This Century Will Be Sensory
The more digital our lives get, the more marketers can harness the allure of the six senses
Whenever we talk about the future, it always seems to be all digital, all the time – sleek, cool, and guided by the blinking blue light of a tiny screen. But I am nostalgic for some very old-school aspects of our recent past: the time when brand advertisers made their food and drink products look and feel sensorial. On TV and film, we saw highly crafted shots of the physicality of the food: gloopy golden custard, sparkly tongue-tingling water, and the homey, wholesome allure of gravy. This imagery would have any audience salivating and clamoring to buy the brand shown this way.
We’ve drifted far away from this into the realm of rational product benefits and need-states, but I think we need to go back to get to the future.
In some briefs from the 1960s that I came across while working at JWT, Stephen King, one of the fathers of planning (not the best-selling author), wrote that “we want buyers to notice with their senses, to believe rationally and emotionally about it.” And that’s why sensory elements of communication are so important: people notice the world first and foremost with their senses, which then guide their thoughts and feelings. That won’t change. In fact, I believe it will rise as our world becomes more virtual.
In the years ahead, I believe we are returning to a world that puts sensory first, even in our ever more virtual world.
Signs are sprouting up in retail. Burberry’s ex-CEO Angela Ahrendts said at the opening of the new London Regents Street store in 2012 that customers should feel as though they are “walking into our website.” That space houses nearly 500 speakers and 100 screens, including one that’s 22-feet tall. Periodically through the day, they create a “digital rain shower.” RFID sensors also trigger multimedia content, with mirrors turning into screens that play relevant runway footage.
The shift is underway in everyday life, too, enabled by tech. Adrian Cheok, who runs Mixed Reality Lab in Singapore, recently shared this at a futures conference: a Mini Hug Ring which you and your partner wear on your fingers, and even though you might be thousands of miles from one another, a squeeze on the Hug Ring by one partner sends the sensations of a hug to the other. People can literally touch each other when continents apart, soon making “hug” emoticons obsolete.
Adrian and his team are also experimenting with smell and taste, which are the two most difficult senses to replicate but the most important ones in terms of building memory associations. These visionaries have created smells that come out of your mobile phone, the best example of which is Oscar Mayer’s ”Wake Up and Smell the Bacon,” which lures users out of bed via their nose, not noise. Perfect for Millennials who crave more immersive experiences.
And it’s not just through tech that our senses can be re-activated. There are chocolates that taste completely different purely because they are different shapes and textures though otherwise identical. Food futurologists are also playing around with cutlery, changing the materials and shapes of spoons to deliver completely different experiences with the same fare.
It seems that in the future we will finally wake up from years of having our senses dulled, craving the immersive sensations that advertising used to beam through the TV screen. However this time, the sensations will be delivered for real. It won’t be about replicating the senses of the analog world but creating entirely new sensorial experiences, which in turn will build brand engagement. According to Cathy Barnes of the Faraday Centre for Retail. Excellence in London, a brand’s impact increases by 30% if packaging design engages one additional sense, and by 70% if three senses are integrated. Those stats point to our interactive future—one that surprises and delights the consumers’ senses—and reinvents the way the sensory can sell.