Has it ever happened to you that you were walking down the street and you were stopped in your tracks because the person who walked right past you was wearing a fragrance that took you back to your high school years? If you are anything like me, then the answer is most likely ‘yes’.

The power of sensory impulses is not news for anyone. We are emotional creatures and we create strong associations using our senses: A song that reminds you of your first girlfriend, a smell that takes you back 10 years through time, or a photograph that brings back memories of that incredible trip you went on with your friends. What is new, however, and becoming more and more popular is the way companies use the power of sensory impulses to advertise their products and forge positive emotional associations in our brains. Let’s face it; we are bombarded with visual images, logos, bus ads and banners every day, all day long. And for all male readers, even when you are at the urinal in a restaurant or a pub, you are forced to look at ads on the wall. In this state of visual overstimulation, it is becoming impossible for our brains to focus on any one of these messages and we are blocking out the majority of what we see. According to a recent study, the companies now have less than two seconds to grab our attention.

Times Square vs Dundas Square
In this visual chaos (just take a look at the photos of Times Square in New York and her little sister Dundas Square in Toronto), the power of sensory associations is becoming more and more crucial for companies. So much so that numerous restaurant chains are adding artificial food scents to their ventilation systems to appeal to our olfactory senses and to forge the brand-smell association in our brains. Or think about how a campaign by Dunkin’ Donuts in South Korea municipal buses increased nearby store sales by 29% simply by releasing a coffee aroma into the bus whenever the company jingle played. In his book ‘buy-ology’, Martin Lindstrom became the reason for one of the biggest disappointments in my life when he said that the new car smell that we all so passionately love actually comes from an aerosol can. If that doesn’t surprise you, think about the fact that Daimler Chrysler has a dedicated team of engineers that are working relentlessly to improve the sound of their car doors. The sole purpose of this team is to design the perfect ‘thunk’ when you close the door of a Mercedes car, creating a sensory experience and an auditory association with the brand. The examples can go on and on but the bottom line is that the more senses are stimulated, the more enhanced our experiences are. And these influences are very subtle, which makes them even more powerful because they happen on a subconscious level so we don’t perceive them as marketing messages and therefore we don’t react with the usual resistance to traditional ads and other hard-sell techniques.

The best way to summarize the increasing importance of sense-based marketing would be to quote Aradhna Krishna, the author of Customer Sense: How the 5 Senses Influence Buying Behavior:

“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.”

So what is going to happen in the future? There is no doubt in my mind that sense-based marketing will become bigger and bigger. There are already firms out there focusing solely on creating sensory brand experiences and I think that we are going to see more of these companies in the near future. In a competitive landscape where it is becoming virtually impossible to differentiate your product purely based on visual appearances, there is no question that companies will resort to newer methods to try to break through the clutter. Brands that appeal to multiple senses are destined to be more memorable and thus more successful.

My question about the future of sensory branding is two-fold. First and foremost I am curious to see if we are going to witness a shift back towards traditional marketing techniques. Online and digital channels fundamentally changed the way we think about marketing, however they have their limitations when it comes to delivering sensory experiences other than visual and auricular. This may force companies to resort to more traditional techniques such as direct mail, print media and location-based activities where they can provide a multifaceted brand experience that encompasses all 5 senses. (At least until a new technology that can deliver olfactory, tactile and gustatory experiences in a digital environment emerges).

The other question regarding the future of sensory branding is whether or not we will reach a point of saturation with is as we have with visual marketing. It will be interesting to see if there will come a day where we are so stimulated on all 5 senses by product advertisements that we will reach a state of desensitization in which our brains are going to filter out most of it like they do today.