Please Touch (And Sniff and Taste) the Merchandise: Sensory Marketing and the Customer Experience

Can a minor sensory detail completely change your perception of a product or customer experience? One joint Yale and University of Colorado study called “Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth” suggests so. It revealed that people holding a warm beverage perceived strangers as friendly, while people holding a cold beverage didn’t.

One simple detail – the momentary sensation of warmth on the skin from a heated beverage – completely changed the research subjects’ state of mind. Companies engage different senses during marketing initiatives, retail space creation, and product design, and when companies use sensory marketing to design or sell their product, they experience a positive change in brand recall and buying behaviors.

What is Sensory Marketing?

Sensory marketing builds on the idea that bodily sensations unconsciously influence consumer behavior. Subtle cues such as scents in a store or a signature product feel can evoke an emotional response in people. Think about the classic real estate example. Selling agents often bake cookies before open houses to help viewers see the house and think “home.” The smell of fresh-baked cookies evokes warm memories and a sense of belonging, which hopefully translates into a sale.

The effects of sensory marketing are subtle and often subconscious. While consumers may notice the details, these small triggers aren’t experienced as advertising or marketing. Companies build on these unconscious cognitive cues to increase brand recognition and recall, develop stronger emotional brand attachment, and influence purchases. Multi-sensory marketing campaigns represent another tool that companies can use to connect emotionally with buyers.

Exploring Sound: When Senses Influence the Customer Experience

Companies routinely use sound to impact the customer experience. For example, theme parks are usually broken up into distinct themed areas. Disney and other parks play specific soundtracks in each section. Other sounds and songs signal that guests are transitioning to a new area. Guests come to associate a certain auditory experience with a kid-friendly space or with the wildest roller coasters on site.

Sound doesn’t just influence our perceptions; it can also impact other senses such as taste. Oxford conducted a study on the relationship between sound and the way that food tastes. It turns out that high frequency sounds make certain foods taste sweeter. British Airways built the “BA Sound Bytes” menu soundtrack to enhance guests’ eating experience during flights.

Product Signatures

Product designs often contain distinctive, sensory elements, which researchers from the Sensory Marketing Laboratory at the University of Michigan call a sensory signature. Consider the following examples:

  • The alcohol-based sting of mouthwash signaling it’s killing germs
  • Olay Regenerist’s thermogenic heating reaction when it’s applied to the skin
  • Automotive manufacturers creating that “new car smell”
  • The signature crinkle of a foil wrapper on a Hershey’s Kiss
  • The scratching sound of a Sharpie marker
  • The consistent “rubbery” feel of Rubbermaid storage products

Sensory signatures can help improve brand recall, and as consumers identify a positive feeling with a brand, this theoretically spurs them on to repeat buying behavior.

One study profiled in the Journal of Consumer Research examined the impact of scent on consumer memory. Recall for scented products was significantly higher than for unscented products, lasting up to 2 weeks later. In other words, embedding distinctive sensory elements into your products is another way to influence how consumers experience your brand.

Applying Sensory Insights to Your Customer Experience

Companies use sensory details in product design, retail spaces, and marketing. Some important areas to consider include:

  • What is your product’s sensory signature?
  • Are there elements connected to the five senses that could enhance the buying or retail experience?
  • Could the strategic use of scent or sound improve marketing campaign recall?

Proactively explore how multi-sensory elements can improve your customer experience. In a world where brands struggle to stand out, sensory elements can help consumers form positive attachments with products and service experiences. By considering the senses as a critical part of experience design, companies can actively use sensory marketing and design to deliver an unforgettable customer experience.

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