Sense and sensibilities

Think of the best seaside holiday that you had as a child. What do you remember: sun on your skin, smells of seaweed and suntan oil, shrieks or maybe the light? Vivid memories are rarely monochrome. The same goes for vivid brands.

Strong sensory appeal can provide a good return on marketing investment, but choosing the right characteristics for a brand can only be determined by classic research methods, says Alicia Clegg

Think of the best seaside holiday that you had as a child. What do you remember: sun on your skin, smells of seaweed and suntan oil, shrieks or maybe the light? Vivid memories are rarely monochrome. The same goes for vivid brands.

Instinctive marketers have always played with our senses. Picture the glowing colours and textures of a street market or – to take a branded example – Lush, maker of luminescent fruit-inspired bath treats, with its trademark rush of fragrances billowing from open doorways. But some brands use sensory cues that contradict each other, leaving customers uncertain about what they stand for. And that hurts profits.

In 2003, market research company Millward Brown set out to discover just how much it hurts, by conducting a global survey, in collaboration with author Martin Lindstrom. The study, which provided evidence for his book Brand Sense, reached two conclusions.

Cause and effect

First, brand communications are overwhelmingly focused on just two senses: sight and sound. Second, the more senses a brand is able to engage, the better it works. What is more, the researchers claimed that the relationship linking loyalty and sensory impact is causal: brands that have memorable sensory characteristics encourage people to be loyal, rather than simply making them recall more about the brands that they like and use.

The idea that brands with sensory appeal should attract a loyal following intuitively seems right. The question is whether – by expanding their sensory vocabulary – marketers could make their brands still more enticing.

Car manufacturers have for years been injecting aromas into synthetic upholstery to mimic the smell of wood and leather, and create signature scents that imprint themselves on a customer’s consciousness. Shirtmaker Thomas Pink recently placed gadgets in its stores that pumped out a smell of freshly laundered linen, calculated to complement its products and trigger positive feelings among customers. But do such devices work?

The outcome of Thomas Pink’s experiment is awaited. However, it raises the thorny question of whether it is desirable, or even ethical, to puff chemically engineered aromas into public spaces where shoppers are obliged to breathe them in, whether they want to or not.

“Smell is one of the most powerful things we can play with, but one of the most dangerous,” says Diane Fox-Hill, a semiotician and senior behavioural researcher at product innovation consultant PDD. “An aroma can trigger an authentic response, but if people feel you have manipulated or deceived them, the whole thing can backfire massively. A retailer might flood their store with the scent of fresh grass, which would conjure up pleasant associations for some people but remind others of hayfever.”

To harness the power of the senses without coming unstuck, marketers need to think strategically. Peter Walshe, global brand director at Millward Brown, suggests: “Sensory communication is a means to building stronger brands, not an end in itself. The key thing is to begin with the brand, and then look for ways of using sensory effects to underline the brand’s defining qualities.”

Saskia Diemer, senior consultant at brand agency Dragon, applauds Apple for its skilful use of visual and tactile cues. “The signature feature of Apple’s products is simplicity of design, which fits with its core brand promise of making life easy through technology.”

So why do companies still need to employ market research? David Thomson, chairman of research company MMR, argues that although brands can be built intuitively, such successes are the exception, not the rule. “The goal is to harmonise the emotional and sensory characteristics of the brand, but for every company that succeeds by trusting its intuition, there are others that get it wrong.”

Thomson advises brand owners to construct a hypothesis about the sensory effects that would suit their brand, and then put their ideas to the test by doing research with target consumers. In particular, he argues that research enables businesses to earn a higher return on marketing investment by allowing them to differentiate between unimportant sensory characteristics and those that are “emotionally active” and influence consumer choices.

All that glisters

While some sensations have the same associations everywhere, others depend on context for meaning. In such instances, semiotic analysis – which looks at communication through the prism of culture – can be a helpful tool. Fox-Hill explains: “Gold was widely used in packaging 20 years ago to indicate luxury, [but now] at the top end of the market, luxury is increasingly communicated through natural materials such as wood.”

The heavyweights in sensory research are manufacturers, but services offer big opportunities. Coffee bars such as Caffè Nero and Starbucks have compiled music collections to complement drinking coffee at different times of the day.

In his book, Lindstrom makes the point that authenticity, or at least the impression of authenticity, is a crucial part of sensory branding. As he puts it: “Things have to feel credible, real and genuine – even if they are coming from an artificial place.” But how do brand owners decide when artifice is acceptable, and when only the real thing will do?

One option is to follow the example of politicians who, when pondering an unpopular policy, ask themselves: “How would I feel if this was reported by the tabloids?” Brand owners contemplating a sensory sleight of hand might employ their own form of self-interrogation. They could call it the brand-fit test. Or the cheap-trick test.

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