Senses are a way to customer’s heart

30 June 2014

Multi-sensory marketing or branding isn’t a new idea. Scientists have conducted research on the subject for decades and many corporate, retail and hospitality companies have applied, if not all, at least some of this knowledge to build stronger and more meaningful relationships with their consumers.

A great example here is Abercrombie & Fitch. They might not be to everyone’s taste but their brand’s sensory presentation is perfectly designed for their target market of teenagers and young 20s. They have created this cool and sexy world that every youngster wants to be a part of. They have been criticised for hiring models and discrimination of disabled or even average looking employees but their mission is to sell a dream. And they have certainly achieved that by combining attractive employees with loud music, hardly any lighting and quite generous amount of their specific scent.

Martin Lindstrom, author of Brand Sense, has conducted many focus groups with your teenagers and kids on sensory marketing. One of the girls, 12 years old, was given a pair of jeans and was asked to name a brand they came from. She stated without a hint of a doubt that they come from A&F. When asked why, she said they smell like A&F. I guess that says it all!

Our senses are connected on a subconscious level to our memory, emotions and decision making. How many times have you smelled something that reminded you of a situation from 20 years ago? I bet plenty! This is how powerful senses can be. And in the world of only the growing number of brands and consumers being smarter by the day, no business can leave any of the sensory stimuli to chance.

When speaking with some of our clients from hospitality and marketing, we can see the growing evidence in consumer behaviour for the Experience and Relationship Trend. No brand will soon be relevant unless they can deliver a unique, memorable and consistent experience of their world which in turn will contribute to consumers creating a long-term and meaningful relationship with that brand.

How to do that? Through senses. They are a direct way to consumers’ hearts. As the sensory stimuli are usually perceived on the subconscious level, they have a very strong effect on the emotions, thinking and behaviour. Consumers, without realising it, can choose one product as oppose to another just because of the direction from which they heard the music in a store.

Scientist from Hong Kong has performed a research in which they found that when a consumer was faced with a choice between two products they were more likely to choose the product presented on the side from which a pleasant music or a store announcement was coming from. The researchers explained that people find it easier to process a visual stimulus when it is coming from the same direction as an auditory stimulus. Basically, brain likes things easy and therefore fast to process. Two different stimuli from two different directions is just too much for our seemingly lazy brains, so they will usually go with an option of two different stimuli from one and the same direction.

This is just one of the examples of how something as simple as music can affect consumer behaviour. There are many other ways in which hearing, smell, touch, taste and vision can help create a unique experience and facilitate a relationship building process between a brand and a consumer.

The crucial thing to remember when trying to apply this knowledge to your brand is consistency. There are few faces of multi-sensory consistency:

  1. Consistency through the senses – all the sensory stimuli need to have the same or at least similar subconscious associations so the overall meaning coming from the combined perception of a product or a space is easy to process and congruent
  2. Consistency with other communication channels such as marketing and people – there is nothing worse than coming into a store with high expectations created by brand marketing activities and experiencing awful service, being met by a person not representative of the brand or hearing music inconsistent with the expectations (A&F did it well)
  3. Consistency through lifespan – consumers will only stay loyal to you if you keep delivering regardless if it was 2 years ago, 2 weeks ago or now (John Lewis being a great example of how to do it well)
  4. Consistency with your brand and your mission statement – it doesn’t happen often that a texture or colour in a space design is out of place as compared to a brand promise; but the smell or music is often ill chosen or non-existent (Pavilion in Kensington being example of a place missing both of these vital stimuli – see a review)
  5. Consistency between situations – whether a consumer is on holidays, shopping online as oppose to in store or attending a special experiential event prepared by a brand, they are expecting exactly the same experience; the only thing that can be different (and would be appreciated by a consumer) would be a localised approach to brand presentation taking into account a culture of the country or area in which the brand space exists.

The other crucial element is be very clear about what type of behaviour, emotional reactions and relationship you are looking to facilitate and with whom. Depending on your target market, the reactions to a particular stimulus might be different. You need to therefore do an in-depth analysis of your consumer base and make sure you know what their subconscious associations are with a particular sensory stimulus you are planning to use. Sometimes you can’t truly predict the reactions of consumers so if you can do a ‘real life test’, it is advisable. If that isn’t possible, the extensive consumer research and consulting an expert should give you enough back up.

After the consumer profile examination, you need to clearly define what you want them to feel and what type of relationship you want to have with them. That will allow you and/or your consulting expert to choose the correct sensory stimuli and design your multi-sensory brand experience.

A note of warning! Check the cultural differences in the subconscious associations with different colours, textures, smells, sounds or tastes. Some colours might be associated with happiness in one culture and mourning in another culture. Great example here is white: in Western cultures it is considered innocent, clean and pristine yet in Asian cultures it is a colour of mourning.

If you are therefore looking to influence consumers’ senses to facilitate a strong and meaningful relationship with your brand, here is your action list:

  1. What your brand stands for?
  2. Who are your consumers and what are their subconscious associations with various sensory stimuli?
  3. What are the cultural differences in these associations within your target market?
  4. What do you want your consumers to feel and what relationship you are looking for?
  5. What sensory stimuli will help you to achieve these feeling and the relationship?
  6. Are your chosen stimuli consistent between each other, with other brand communication channels, through lifespan, with your brand, and between situations?
  7. Do you like the overall experience yourself?
  8. What is the response of your first few customers (observe not only ask)?
  9. What are the logistics? Are the day to day operations affected?

Look out for more articles on how the use of sensory stimuli can benefit customer experience as well as for The Sense Reports outlining some of the most interesting scientific research on each particular sense and its use in marketing, retail and hospitality.