Around the world, millions of consumers have been spending months in confinement, isolation and quarantine. Lockdown has narrowed our horizons dramatically – and now, consumers are craving satisfying sensory experiences like never before. As restrictions are tentatively lifted and people re-emerge, marketers should aim to create memorable, positive experiences, with a renewed focus on sensory experience. It is a strategy that could be particularly effective because so many people have missed human contact and sensory stimulation in recent months.
Companies tend to focus on the visual side of their presentation, paying far less attention to the other senses. Yet making greater use of sound, smell, taste and touch creates more distinctive and emotionally compelling experiences, and results in longer lasting memories which have a greater impact on brand affinity (Lindstrom, 2010). Creating rich brand experiences is particularly important in luxury categories where customer expectations are high and disappointment can quickly destroy brand reputation. Yet brands in any category can benefit from exploiting the non-visual senses.
The senses each create different kinds of meaning, so marketers need to know how best to use them.
Great brands have long known the power of jingles, sonic devices, the spoken word and music to generate awareness, communicate positioning or create a specific mood and tone. Catchy songs and jingles are particularly effective for generating long-lasting brand associations. The Coca-Cola ‘Hilltop’ ad first aired in the 1970s and has only been used on a few one-off occasions since, yet most people over the age of 50 can remember the song it featured and many of its lyrics (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company”).
Well-known music automatically brings meaning to a brand. British Airways plays the Flower Duet by Léo Delibes in its lounges and cabins, creating a sense of tranquillity and sophistication. It also reinforces the brand’s user imagery, since classical music is culturally linked to affluence and higher levels of education (DeNora, 2001). Music can even influence behaviour: studies have found that slow music in restaurants makes customers stay longer and spend more, whilst fast music increases customer turn-around (Caldwell and Hibbert, 1999).
Even simple sounds can become powerful brand cues. Intel has long used a sonic device comprising just five notes in its advertising, helping the brand create a distinct identity in a field where the products themselves are visually similar and rarely seen.
Smell can have a considerable impact on any experience, so companies need to manage the aromas people are exposed to when interacting with their brand. Brands should aim to mitigate bad odours and take advantage of pleasant smells. To some extent, the meanings of smells vary by culture, but some are universal: citrus and woodland scents signal cleanliness, for example (Lwin and Wijaya, 2010). Brands can use these connotations to reinforce their positioning.
Aromas can also make a brand more distinctive and memorable. Thirty-five years ago, Singapore Airlines developed its own scent, Stefan Floridian Waters, to create a more pleasant, relaxing atmosphere for its aircraft. Scent marketing is now common practice across many industries. Company founder Howard Schultz has described how Starbucks stores needed to bring back the smell of freshly-ground coffee that had disappeared since the introduction of more efficient production processes. Smell can be used in less obvious contexts too: in some cultures, people find the distinctive ‘new-car smell’ appealing, associating it with the excitement of buying a new car. Mitsubishi has leveraged this connection through innovative print advertising, replicating its leathery new-car smell in special newspaper ads, helping its new model to sell out within two weeks (Lindstrom, 2010). In a world where many consumers have been forced to shelter behind face masks, just think how powerful scent could be for creating positive brand associations.
Taste, along with smell, is vital for food and drink brands. But companies in other categories can also exploit the sense of taste, provided they have face-to-face contact with customers.
Luxury hotels, for example, leave out edible treats for guests to make their stay more interesting and enjoyable. Over many years, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club has built an association between Wimbledon and strawberries and cream. The taste of this quintessentially English food – even the thought of it – brings to mind lazy summer days and countryside picnics. It is exactly the kind of imagery that underpins the appeal of the brand. Even home furnishing giant Ikea has links to a particular taste, Swedish meatballs, underlining the brand’s heritage and quirky character.
For physical products, feel is an important aspect of the brand experience. Being able to touch the product can facilitate the purchase decision, particularly for individuals with high ‘need for touch’, or NFT.
Much of the success of the original Apple iPod has been attributed to the tactile nature of its click wheel; likewise, the touch screen controls of the iPhone. In business-to-business and service industries, the sense of touch is also important. Shaking hands, for example, increases levels of rapport and results in higher levels of cooperation. Physical contact may be impossible while the Covid-19 pandemic endures, but businesses should not forget its benefits.
To attract and retain customers, companies should always aim for every brand encounter to be as distinctive and rewarding as possible. Most brands concentrate on visuals and neglect the other four senses. They do so at their peril. By leveraging multiple senses at as many touchpoints as possible, companies can enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty, and ensure their brand stands out from the crowd. As our economies tentatively emerge from their pandemic lockdowns, marketers have a unique opportunity to meet consumers’ cravings for rich sensory experiences.