The particularly sensitive brand

Scent and colour, as well as other sensory perceptions, determine the brand experience stronger than generally assumed until now. More often around us we see the added value of a multi-sensory approach. Because our senses continually check if ‘it matches’ the existing expectations; if it does not, then customers give up and become disinterested. The brand is what reaches the mind of the consumer and older perceptions prove to be very persistent most of the time. Companies should focus much more on how to use these sensory factors in their marketing.

Ever since the time of the ancient Greeks we have been fascinated by the interplay between illusion and reality. As Plato described it, our reality is only apparent: we think we know the tangible reality from our perception, but ‘everything around us is merely the image of the ideas behind’. It is the task of the philosopher to learn the true reality, this world of ideas, and to share it with the rest of the people.

Plato is in fact talking about our sensory perception. What we see, hear, feel, taste and smell deceives us, in short. We should not let ourselves be guided or seduced by it too much, because that only leads to distraction. We do not acquire this knowledge of the world through sensory perception, and it certainly does not lead to happiness.

How far away this idealistic view seems to be from our current times... Our western world revolves almost entirely around ‘pleasing’ our senses; it is even one of the dominant economic factors. Whole industries own their existence to our sensory needs. The entertainment industry, electronics manufacturers, luxury goods producers and the arts and culture world offer us overwhelming amounts of that which Plato has warned us against. From high to low, indeed. Low and high culture have the same effects, though classical music would rather not be associated with the entertainment of De Toppers in the Ahoy stadium (and vice-versa): in essence it is all the same.

Images and brands
Our world is reduced to our senses. We want to be surprised and moved as much as possible, but according to certain expectations. Because our perception of what is real must not be too violently affected. Eighty percent of what we perceive should conform to our expectations. So in this case, we bid for the remaining twenty percent which is open for novelty.

There are of course many arguments in favour of the fact that sensory perception is not as deceptive as the philosopher told us. In today’s globalised society, our notion of reality is based almost entirely upon images. Even though only a few have witnessed a plane crash, everyone knows how it looks like. We know that from the news and from films. It is factual knowledge, gained through senses. There is nothing ‘unreal’ about it.

The images of brands are also created entirely through sensory perception. In fact, a brand is ultimately what the senses have developed in our brain. Marketing provides for the desired image of the brand in the mind of the target group and so it encourages a desired buying behaviour. At least this is in brief the dogma of marketing. But as stated above, the current perceptions should correspond up to eighty percent with the desired perceptions, or else people are not hooked.

Marketing managers usually think too easily about the ability to create the right perception of the brand in people’s minds: we only need to invest enough, and the brand image creation in the minds of customers will take care of itself - that is the common view. However, more and more big brands find out that the already existing images are very persistent. A new image does not replace the old one, but is rather assimilated in a symbiosis with the old one. And if this process of blending is not harmoniously done, the negative effect gives the brand a fragmented image. The consumer does not recognize it and therefore withdraws or pulls out. A slightly different situation: an electronics company that for decades has pictured itself through bold, technological and masculine values wants to portray itself with a new, feminine image; the new sensory brand experience is not very difficult to realise, but it can be applied only to new target groups, such as young people who do not know the ‘old’ brand.

The old images stick with the consumer for a long time and are still the dominant ones, while the company is committed to creating a new image. The structural mismatch between the company and consumers is pictured in the following figure. The lower left quadrant shows the ambition of the company, in rational goals (based on, for example, market research), while for consumers this area is a black spot. The upper right quadrant represents the actual brand perception among consumers, the emotional reality, which for companies ultimately becomes the blind spot.

DNA window

Maintain and change
What is the most effective way to overcome this gap? In any case, there should be more attention paid to the similarities in images for both customer and company: the ones indicated in the upper left quadrant. By extension, we can speak of conservation management in brand development, instead of change management. Because people do not welcome change in principle. ‘We want to live in a world that we can contain within ourselves’, stated the TrendRede 2012, an extensive preview of twelve leading trend watchers ( This also applies to our expectations of brands. They should not stray too much from the ‘expected’.

A service provider for instance, would like to transfer their innovation to the brand values. In the meantime, research shows that completely different emotional values dominate the consumer’s world. Innovation therefore stands out as being in complete contradiction with consumer values, and it seems meaningless to set up a marketing campaign around this theme. Therefore much more effective than a shock therapy would be to make conscious links with the existing brand experience. The expectations are the first that need to be taken care of. The sequence is the following:

  1. What are the sensory expectations?
  2. What are our goals for the revitalization of the brand?
  3. How can I trigger the alignment of the brand revitalization with the current expectations?

This is more effective and less egocentric. In the end, you are not what you say you are, but what the customer is able to record and remember. The things that do not pass through and stay in the mind of the customer are therefore failed experiments and do not yield any value.

Men and women
An example of how sensory reality determines our behaviour is the primary difference between men’s and women’s senses. Men are in general more visual (40%) while women rely on senses such as taste and smell (40%). As far as the auditory senses go, men and women rely on this in an equal manner (30%).

An analysis of the routing of passengers in an airport revealed that women, while searching for the right gate, barely had eyes for the signs in the airport. They rather stopped to ask personnel such as janitors for directions. The signage, no matter how powerful and how well-designed, came short of fulfilling its purpose for women in a stressful situation. So instead of routing signs it might be much more effective to train the janitorial personnel to offer orientation help for passengers.

Multisensory research into the brand experience can therefore offer a lot of useful information. What colours, smells, sights, sounds and feelings are being created by and associated with the brand? Our senses do not have free time; they are, after all, constantly engaged in warning us about deviations, to keep us away from danger. It is also interesting that our senses automatically take into account the context around us: when sensing a fire in the house our senses become immediately alert, but the opposite happens next to a campfire. In line with this, large deviations from the expectations of a consumer can trigger the alert of the senses. The consumer gets an eerie feeling: this is not my brand anymore. And then they close themselves in, all the marketing efforts being lost to them.

Multisensory analysis provides essential information on more than brand image research, which is centred on brand values, while overlooking the actual perceptions. For example, from multisensory research it might come out that a certain brand is associated with a colour that the company never used. It is not surprising then that the colour is added to the marketing and communication palette.

Scents and colours
From multisensory research we get to multisensory marketing. Soundscapes are developed around the brand, along with tactile palettes and appropriate odours. An interesting thing is that they are not just stacked over each other. Instead we see mutual interactions between them. One appropriately tested fragrance and two already-tested soundscapes, when combined, can deliver a completely different effect. The first soundscape cancels the effect of the fragrance, while the second makes it stronger. And the effect also depends on the feeling of privacy. Therefore you cannot just combine sensory perceptions. You need to know and measure the effect along the way. So a new world opens out there for brand research, even if Plato might not agree with it.

To find out more about The particularly sensitive brand, please contact us directly 

Dmitri Berkhout

Senior communication advisor
T +31 20 750 95 12