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Sensory Branding: Right Scent, Right Time?

DATE POSTED:August 1, 2020

Sensory branding is having a moment. At Dunkin’, consumers can now buy coffee-flavored cereal. KFC would be happy for consumers to pick up a pair of chicken-scented Crocs, but they’re sold out. And McDonald’s is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Quarter Pounder with six candles in scents for each of its ingredients (for best results, it’s recommended to burn them all at the same time).

These are some admittedly “out there” examples of sensory branding, which is popular lately for several reasons. First, with the evolution of all things media to small screens, the amount of real estate available for advertising has decreased. Supplementing the “sight” of marketing and branding with a taste or a sound creates an entirely new set of tools to attract consumers. Second, the overwhelmed consumer can no longer be reliably reached with visual ads alone – consumers receive between 6,000 and 10,000 marketing messages a day, and thinking they can all be visual is very 1990s.

The technical definition of sensory branding (from HubSpot) is to “create impact and resonate with your consumers by targeting at least one of their senses. It’s meant to evoke a cognitive, emotional, behavioral and/or memorable response from consumers.” Whether or not burger and onions fit the bill is an individual choice – but it will elicit a memorable response.

Branding expert Martin Lindstrom, who wrote “Brand Sense: How to Build Powerful Brands Through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight and Sound” 15 years ago, found in a study that brand impact is increased by 30 percent when more than one sense is engaged. It pops to 70 percent when three or more senses are involved. He explains that visual branding is responsible for thoughts and actions, while smell and taste are linked to memories and emotions, which can influence purchasing habits even more.

“As you might imagine, our brains are adept at filtering out irrelevant information,” Lindstrom writes in Brand Sense. “Emotion gets out attention through our senses, which then influence our decision-making processes. Brands that create an emotional connection to consumers are much stronger than those that don’t – it’s as simple (and complicated) as that.”

Perhaps the best examples of sensory branding are more subtle than chicken or hamburgers. For example, once a Visa cardholder uses her card to complete a transaction, she hears a unique sound. Mastercard also has its own sound. Visa research shows that 81 percent of consumers said they would have a more positive perception of merchants who used either the sound or animation cues (“any more bells and whistles to make me actually pay attention is important … I don’t want to take paying for things lightly,” said one respondent). Eighty-three percent of consumers said the sound cues positively impacted their perception of the Visa brand.

And sensory branding isn’t limited to sound. One study found that when retailers used scent marketing, consumers’ intent to purchase increased by 80 percent. Starbucks reported last year that customer experience was improved when the company eliminated the smell of its egg sandwiches, which conflicted with the smell of its coffee. On the flip side, a gas station started pumping the smell of coffee near the gas pumps and increased sales by 300 percent.

In 2019, Pernod Ricard used scent in its London Underground advertising campaign for the launch of its UK Beefeater Pink. “Posters were strawberry-scented and were intended to be playful, fresh and disruptive,” noted Brand Berries.

But Singapore Airlines might be the brand that has the strictest sensory strategy. All of its flight attendants are required to wear Stefan Floridian Waters perfume when interacting with customers. The perfume is also applied to the airline’s hot towels.

Touch is also a powerful tool in the sensory branding kit. “Readers often prefer physical books to virtual ones, because books have texture and weight,” says the Online Marketing Institute. “The sense of touch also has a big impact on consumers: We can identify luxury products by examining their weight and texture to judge their quality. This is especially true for paper – different kinds and characteristics are imbued with tradition and social significance. Heavy and lightly textured cardstock is associated with formal occasions like wedding invitations or other formal announcements. Smooth-textured cotton stock is associated with sophisticated affairs, and using it in advertisements endows your brand with prestige.”

The bottom line? Sensory marketing is a powerful tactic that will become used by more brands as the digital shift demands new ways to get consumers’ attention. Maybe it doesn’t relate very well to a burger joint – but it is a way to differentiate a brand when consumers are looking for a difference.