs) and others are not (like how reading odor words like “cinnamon” trigger the olfactory regions in our brains). No matter how the connection in our brain was formed, the result remains the same: Something interacts with our bodies through our senses, triggering us to take an action without even realizing it.

Who’s Doing It Right (And How You Can, Too)

Yes, embodied cognition can mean it’s tough to spot the magic in the moment. But learning from some of the top sensory marketing magicians can help inform you of what methods are out there (and how you can tweak them to work for your brand or product).

Let’s Hear It for…Visa?

Sure, the retail experience offers seemingly endless opportunities to engage the five senses; whether the thought of walking into Abercrombie & Fitch fills you with joy or dread, the fact that you just felt something proves the point. But what about the method you use to pay for said experience? Sure you can feel the smooth planes of your credit card, but whether it’s a Mastercard or a Visa, that experience doesn’t change — and many people are going cardless anyway.

What Visa accomplished was differentiating the way they make you feel through the art of sound. With implementation covering approximately 60 percent of the U.S. merchant point-of-sale terminal market, when a customer completes a purchase using Visa, they’ll hear a distinct sound to know their transaction was completed successfully. Typically, this will be accompanied by a split-second animation and possibly haptic feedback, forming “a three-sensory branding experience.”

It’s a move that’s already paying dividends. In a recent survey of consumers in eight countries, Visa learned, “Less than a second in length, the sound of Visa was found to signal speed and convenience,” and “83 percent of participants said the sound or animation cues positively impacted their perception of the Visa brand.” Those are big results from something that’s over in the blink of an eye.

That Fresh Coffee Smell

Morning commutes are tough. They’re tougher when you factor in public transportation. Many find a delicious coffee can help ease some of the discomfort of the situation. In Seoul, Dunkin’ Donuts decided to put that notion to the test. Devices were installed on commuter buses that would “release the aroma of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee into the air as the sound of the company’s advertisement was simultaneously played on the buses’ speakers. When the radio advertisement ended, the bus conveniently stopped close to a Dunkin’ Donuts store.”

The impact of this unavoidable sensory experience paired with the convenience of a Dunkin’ Donuts store being in close proximity packed an undeniable one-two punch for many consumers: Visitors to Dunkin’ Donuts locations in Seoul increased by 16 percent and sales by bus stops increased by 29 percent.

So how can you incorporate sensory marketing into your brand strategy?

1. Know Thyself

First, start by understanding your brand. What emotions do you want to convey to your customer? What do you want to be associated with? How do you want your brand loyalists to feel each and every time they engage with your product or service? Identify a few key reactions you want your consumers to have at every touchpoint with your brand. Don’t go crazy — you can’t make everyone feel all the things. Choose those few, poignant responses that matter to your company and reflect what you want your brand to be known for. Knowing what you want people to feel will help narrow down what sensory experiences will help you get there.

For example, a brand dedicated to improving babies’ sleep through high-quality sleepwear and bedding would likely want its customers to feel calm, soothed, and loved — thus, they probably wouldn’t blast death metal in its stores. By comparison, a sporting goods company known for helping its athletes crush the competition probably won’t have a homepage dominated by soft lavenders and sleepy blues.

2. Know Thy Customer 

Different stimuli can mean different things to different groups, so knowing your audience will also help narrow down what sensory experiences will deliver your brand’s desired outcome. Age, background, culture, gender — all of these can influence how the same experience is interpreted.

Let’s revisit Abercrombie & Fitch. The dim lighting and combined olfactory and auditory overload of its stores truly divided teens and their parents. While reminiscing about her experience as an adolescent Abercrombie loyalist, Kristen Baker, marketing manager at Hubspot, noted that the very elements that made her feel mature and cool while shopping there drove her mother away like the plague. Luckily, Abercrombie wasn’t trying to appeal to mothers, it was trying to appeal to impressionable teens with disposable income just like Kristen. Understanding your customer is key to knowing what sights, smells, tastes, sounds and touches are going to light up the parts of their brain you want to be associated with your brand.

3. Know the Science 

Some elements of sensory branding may feel like a no-brainer: play the right music, pump out the right smells. But what exactly is “right”? Even if you know you want your brand to feel comforting and warm, and to your audience that means smells like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, would you start scattering generic pumpkin spice all over your store? Or, would you be better off crafting a one-of-a-kind olfactory elixir that conveys the emotions of those spices but in a cocktail that’s unique to your brand alone?

If sensory marketing were easy, everyone would be using it and using it correctly. But it isn’t, so they aren’t. If you want to be your industry’s David Copperfield of sensory branding, you have to put in the work. Apple employed a packaging designer whose job for months was simply opening boxes. That’s probably a little method for what makes sense for your company, but you get the idea. Research what fits your brand, explore the options and refine what produces the best result.

Sounds Like a Plan

Maybe you don’t have time to dedicate a single person to getting to know your audience — let alone opening boxes all day. At Ideas Collide, we’re well-equipped to explore the endless possibilities of sensory branding for clients of all sizes across numerous industries. Our team can help you unravel the complex connections between what you want your brand to evoke and the unique mix of senses that will make it happen with your target audience. Drop us a line today, and see how we can be an extension of your own team.

What’s that smell? Just our award-winning recipe for client success. We ought to bottle the stuff.