Branding: From sensory science to marketing art

Now is the time for marketing professionals to realise the full power of their sensory assets – the pack and the product – to go beyond liking and deliver brands with real conviction
Sensory science uses blind tasting

For some time now, marketing professionals across consumer-packaged goods companies have been getting to grips with people known to be making more fast, intuitive and emotion-based decisions (yes, the System 1 thing). Something that will have been accelerated by the current Covid-19 pandemic, where we’re all shopping faster to move out of harm’s way.

So maybe now is the time for brands to pay more attention to how they can tune into more of the human senses to get their message across without burdening the consumer. 

Back in 2005, Martin Lindstrom wrote in his book ‘Brand Sense’ that “targeting the subconscious could be the key to the future of effective branding”. This is where a sensory branding approach can play.

A textbook definition of sensory branding is akin to ‘the synchronizing of conceptual brand associations with physical sensory assets”. In other words, the consumer’s experience of the pack and the product via their senses will matches up beautifully with the expectations set by the brand.

This goes beyond liking and has everything to do with alignment. I prefer to say, authenticity.

Think of it this way, you launch a new relaxation drink. Your research suggests that people like it and will buy it. But have you checked to see if the product is cueing relaxation? If the consumer experienced nothing but a liquid, does it communicate the brand promise effectively. Is the equity truly felt? Does the pack structure imply relaxation, efficacy and natural?  

Sensory scientists seek to measure, interpret and understand human responses to product properties as perceived by the senses. Photo as seen on MMR Instagram feed

In other words, does the pack and the product reinforce the benefit as powerfully as they could be. Beyond taste and texture, the sound, weight and aroma of a product will be informing the senses below conscious awareness. More convincing brands do this well. Most do not. 

Sensory science: the magic of the human senses

So now we have grasped the power of sensory led approaches to better deliver the brand promise – beyond the realms of mere appeal, let’s touch on some of the advantages of sensory branding.

  • The senses work faster: information received by the human senses arrives at the limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for memories, emotion and arousal) before information received by cognitive intervention.

    It follows that brands that take a sensory-led approach to brand, pack and product design could secure a competitive edge by communicating faster and more easily.
  • The senses work together: research has shown that certain aromas link to certain shapes; certain shapes link to certain sounds, and so forth. For example, cinnamon has been shown to be a ‘round’ aroma.

    This means that a new cinnamon body cream benefits from being packed in a round jar – because this would minimise cognitive intervention (System 2) and critically, command a higher value perception.
  • The senses shift reality: there are countless examples that illustrate how perception of a consumption experience can be shifted depending upon the context.

    The work of MMR Research Worldwide in this area includes consumer evaluation of orange juice when dispensed from different packaging structures. Square structures shifted the perceived intensity of the juice. Thicker structures shifted perceived viscosity. This is an area that brands have barely started to explore but it is one that could make meaningful impacts on consumer engagement.

Five facets of sensory branding

As a non-scientist, here’s my interpretation of this opportunity.

The most obvious one is Brand Body Language. Very few brands are going beyond the graphic in pack development to attain a physical stance that more effectively demonstrates brand positioning.

A great example, and an exception to the rule, is TRESemmé, the haircare brand from Unilever. Its unique positioning, focusing on salon-quality, is amplified by sensory characteristics – including a large bottle format with clean and clear minimalist design.

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The formula’s scent, colour and viscosity all perpetuate the brand promise – as does the firm dispenser mechanism. Could we imagine such robust and enduring positioning if the brand had opted for a more standardised see-through pack?

Equity That’s Felt embraces the idea that products talk. For specific product promises, it is no longer acceptable to rely on the gloss.

Daniel Grubbs of PepsiCo said in 2018, “the benefit has to be understandable by the consumer.” A great example here is Galaxy Milk Chocolate, which has engineered a proposition that physically embeds the brand promise around texture.

The chocolate pieces are now carefully designed to fit the contours of the human palate, heightening the perceived reality of a smooth and creamy experience. Listerine is another example of ‘efficacy that’s felt’: burning means power and power means clean!

“Human senses are constantly generating meaning from external stimulus, so it makes absolute sense to check that it supports key brand equities”

While the Ehrenberg Bass Institute has urged brand owners to shoot for meaninglessly distinctive pack and product configuration to build mental availability, I would argue there is a need to be Meaningfully Distinctive.

Human senses are constantly generating meaning from external stimulus, so it makes absolute sense to check that it supports key brand equities.

De Cecco has been making quality pasta products for over 130 years using traditional means. MMR’s sensory research has shown how its Spaghetti No.5 product harnesses sensory branding for big effect.

Roughened, mottled and slightly flattened spaghetti generates meaningful distinctiveness because it signals made the traditional way in cutting machines – and not mass extruded. Equities akin to ‘genuine’, ‘credible’ and ‘passionate’ are transmitted without a word being spoken.

“The acquisition of a unique set of sensory characteristics that can enhance a brand promise”

The significant point here is that this last 5% of product engineering can create impact that is quite simply invaluable – and if it can be achieved in a category criticised for being commoditised, then opportunities are surely plentiful.

The fourth facet of sensory branding is Sensory Signature, which operates at a more holistic level than meaningful distinctiveness.

Defined as “the acquisition of a unique set of sensory characteristics that can enhance a brand promise”, it can aid brand recognition (in much the same way as sonic branding) and guard against plagiarism. 

Magnumowner Unilever invests considerable time perfecting a winning sensory signature. Aside from supporting its premium position, it provides a powerful mental trigger for the pleasure about to happen. So synonymous is this signature crack, Unilever has extended its power to other formats.

The final strand of sensory branding outlined is Measured Authenticity. Innovation is harder than ever – and here a collective adherence to ‘purchase intent’ (PI) and ‘liking’ as key action standards may be an elephant in the room.

PI is arguably a misrepresentation of consumer intentions, given high failure rates; at best, it is a measure of trial. Such measures are often captured in silos – packaging tested in one workstream, products in another.

What is missing is something that measures the combined experience. How well does the physical product match up to conscious and subconscious expectations? ‘Fit to brand’ is too simplistic and doesn’t go deep enough.

Trendy, feminine and playful are some of the signatures of Gordon’s Pink Gin

The results of an internally funded case study centred on Diageo’s highly successful Gordon’s Pink Gin serves as a driver to promote this new approach.

Using an approach known as ‘best-worst scaling’, different participants expressed which emotional or functional terms best described their reaction to the tangible pack experience or the liquid experience. The approach is fast, intuitive and gets research closer to people’s System 1 processes.

The results show remarkable consistency between the pack and the product. Both entities are rated as ‘trendy’, ‘feminine’, ‘confident’, ‘sociable’ and ‘playful’. In fact, the overall level of correlation between the two profiles is calculated to be 90%.

Gordon’s Pink Gin is a highly consistent proposition. What is promised, is absolutely delivered. A truly authentic proposition that is more likely to secure longer-term success.

About the author

Andy Wardlaw
Andy Wardlaw
Chief ideas officer at | Website

Andy Wardlaw is chief ideas officer at MMR Research Worldwide, a global agency helping companies developed brand, pack and product. Wardlaw has an extensive portfolio of work with clients including Häagen-Dazs, Nature’s Valley, Old El Paso, Benecol and Ella’s Kitchen.

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