Feeling brands: A human understanding of our senses #BrainyBar6

Posted by Cristina Balanzo on the 27th July, 2018

The theme for this latest Brainy Bar in partnership with WARC has been bubbling in the background at Walnut Unlimited’s offices for some time now. I have been incredibly honoured to be able to curate the content about a theme that I am really passionate about: the human senses and have these great speakers who did an amazing job.
Senses are the only way for the brain to receive information about our environment and the body and crucial for helping us to understand the world around us. This felt the perfect time to share a sensory focus with you all, by understanding the science behind our senses, we can better fuel our creativity and build better, more successful brands by delivering richer, memorable and more human interactions with people. Which judging by how punctual our guests were, is clearly a topic of high relevance. It was time for the “Fabulous Five”, with speakers lined up to talk about the senses of sight, scent, sound, touch and taste.

Dr Tim Holmes, Tobii Pro Insight, spoke first about visual attention and perception that can be easily “hacked” through gestalt principles such as proximity, similarity, closure and continuity. Giving an abundance of examples, he demonstrated how brands can utilise these in their communications and packaging to drive attention and engagement. Tim’s described how context changes attention and perception and left us to consider the role of utilising new technology such as VR in research to explore how products and packaging in development might perform in store. But just how far can it go to reflecting a real-world scenario?

Next to take to the stage was Dr Andy Myers, Walnut Unlimited, who gave us a snapshot of the brain basis for scent, one of our most powerful senses even from birth and is hardwired to emotion and memory, yet scent is often overlooked in marketing campaigns. Sharing research conducted with Ambius Premium scenting, Andy showed how scent can be leveraged in a retail environment, and being linked so closely to memory and emotion can be a unique asset for brands (you can download the full report here). Andy introduced a principle that became a common theme throughout the night; congruency, in which to leverage the power of scent, it needs to be in keeping with the other sensory cues being utilised as well as a brands identity to be truly impactful.

Steve Keller, IV Group, described the night as “speed dating with the senses” as he introduced the next sense, sound. He took us on a journey of crossmodalism, which refers to how our senses can influence one another to give perception. He demonstrated how sound can modulate other senses such as our perception of the complexity of patterns and thus texture. He spoke about how sound is of particular interest to brands as we move into an increasingly audio world with the growth of virtual assistant devices, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant and streaming services. But how do brands want to be represented in this space and incorporate a brand voice? He suggests they think strategically about how sound can tie into the other senses you are targeting and importantly remain congruent with a brand’s identity.

The competition between the speakers was high as Professor Charles Spence, Oxford University, looked to convince us that touch, being the biggest sense, might also be the most important. Quoting research which shows that if you can get your consumer to pick up your product they are 4 times more likely to purchase it, touch can be an important sensory asset to drive purchase. Could touch be facilitating behavioural economics principle of the ownership bias, in which we put higher value on goods or services once we feel a sense of ownership of them? Charles encouraged the use of touch tables to encourage touch and drive purchase in the store environment but where we are culturally bound to not touch we need to give customers permission to interact with products.

The Midas touch effect shows that interpersonal touch increases positive affect and feelings of goodwill between people, which can be valuable in customer service relations but how can touch work in a digital setting? And can the Midas effect exist between person and devices or is it a uniquely human interaction? The short answer is we don’t know yet, indicating there is much more to explore around how brands can leverage touch.

So far each of these senses has been considered largely in isolation but our final speaker, Jozef Youssef, Kitchen Theory, brought them together describing how our senses are all vital to giving us our overall perception of flavour, which as a Chef, is key to creating pleasurable food experiences: “Food is one of the most multisensory experiences we engage in on a daily basis.”

With a quick test of our audience’s taste buds we could see how flavour differs between people, and not only is flavour an individual experience there are also cultural influences that moderate how our senses influence our expectations and perceptions of flavour. For example, while red foods are almost universally considered to be ‘sweet’, black foods are more likely to be considered ‘salty’ in Asia (likened to common flavours used in Asia such as soy and oyster sauces) compared to a higher expectation of ‘bitterness’ in Europe, most likely a result of a passion for coffee and dark chocolate. Our reference points differ by culture and therefore our expectation and perception of flavours also differs. This is another example of how context plays a role in our interpretation of the senses.

Jozef also spoke about congruency and the importance of delivering on our expectations, but there is a danger that by being congruent a brand blends into the background, perhaps there is a way to leverage incongruency. Giving an example of his burnt toast ice cream, which instead of being black was white in colour created a novel and memorable experience. But to be incongruent you need to consider the type of brand you are otherwise there’s a danger it is considered just poor marketing.

With such a fascinating night of talks from leading specialists there are so many learnings we can take from this event, but what’s so clear from each of these talks is the need to harness a multisensory marketing strategy, not only for FMCG brands, but across sectors. We don’t experience the world one sense at a time, we do so crossmodally, with each sense influencing the other. What was also evident from the talks is how much of our perception and interpretation of the world around us is happening at an unconscious level, so there is an inherent need to use implicit and neuro techniques alongside traditional measures to measure the impact of the senses. With the “fabulous five” done we were left wondering whether that now refers to the senses or the speakers, we’re no longer sure – it depends who you ask. We hope you enjoyed our latest Brainy Bar, please get in touch if you’d like to know more or when the next one will be.

Meet the Author: Cristina Balanzo
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