sensory branding psycology

Why sensory branding means business

You know how your brand looks, but do you know how it smells, tastes, feels and sounds? Simon Harrop of Brand Sense explains why forward-thinking companies are taking a sensory approach to create emotionally compelling experiences for their customers – and improving their bottom line as they do so.

For too long now marketers have been discussing digital and discounting as the only way to attract customers in difficult trading times. But I believe it’s vitally important to consider an integrated sensory approach. For too long brands have only been planned visually – at least pictures and words. In the modern, digital and media fragmented world of today brands are simply failing to get cut-through the onslaught of visual information. Research for the book Brand Sense by my colleague, Martin Lindstrom, revealed that 83% of all brand communication appeals to the eyes alone.

Sensory branding spending
And yet the way the senses work reveals that sight is largely a rational and “screening” sense. Smell, taste, touch and to a certain extent, sound are processed differently in the brain. Smell and taste have a direct connection to the limbic system, the ‘reptilian’ part of our brain which is responsible for emotions and memories.  Words and pictures are processed in the cortex which is responsible for rational thought. This means some senses have a more direct and emotional impact on us and here there is huge potential for brands to tap into the ‘must-have’ triggers that prompt customers to buy on impulse and by desire. In the diagram xx you can see that marketing spend of touch, taste, smell and sound account for just 13% and yet our choice of brand is influenced by the non-conscious and emotional.

sensory branding emotions

However, in the real world our sensory responses to multiple stimuli never happen in isolation. Recent research we carried out to look at cross-modal impact reveals what psychologists call super-addictively. This is a synergistic or multiplying effect of adding more sensory stimuli to a human interaction. We have clearly demonstrated this impact in brand communications.

We carried out fMRI research for McDonalds looking at the impact of a visual brand message combined with an olfactory signature scent that we created for them. Tell us more, what did it smell like? Was it to mask a smell or enhance it?

McDonalds understood that the smell the brand was associated with was stale French fry cooking oil and that this was badly affecting brand perception. We were approached to help turn this negative perception, through to neutral and make it a positive part of the brand experience. So drawing on the inherent brand values, the brand DNA if you like, we created a signature brand fragrance that instinctively captures and expresses all the positive things that the brand stands for and wants to be perceived as. We then subtly created a positive  background aroma affect by incorporating this new fragrance in all the cleaning products.

Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) we were able to scan customer’s brains and observe that the emotional impact was more than doubled when both visual and olfactory sensory stimuli were applied to the brand.

Similar research carried out for the Royal Mail indicated the additional emotional impact of a branded message on paper as opposed to a digital screen merely due to the additional emotional engagement through touch.

At the University of Bangor in Wales, we looked at identical branding images on a digital screen and a piece of paper and used fMRI to measure the response. We found that It is easier for the brain to focus and maintain attention on direct mail-based material than screen-based content and that physical paper evokes greater emotional processing, which can help marketers and brands improve the effectiveness of their advertising .

When we apply this powerful logic to brands, we have the potential to transform businesses as diverse as banks, petrol retailers, cruise lines, watch retailers, men’s personal care products, women’s shampoo brands. For example, when we created the world’s first multi-sensory bank, called Helm in Colombia, we found that customer satisfaction leapt to an astonishing 99% and branch revenues almost doubled in the new, multi-sensory branches.

However, the overriding caveat for all this is that super-addictively only applies when each sensory stimulus is consistently derived from the same DNA. For brands this is about interpreting and expressing the brand values as a set of uniform and inter-related sensory signatures. It is no good simply applying a generic smell (e.g. cinnamon or apple-pie in house wear stores). For me this is like icing on mud or muzac for the nose. Grrr…! I feel this is a huge mistake that many in the burgeoning scent-marketing field are making (this is a great pull-quote). My own journey of scent marketing started over 20 years ago and I have seen many of these “bear-traps”. For example, a DIY retailer thinking it could sell more lawnmowers by pumping out the smell of fresh cut grass. Firstly, this smell is totally incongruent with the context (a town centre, retail superstore!), the smell most people really associate with cutting the grass is two-stroke petrol and the emotions it conveys is ‘just another chore’.  No thought went into what the retailer in question wanted to convey, what emotions did it want it’s customers to feel and how did the brand wish to be associated with emotions it could uniquely own?

Only when a deep understanding of sensory science and human psychology are combined with a close grasp of how brands are developed and expressed, can these benefits become apparent. I think this is an industry at a cross-roads. There is a lot of hype and I fear that poorly applied, sensory branding could lead to market disappointment and damage the reputation and successes of those who understand it’s power.

Ultimately, this is about creating emotionally compelling experiences for the consumer. Too many of today’s brands fail because, for the consumer, the experience does not live up to what the brand is promising. The best brands ‘get it’ and consistently create products and services which deliver and delight – across all the senses. Love Apple or not, we all know that they consistently create innovative products with that extra appeal and which stand out from the crowd. And no matter whether you are on a Virgin flight or train, booking a Virgin holiday or using a Virgin credit card the overriding feeling of the experience is the same right down to the type of words they use when they talk to you. Although it would be wrong to say that there aren’t areas where they could do even better, the brand somehow comes alive consistently in everything they make, say and do. I want to live in a world of great brands that emotionally entice, stimulate and delight me. Not a world of mediocre products that simply don’t live up to the expectations created by expensive TV campaigns or digital viral campaigns dreamt up by trendies in slick agencies from an East end of London warehouse!


We have a simple 6 step process which includes a number of tools and frameworks for developing a sensory brand profile.

Step1. Measure and understand. Audit the current brand impact across everything you make, say and do.

Step 2. Define. What does your brand stand for and what to you want it to stand for? How do you want it to be different from the competition

Step 3. Create. Along with sensory experts start to capture and express these brand values as a 5 dimensional set of sensory expressions

Step 4. Translate. Map these expressions at all relevant ‘touch-points’ across the total consumer experience

Step 5. Implement. Get the best advice on how to apply these sensory brand assets to ensure the brand promise is totally consistent with the customer experience

Step 6. Refresh. Periodically revisit and research your brand and sensory attributes to ensure they remain, fresh, relevant and differentiated from your competition.

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About Simon Harrop
Simon is a sensory branding expert, such an expert in fact that you will often find him popping up on television and radio.

After building an internationally renowned agency focusing on communication through fragrance, he has now gone beyond just the smelly stuff and utilises his extensive sensory branding experience to guide and inspire brands and business owners.
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If you have any questions about sensory branding then please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.

Simon Harrop
Hillard House
Lester Way
Oxon. OX10 9TA

Tel: +44 (0)7899 916331