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Sensory Marketing and Sensory Branding

Our sense of smell is incredibly important, not only for our survival (sensing dangerous predators, leaking gas, or rotting food) but also our

psychology and influencing our behavior. Research has shown that scent can help us recognize our relatives, choose our mates and even communicate to some degree. Olfaction (ability to smell) has significant links to emotion and memory. Some have called this the “Proustian Phenomenon”, which is that out of all our senses, our sense of smell produces the strongest effects on memory. For Marcel Proust, this was being drawn back into memories of his childhood after smelling madeleine cookies dipped in tea. Another example is how if you’ve ever had food poisoning from a food, like a strawberry smoothie, smelling anything resembling a strawberry after you recover could make you nauseated again (conditioned taste aversion). In a more positive example, you can imagine how choosing a new fragrance to wear on your wedding day and then smelling it when used later may bring back all of the joy and romance of that special day.

The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cook’s windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

When it comes to sensory marketing, the power of scent can also play a major role. Fragrances have been shown to influence mood and can set the stage for a product, store or even a hotel or restaurant. When a shopper comes into a store to, for example, choose a shampoo to purchase, she will likely pop open the cap to smell it. She may also be inclined to squeeze the bread for softness, shake the juice for consistency and even test cosmetics on her skin for color and texture. This presents a lot of opportunity for the shampoo designers to communicate what their product is. Of course it should be a pleasant fragrance, but beyond just liking, this is an opportunity to communicate a concept, a story and a brand. Is it an invigorating shampoo? Is it healthy? Is it all natural? It’s also important to be sure that the packaging and brand match the fragrance. Is it a prestigious brand? Does the package show tropical fruit and a vacation scene? Is this shampoo targeted for teenagers or adults? All of these ideas are communications from the company to the consumer and you want them to work together to send a positive and congruent message.

Sensory branding is a very important communication opportunity that includes all of the senses. For example, I know if my husband has been to Subway for a sandwich from the smell and I know that I’m walking by Abercrombie & Fitch at the mall without ever seeing the sign. Those scents are highly recognizable and highly associated with those brands. And each of the senses (taste, touch, sound, sight and smell) presents a communication opportunity for recognition. So it’s important to build a “sensory footprint” for your product to optimize this communication. For example, Product1 may be a food.  It smells nice, tastes good and has a decent texture in the mouth.  But it doesn’t have a unique sound (like crunching/chewing of the food or the opening of the wrapper) or very engaging package branding. While another product, Product2, may be a generic soda and has a recognizable fizzy sound when it’s opened and a distinctive logo, but the smell, taste and texture may not be recognizable.  What is your sensory footprint?  Are you utilizing all of the senses to reach your consumer?

Outside of the traditional idea of fragrance as a means to make your home smell better or your clothing smell clean, it can also be used to convey a message about your product and set a mood. One example of how being congruent with the product’s purpose is important might be that if you have a sunscreen lotion you may need to make a choice as to whether it’s more for daily everyday use or for the beach, or for that matter for sport. If it’s an everyday lotion, perhaps you don’t want to go to work smelling like a coconut. So the fragrance will need to be better suited for that environment.

An example of another role fragrance can have can be seen in laundry. Fragrance can change perspective. In one study, people were asked to rate the softness of a set of towels. They didn’t know this, but the towels were all the same, the only difference was the fragrance used on them. Researchers found that people actually rated the softness differently depending on the fragrance. So products designed for calming or to awaken someone would be keen to choose their associated smell wisely.

This type of fragrance is called a functional fragrance. It is also known that fragrances can have relaxing or invigorating effects or what’s called a “higher order benefit”, like confidence or moisturizing. How can a smell make you feel “confident” or “moisturized”? It’s through learned associations as well as the context it’s presented in.  But if you are really interested, join us this November when we talk about it at The Society for Neuroscience conference in DC.

To that point, fragrance can be very important for setting a mood, conveying a message, branding, or even as an advertisement. A particular coffee smell associated with a brand, experienced at a bus stop might make someone more inclined to purchase a coffee on their commute ( Or maybe a clothing store would like to make people more comfortable and happy. Or even further, perhaps a hotel would like to develop an entire experience from hotel entrance to room to tiny bottles of body wash that you can take home with you that create not just a branding moment, but a sensory experience that you will want to come back and enjoy again and remember again. The opportunities for innovation are nearly limitless. In fact, at HCD we like to call sensory marketing a “5D experience innovation” opportunity: Products are experienced via sensory systems like sight, smell, taste, touch and sound – 5 dimensionally. This experience forms impressions in the brain that affect mood and arousal levels while setting a context for the product.

At HCD Research we use a combination of traditional market research (interviews, surveys, focus groups, ethnography, etc), psychology (questionnaires, implicit testing, behavioral coding) and neuroscience (physiological measures) to help companies understand the consumer response to all of their communications (from concepts to commercials to flavor and fragrances and from marketing to product development and design). We look at the communications that a company can make holistically and customize our research to get the most useful and actionable answers using the right tools and right research design.

We have worked on a variety of projects, from tv commercials to dish detergents, in a variety of industries, from personal care products to pharmaceutical communications. Our labs are mobile. We have conducted studies around the globe and in setting ranging from the home to a central location lab to a shopping mall. We are versatile and customizable. We can help you determine the appropriate packaging, communication, sensory and ingredient choices to make in your product design.

At HCD Research we employ the most innovative and effective tools to support the creation of better products, packaging and communications for consumer, market & product research using the highest scientific and professional standards. We provide consumer experience insights for at home, in the lab and on the shelf research.



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