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Selling to the Senses

Companies appeal to hearing, taste and sight to affect consumer perception

Charles Spence, a scientific advisor to the Network for Sensory Research, is an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford. He’s also an expert on how consumers sensorily experience new products. At first glance, Spence seems something of an academic enfant terrible, both for his status as a marketing maven and for the sometimes bizarre nature of his research. One of his sense experiments even won him the Ig Nobel Prize (a parody of the Nobel): he managed to prove that Pringle’s potato chips taste fresher to people when you amplify the sound of their crunching.

Companies have long employed the research of people such as Spence. But until recently, much received wisdom in this area has been visual. Using Carl Jung’s dictum that “colours are the mother tongue of the subconscious,” marketers well know that a green logo (Starbucks) promotes products that are earthy and homelike; a yellow one (McDonald’s) playful and fun; and a blue one (American Express) reassuring and solid.

Now, we may be transitioning from an age of uni-sensory to multi-sensory – or “crossmodal” – marketing. One example is “Sounds of the Sea,” an experimental restaurant dish Spence recently helped develop in collaboration with Heston Blumenthal, the iconoclastic chef of Britain’s Fat Duck restaurant. The dish includes edible “sand” made of tapioca, breadcrumbs and miso oil, along with sashimi and foam made from seaweed stock. Diners are served an iPod along with their meal, which plays ocean sounds such as cawing gulls and crashing waves. This carnival of oceanic sensory inputs is said to have a striking effect: Blumenthal claims he’s had “diners in tears, overcome with emotion.”

Spence also takes his cross-modal message on the road, and has done so with Barry Smith. “We were at a big marketing event in Colombia about six months ago, and we had about 300 of their leading companies there,” Smith says. “Marketing people now have to look at the whole mosaic of results in the neurosciences, and figure out how to apply them properly.” Some of these results show that the senses are connected in strange ways indeed. “There are now smells in shampoo that actually make your hair feel softer,” Smith says. “And if you want to reduce the fat content in yogurt, you can add an aroma that will leave it tasting just as creamy.”

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