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Making Sense of our Senses

4/11/2013 --

New book by Aradhna Krishna explores how products use the human senses to build engagement.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — How did a scent become important for an airline? How about a jewelry company that sells gold and diamonds known for a shade of blue? Why is eating a Hershey's Kiss so much different than eating a bar of the same chocolate? These companies are tapping into sensory marketing — using visual, audio, tactile, olfactory, and taste cues not only to sell a product, but to engage customers.

The study of this phenomenon was pioneered by Ross School of Business marketing professor Aradhna Krishna, who outlines its history and uses in her new book, Customer Sense: How the 5 Senses Influence Buying Behavior (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

"There's so much advertising clutter, it's hard to get a brand noticed," she says. "Sensory marketing uses subtle triggers to get consumers engaged with the product. You can say your product is the best all you want, but that claim will mostly be met with skepticism. But if a product is designed in a sensory manner that makes you automatically become more engaged with it, then that is much more powerful. Take the case of iPod Touch — the look and feel of it and the way it responds to your touch makes you want to have a connection with it. Then the name itself emphasizes that connection even more. You build a relationship with the product."

Customer Sense brings together research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and consumer behavior to show how our senses work, and how successful companies master this art to build powerful bands.

For example, smell has a strong association with feeling and memories. Singapore Airlines knows that, and uses a subtle scent in its cabins. Westin Hotels found a low-cost way to build a sensory association with its brand by the scent infused in its pens. (The pens were sold to Westin by citing Krishna's research, incidentally.) "This phenomenon has really caught on, and a large number of companies are doing some very sophisticated work on sensory marketing," Krishna says. "Food companies have sensory marketing labs that study things like what type of sound a bag of chips should make when it's opened."

Consumer Illusions

Krishna's path toward studying the connection between senses and marketing started with illusions. She examined biases consumers have in visual perception, as well as judging volume and area. Go to an amusement park and you can see this in action — the queues are designed so consumers don't perceive how long a line really is.

She also looked at how, using the same wine and different glasses, a cup can affect perceptions of taste.

"The same questions kept coming up. And although my research was rigorous, people were asking me what I was getting at, why I was studying this," Krishna says. "I had to have an organized approach and think carefully about how to configure the field."

In addition to her own research, Krishna gathered work done by others with a similar theme, but different senses. Around the same time, sensory marketing consultants began popping up. So Krishna organized a conference to bring together the disparate research and the relevant academic and practice fields. "I'm just a curious academic looking around and wondering why things happen, but this has become structured as a field — and it's a very big part of marketing," she says.

At first, sensory marketing successes were "mostly serendipity," Krishna says. Tiffany's iconic shade of blue is an example. But the field has evolved into a science for companies, some of whom are using sensory cues in creative ways. For example, clothing retailer Abercombie & Fitch has a particular scent in their stores, along with music designed to attract its desired young customers.

The Five Senses

Krishna's book covers the science of human perception, the marketing based on those perceptions, and the research behind both the science and marketing. These perceptions create a number of tendencies and biases. Krishna and her colleagues have studied these biases, and marketers are becoming more aware of them.

For example, the chapter on taste reveals research that shows packaging and variety affect food consumption. When eating idly, people will consume nearly twice as many M&M candies from a bowl containing ten colors than from a bowl with seven colors.

There are also very practical guides for practitioners, including some pitfalls to avoid, since reactions to stimuli can be subjective and based on cultural conditions. For example, the "new car smell" is something consumers in the U.S. expect from a new vehicle, but it's undesirable in Asia.

"Marketers need to be very careful, especially since so many products today are global," Krishna says. "There's an assumption that the same things appeal to people across the world. Don't assume an odor or color is universally liked." Other companies trying to do sensory marketing try to do too much, overloading the senses. In fact, a "more is better" view prevails in the industry — something Krishna thinks is the wrong approach.

While technology is making it easier to study some areas of sensory marketing, such as the value of touch, there's still plenty to learn. The effects of color and shapes still are being studied, as is the effect of ambient music.

"This is the best time to be in this field," Krishna says. "There's never been so much clutter to cut through to make a brand's presence known. Also, a wide variety of sensory experiences are being delivered by brands, and they need to understand if they've got it right."

Order the book.

— Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,