Making sense of advertising

How smell, sound and touch influence consumer spending.


Ahmad Naeem Khan

We all have heard the saying that ‘seeing is believing’. In fact we tend to think that sight is the most important sense. In reality, sight is not our strongest sense, it’s not even the second strongest. Scientists have discovered that scent is the most powerful sense. A wine taster will first smell the wine, take in the aroma, swirl it around the glass and then drink it. Any wine taster worth his salt knows that you cannot judge a wine by the colour alone.

If you think about your personal life, you remember the smell of your mom’s cooking more vividly than you recall the sight of the food. Smells are very important when it comes to giving cues and releasing emotions for the simple reason that smell is processed in the same area of the brain where memory is. All the other senses too come into play both in daily life and in the subliminal world of marketing.

Martin Lindstrom, in his seminal work Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy What We Buy, stunned the marketing world (truth be told marketers with common sense knew about the power of scent already) with his findings on the power of senses other than sight to influence consumers. Some years ago, at a workshop in Karachi, Lindstrom said the reason why Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder is such a powerful brand is because their key ingredient is vanillin (or vanilla) which is also found in mother’s milk. So smelling the baby powder reminds people of their childhood and their mother. Thus a powerful brand association is created, below the radar of the conscious. In Lindstrom’s opinion, smell is so evocative because it taps into the emotional brain and not the rational one.

We have recently seen ads and activations in this region where smell played a role. In India, Lux used a blind photographer to shoot Katrina Kaif because, although he could not see her, he could smell her – thanks to the strong scent of the soap. In Pakistan, Lux created a buzz with a Mother’s Day activation by using scent dispensers to augment their brand installation at a mall in Karachi. Personally I think Lux missed a good opportunity with their recent Lux Style Awards activation at the same shopping mall. The area around the escalator was turned into a red carpet foyer, yet once one got on the escalator, the impact was gone. The brand could have identified some scents to convey a sense of luxury to spray at the venue and create a more lasting impression.

Things do not have to be complicated to use smell. Think of a pizza brand using scent dispensers at a bus stop. The brand can place a QR code on the wall of the bus shelter and people with smartphones would be able to order. The possibilities are endless for marketers who want to experiment.

At the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Coca-Cola had Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan sing a remix of his song Wavin’ Flag which became a global hit and a fan anthem. Later, I was both surprised and impressed when I found out how savvy the Coca-Cola marketing team was. The signature five-note Coke melody was integrated into the song, a subliminal message brilliantly embedded by the brand.

Branded sound bites are not unknown in our market. Most EBM ads start with or have strands of the iconic Pied Piper tune. Britannia in India too has a very recognisable sound bite. However, for some brands the connection associated with their sound bites is not always so favourable; for example, Lindstrom’s research revealed that the Nokia tune, reminded people of work. Could this have played a part in the brand’s demise?

Even generic sounds trigger emotions. For example, have you ever been to a supermarket or department store that plays fast music? Probably not, because these stores know that slow music encourages shoppers to spend more time there and consequently buy more. Conversely, no fast food joint will play Beethoven – fast music makes you to eat faster and leave earlier.

Some global brands operating in Pakistan play music as a way of following worldwide practice. Turning to Pakistani brands, it would be amazing if K-Electric and other utility companies could identify what kind of music helps soothe irate customers who have called in to complain. Furthermore, if brands start using music in a more effective manner, we might be spared from having to listen to their latest commercials and offers when we try to call their UAN.

We have all heard about how a first impression is a last impression, and a similar rule applies to touch. People decide whether they like a person by their handshake. A weak handshake conveys negative vibes while an overpowering one puts people ill at ease. Studies inform us that a soft chair leads to a relaxed person and ultimately a less powerful negotiator. Of course, culture also plays a role in deciding the rules of touch. In Pakistan you don’t shake hands with a woman and if a store employee were to touch a shopper, they might not approve; conversely, touching in the US leads to more sales.

Touch is the least researched sense, although brands like Apple have been enticing customers into touching their laptops. The devices are set at a 70 degree angle – slightly open but not enough to view the content and this induces customers to flip open the screen. Another example is the hotel industry’s use of plush carpets to communicate luxury. In fact, the hotel industry has pioneered sensual marketing in a big way by using all the senses to influence their patrons.

There is no reason why more brands cannot do the same. Mainstream marketers need to embrace this new exciting world of the senses in order to become more efficient and effective. If they don’t, they risk being left behind, which to me does not sound like common sense.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Mississauga , Canada.



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