PSYCHOLOGY THE SCIENCE OF SENSORY MARKETING New research suggests that many industries are missing opportunities to connect with customers’ senses.

PSYCHOLOGY THE SCIENCE OF SENSORY MARKETING New research suggests that many industries are missing opportunities to connect with customers’ senses.

For two decades marketers in a variety of industries have been building ex-pertise in reaching consumers through the five senses—learning to deploy cues, such as the sting from a swig of mouthwash and the scritch-scratch sound of a Sharpie pen, that can intensify perceptions of brands. The past year has brought a rush of interest in the subject among academics. New research sug- gests that we’re about to enter an era in which many more consumer products companies will take advantage of sense-based marketing.

Much of the new research centers on “embodied cognition”—the idea that without our conscious awareness, our bodily sensa- tions help determine the decisions we make. For example, people who had briefly held a warm beverage were more likely than peo- ple who had held a cold one to think that a stranger was friendly; this was demonstrated in an experiment by Lawrence E. Williams, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and John A. Bargh, of Yale. And warm ambient temperatures prompted people to conform

of our brains. The author of the 2013 book Customer Sense: How the 5 Senses Influence Buying Behavior, Krishna got into the field bec ause she was fasc inated by certain questions: Why does wine taste better in a wine glass than in a water glass? Why is an ad showing a piece of cake more engag- ing when the fork is placed to the right of the cake? Why does the smell of cinnamon make a heating pad seem to work better? Krishna realized that the senses amplify one another when they are congruent in some way. Bec ause cinnamon suggests warmth, it can enhance a heating pad’s ap- peal and apparent effectiveness. Such influ- ences are subtle—and that’s exactly why they are so powerful. Consumers don’t perceive them as marketing messages and therefore don’t react with the usual resistance to ads and other promotions.

Thinking about sensory effects is an established practice in some consumer in- dustries, such as food, cosmetics, and hos- pitality. For example, Hershey’s has long been aware that the tactile pleasure people get from unwrapping the foil around a Kiss transforms an ordinary piece of chocolate into a special experience. But many com- panies are taking their thinking much fur- ther. Consider this campaign by Dunkin’ Donuts in South Korea: When a company jingle played on municipal buses, an atom- izer released a coffee aroma. The campaign increased visits to Dunkin’ Donuts outlets near bus stops by 16% and sales at those outlets by 29%. Another example is Olay Regenerist thermal facial products, which are engineered to generate heat upon appli- cation (although heat isn’t necessary to their functioning) to signal that they are working.

Automakers have paid close attention to the senses for years: Designers work hard to optimize the feel of knobs, the solid noise of a door shutting, and the distinctive new- car smell. Recently they have turned to ad- vanced technologies. For instance, in its 2014 M5 model, BMW mikes and amps the engine sounds through the car speakers, even when the audio system is turned off. The idea is to enhance the car’s sporty feel.

to a crowd, a finding of researchers led by Xun (Irene) Huang, of Sun Yat-sen University (see the exhibit below).

Marketing researchers are “starting to realize how powerful the responses to non- conscious stimuli can be,” says S. Adam Brasel, an associate professor of marketing at Boston College. Work on embodied cogni- tion has begun “blowing up on the academic side,” he adds. At the 2014 Association for Consumer Research’s North American con- ference, Brasel heard more papers on sen- sory research presented than at any previous conference. That same year the Journal of Consumer Psychology published a special is- sue on embodiment and sensory perception, with a focus on how sensory inputs can drive consumer behavior.

Aradhna Krishna directs the Sensory Marketing Laboratory at the University of Michigan and is considered the foremost expert in the field. She says that many com- panies are just starting to recognize how strongly the senses affect the deepest parts

WARMTH INDUCES PEOPLE TO CONFORM Research participants in a warm room (versus a cool but not uncomfortable one) reported feeling closer to the people around them, and they were more likely to:

say they would buy the TV remote preferred by most of the other participants;

match their stock price predictions to those of previous participants;

and bet on the “favorite” in a hypothetical horse race.

SOURCE “WARMTH AND CONFORMITY: THE EFFECTS OF AMBIENT TEMPERATURE ON PRODUCT PREFERENCES AND FINANCIAL DECISIONS,” BY XUN (IRENE) HUANG, MENG ZHANG, MICHAEL K. HUI, AND ROBERT S. WYER JR.

28  Harvard Business Review March 2015

IDEA WATCH

 

 

Still, in wide swaths of consumer indus- tries, companies remain focused solely on visual attributes and give little thought to other sensory effects. Product developers and marketers need to change that, Krishna says. Bank executives should make sure that branch offices exude the reassuring, wealth- suggesting aromas of wood and leather. Manufacturers of products with embedded motors should think about those products’ sounds—are they tinny whines or solid, low- pitched hums? Luxury clothing manufactur- ers doing business online should consider what message is conveyed when goods are shipped in bubble wrap versus high-quality crinkly paper.

For managers looking to learn about sensory stimuli, the new academic work reveals striking instances of senses’ affect- ing attitude, mood, and even memory more profoundly than words ever could. An ex- periment Krishna conducted with May O. Lwin, of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, and Maureen Morrin, then of Rutgers University, is just one example. The three found that imbuing pencils with the unusual scent of tea tree oil dramatically increased research subjects’ ability to re- member the pencils’ brand and other details. Whereas those given unscented pencils ex- perienced a 73% decline in the information they could recall two weeks later, subjects given tea-tree-scented pencils experienced a decline of only 8%.

“In the past, communications with cus- tomers were essentially monologues—com- panies just talked at consumers,” Krishna says. “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 sub- consciously to them.”

Such conversations, she emphasizes, should be at the center of product innovation and marketing for many brands. Every con- sumer company should be thinking about de- sign in a holistic way, using the senses to help create and intensify brand personalities that consumers will cherish and remember.KY

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Tech company employees who used their firm’s social platform to chat about leisure interests like food and sports were less likely to be laid off, according to recent study.

“SOCIAL NETWORK EFFECTS ON PRODUCTIVITY AND JOB SECURITY: EVIDENCE FROM THE ADOPTION OF A SOCIAL NETWORKING TOOL,” BY LYNN WU

TAKING SENSORY COMMUNICATION TO A WHOLE NEW LEVEL” Chuck Jones is the chief design and R&D officer at Newell Rubbermaid, a 112-year-old maker of tools, pens, and other products. He spoke with HBR about the company’s new emphasis on sensory marketing and design. Edited excerpts follow.

Why is Newell Rubbermaid investing in sensory inputs? The field is evolving quickly, and our corporate growth game plan, which focuses broadly on design, positions us to take advantage of the latest research. Last year we opened a design center next to Western Michigan University and staffed it with physiologists and also experts in perception. Someone familiar only with our past efforts would be stunned. And we’ve expanded our definition of human sciences research.

How so? Conventional marketing research looks at opinions. We also study unconscious behaviors and human cognitive and physical processing to extract principles that we can apply to Sharpie pens or high-performance pliers, for example.

Pliers? We’re putting a lot of energy into the heft, feel, and ergonomics of cutting pliers for skilled trades. There’s a similar effort in packaging.

Why packaging? Many of our fine writing instruments are given as gifts, so there’s a ritual quality to opening the package. We pay close attention to the “hand,” or feel, of the material; the resistance it presents (more is better, within limits); the sounds it makes; and the way the package opens, as a series of disclosures—an unveiling of the product, if you will. Our thinking about packaging takes sensory communication to a whole new level.

THE IDEA IN PRACTICE

March 2015 Harvard Business Review 29

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TRADE NOT AS GLOBAL AS WE THINK Our hyperconnected world isn’t as tightly linked as it was during the peak of globalization, in 2007—just before the financial crisis hit. That’s the message from the DHL Global Connectedness Index 2014.

The index uses flows of trade, capital, people, and information to show how entwined we citizens of the world are. It measures those flows along two dimensions: Depth reflects the volume of international activity, while breadth reflects its geographic distribution. For example, tourism in the Bahamas scores high on depth, because a lot of people travel there, but low on breadth, because most come from one country, the U.S.

The index calculates the connectedness of each nation by combining depth and breadth. It also tracks connectedness on a worldwide level.

MANY LEADERS HAVE LOST GROUND Fully half the 26 most-connected countries in 2013 have become less connected since 2007—and often the declines are steep. The financial crisis and recession caused trade flows to plummet. Capital has been largely flat, as has the number of people studying or working outside their home countries. Information flows have been rising fast, but they started from a low base; even now less than 20% of internet traffic crosses borders, and fewer than 5% of telephone calls do.

DEPTH BUT NOT BREADTH Worldwide, the volume of flows has rebounded since the recession—but those gains have been offset by continued declines in geographic distribution.

SOURCE “DHL GLOBAL CONNECTEDNESS INDEX 2014,” BY PANKAJ GHEMAWAT AND STEVEN A. ALTMAN

1.1

1.0

0.9

2005 LEVELS=1

1.2

’06 ’07 ’08 ’09 ’10 ’11 ’12 ’132005

1.0456

Depth 1.2223

GLOBAL CONNECTEDNESS 1.0435

Breadth 0.9630

IDEA WATCH HBR.ORG

30  Harvard Business Review March 2015

THE MOST-CONNECTED COUNTRIES

CONNECTEDNESS SCORE (0–100)

89

84

83

79

78

74

71

69

64

61

77

73

70

68

62

66

59

2007

84 IRELAND

83 SINGAPORE

81 BELGIUM

80 LUXEMBOURG

78 SWITZERLAND

76 UK

DENMARK GERMANY

72 SWEDEN

70 HONG KONG

67 HUNGARY

UAE

TAIWAN

FINLAND

FRANCE

AUSTRIA

SOUTH KOREA

THAILAND

ITALY

NORWAY

MALAYSIA

64 U.S.

68 ISRAEL

65 ICELAND

SPAIN

73

66

63

2013

69

89 NETHERLANDS

 

 

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