Why does anyone eat Hershey’s Kisses? They’re normal chocolates without any of the flavor, texture, environmental, or marketing innovations that distinguish newer products.

The answer has to do with the foil wrappers. The delicate crinkle as they’re peeled away. The way they shine and catch the light. The way the delay the experience of eating by just the right number of seconds, letting your mouth water with anticipation as you smell the chocolate. That’s touch, vision, and taste, all triggered in real, measurable ways by the design of the product’s packaging.[1]

This is sensory marketing—design choices intended to activate consumer’s senses in ways the product’s primary function cannot. Olay’s “thermal” facial products produce heat when used. The heat doesn’t affect their function, but it makes them feel like they’re working. In the same way, 2014 M5 BMWs (and many since) use microphones and speakers to transmit the low rumble of the engine into the car’s cabin, increasing the driver’s sense of connection, power, and control.

Sensory marketing is incredibly powerful, and new technologies are only just now beginning to show us how much is possible, and how quickly and effectively potential customers’ emotions can be engaged to build brand loyalty and identity. Just consider this example: Dunkin’ Donuts piloted a campaign in South Korea in which their jingle played on city buses accompanied by an artificial scent of coffee created by a device called an atomizer. Travelers associated the ad with the enticing smell, and over the weeks that followed, visits to Dunkin’ Donuts locations near bus stops increased by 16%. Purchases at those locations increased by almost 30%.[2]

Why Does Sensory Marketing Work?

Sensory marketing draws on the deepest and most powerful pars of the human psyche. It slips straight past our socially-conditioned desires and wants, appealing instead to our strongest subconscious needs: warmth, safety, light, satisfaction, and so on. For instance, recent research suggests that glossy textures are appealing to us—and motivated purchasing decisions—specifically because they activate our innate, evolutionary need for water.[3]

But the effect is much broader than the simple appeal of glossy textures. It draws on what scientists call “embodiment,” the way that physical sensations help us make decisions. It’s easy to recognize: pay attention to the muscles in your abdomen as you say the word “but,” and notice the slight increase in muscle tension that you experience. An ad that makes us feel tense is not going to be very effective—try using “and” instead.[4]

And our five senses, of course, are far more powerful than words. For example, one experiment added an unusual smell (teatree oil) to pencils, and found that it made participants more than four times as likely to remember the pencils’ brand names.[5] Another looked at people’s willingness to buy particular foods, and found that making judgments about a given food decreased people’s appetite for it just as much as actually eating the food did.[6] Visual stimulation can tap into hunger, and through that, affect our decisions about what to buy. Femininity is subconsciously associated with bright colors, and products targeted at women sell better when they use lighter typefaces for logos and product names; the reverse is true for men.[7]

The fact that sensory stimulation activates our emotions is one part of why sensory marketing works; the other is how subtle it is. Bus riders in South Korea were not aware of why they wanted coffee so much more than usual, and for that exact reason they found themselves heading to Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s powerful advertising that feels like our own decision.

How To Incorporate Sensory Marketing In Digital Marketing?

Of course, most modern advertising is digital, not physical. It’s all very well for bloggers and experts to recommend using thick, attractive cardstock for business cards or filling the store with a carefully designed scent. None of those cues can be added to a virtual point of sale. What are our options?

There are two answers. First, traditional digital marketing media can be harnessed to evoke sensory experiences without actually delivering them. Consider:

  • Mixing audio, video, visual, and text-based content
  • Including sensory language (texture, weight and heft, smell, temperature, sound) in product descriptions or ad copy
  • Appealing to specific, sense-rich memories in the way a product is described or presented
  • Drawing direct comparisons to powerful sensory experiences
  • Using high-quality, closeup images and bold color contrasts in visual assets
  • Integrating audio or video content in unexpected ways[8]

The second answer is that new technologies are finally beginning to deliver real options, although none are robust and market ready at time of writing. The most important categories are innovative use of touchscreens (which can now include haptic feedback such as vibration), atomizers (including at least one iPhone-compatible device that emits specific scents while playing a mobile game[9]), and augmented or virtual reality technologies, which can add additional layers of visual, audio, and haptic information to the static displays we are more familiar with.[10] These technologies have already displayed tremendous potential, and we have barely begun to explore them.

Conclusions

Perhaps the leading researcher in the field of sensory marketing is Aradhna Krishna, head of the Sensory Marketing Laboratory at the University of Michigan. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, she described how these new techniques are changing consumer-provider relationships.

“In the past, communications with customers were essentially monologues—companies just talked at consumers. Then they evolved into dialogues, with customers providing feedback. Now they’re becoming multidimensional conversations, with products finding their own voices and consumers responding viscerally and subconsciously to them.”

Sensory marketing is among the most powerful tools companies have available to inspire purchasing behavior in their target markets. As the technologies involved begin to mature over the next several years, there will be almost unimaginable potential to capitalize on. It’s an opportunity that no company can afford to miss.

References

Harvard Business Review. (2015, March). The science of sensory marketing. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/03/the-science-of-sensory-marketing

Krishna, A., Lwin, M. O., & Morrin, M. (2010). Product scent and memory. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(1), 57-67.

Krishna, A., & Schwarz, N. (2014). Sensory marketing, embodiment, and grounded cognition: A review and introduction. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24(2), 159-168.

Larson, J. S., Redden, J. P., & Elder, R. S. (2014). Satiation from sensory simulation: Evaluating foods decreases enjoyment of similar foods. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24(2), 188-194.

Mather, L. (2018, 14 December). Ummm, Behr Made an ASMR Video with Paint. Architectural Digest. https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/ummm-behr-made-an-asmr-video-with-paint

Mavani, P. (2019, 11 February). 5 Ways Sensory Marketing Can Drive Digital Sales. RankWatch. https://www.rankwatch.com/blog/5-ways-sensory-marketing-can-drive-digital-sales/

Meert, K., Pandelaere, M., & Patrick, V. M. (2014). Taking a shine to it: How the preference for glossy stems from an innate need for water. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24(2), 195-206.

Petit, O., Velasco, C., & Spence, C. (2018). Multisensory consumer-packaging interaction (CPI): The role of new technologies. In Multisensory Packaging (pp. 349-374). Palgrave Macmillan.

Petit, O., Velasco, C., & Spence, C. (2019). Digital sensory marketing: Integrating new technologies into multisensory online experience. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 45, 42-61.

Quay, A. (2013, 9 December). iPhone attachment produces a popcorn scent when you play a game. DesignTaxi. https://designtaxi.com/news/362576/iPhone-Attachment-Produces-Popcorn-Scent-When-You-Play-A-Game/?

Semin, G. R., & Palma, T. A. (2014). Why the bride wears white: grounding gender with brightness. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24(2), 217-225.

[1] Krishna & Schwarz (2014); Petit, Velasco, & Spence (2018).

[2] Harvard Business Review (2015); Petit, Velasco, & Spence (2019).

[3] Meert, et al. (2014).

[4] Krishna & Schwarz (2014).

[5] Krishna, Lwin, & Morrin (2010).

[6] Larson et al. (2014).

[7] Semin & Palma (2014).

[8] Krishna & Schwarz (2014); Mavani (2019), Petit, Velasco, & Spence (2018).

[9] Quay (2013).

[10] Petit, Velasco, & Spence (2019).