When Sensory Marketing Works and When it Backfires
If you’ve ever picked up a product and took note of how it feels in your hand, you understand the power of sensory marketing. Manufacturers understand it too, which is why tactile information like the famous contour of a Coca-Cola bottle or the textured burlap packaging of Marfa brand soaps are unique and memorable. Some manufacturers also incorporate smell, as in the scratch-and-sniff packaging by Glade and Tide, while others rely on color, such as the trademark brown of UPS or the robin’s egg blue of Tiffany & Co.
In each of these examples the brand’s sensory information means something to the consumer, and for many brands the combination of sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste is what creates and maintains the brand’s image or personality in a consumer’s mind. Some combinations evoke excitement — think of the ubiquitous Nike swoosh; others emphasize a feeling of sincerity, as in the timeless style of L.L. Bean. These customer perceptions often become shared knowledge: Everyone knows that Luna bars are for women, for example.
But brands are experimenting with sensory information in ways consumers might not expect. In the UK, McCain Foods ran a campaign where it released the aroma of baked potatoes in bus shelters. In South Korea, Dunkin Donuts used an atomizer to release a coffee aroma whenever the company’s jingle was played on municipal buses. These tactics are purportedly done to elicit surprise and engage the consumer in a context not normally associated with such aromas. Dunkin Donuts claimed it saw a 29% increase in sales during the experiment.
However, customers will not receive such tactics positively for all brands in all situations. So how do we know when people will accept situations with brand sensory information — and when they won’t?
There is very little research on this question, but we have begun to explore this idea and have theorized that consumers intuitively link a brand’s packaging and marketing tactics to their broader preconceptions of the brand’s personality.
We conducted four studies (three in the field) in which we presented people with products packaged in such a way that they either looked and felt textured, or they looked textured but felt like something else. On the whole, we found that people tended to prefer sincere brands (Hallmark, Ford, Coca-Cola) when the brand’s packaging or promotional accessories felt and looked the same, but they preferred exciting brands (Mountain Dew, BMW, Pepsi) when the brand’s packaging or promotional accessories did not feel and look the same.
In fact, our initial studies revealed that consumers actually punished sincere brands by expressing less desire to purchase the product, even when the sensory tactic revealed superior quality (e.g., the product’s packaging or promotional accessory looked plastic but was actually metal). Consumers rewarded exciting brands by expressing a greater desire to purchase the product, even when the sensory marketing tactic revealed inferior quality (e.g., the product packaging or promotional tactic looked metal but was actually plastic).
We wanted to understand why this happened. We dug a little deeper and discovered that this phenomenon occurred for sensory marketing tactics but not when actual production materials were altered on the core product concept.
In our final study, we tested all top smartphone manufacturers and found that Apple was seen as the most exciting, whereas Nokia was seen as the most sincere. So we built a new smartphone that combined elements from the Apple iPhone 6 and the Nokia Lumia 925 (which are very similar in design). We then marketed the phone as either an Apple product or a Nokia product, using each brand logo. We approached consumers in a mall and asked them to engage with the product as part of the promotional campaign.
The phone was designed so that it looked plastic. However, when consumers touched the new phone, they found that it was made of either metal, cardboard fiber, or (as they expected) plastic. We then did the same with the smartphones’ bumper case as a promotional piece, offering consumers the case as part of the incentive to purchase the phone. This ensured that consumers would also touch the bumper case and would find that it, too, was or wasn’t what they expected.
We found that when the phone looked and felt as expected (plastic) consumers focused on whether the promotional tactic matched their preconceptions of the brand. In the case of Apple (our exciting brand), consumers wanted the phone more when its promotional bumper case violated their sensory expectations (i.e., when it was assumed to be plastic but turned out to be metal or cardboard, despite cardboard being seen as inferior). In the case of Nokia (our sincere brand), consumers wanted the phone more when its promotional tactic delivered exactly what was expected (a plastic bumper case), despite the metal bumper being seen as inferior.
When the phone itself was made out of metal, cardboard, or plastic, consumers didn’t match the material to the brand. They intuitively liked the (superior) metal finish to the (inferior) cardboard finish, regardless of whether they were holding an Apple- or Nokia-branded device, and they were most concerned with how the material would impact the product’s functionality. It seemed that only when sensory marketing was seen as a tactic done by the brand, as opposed to as an alteration in manufacturing, did consumers care more about whether the tactic felt right, given what they knew about the brand.
This suggests that companies like Apple, which carry a general perception of excitement and innovation, have far more latitude to play with tactics that surprise and engage the consumer, but companies like Nokia, which carry a general perception of consistency and dependability, may directly compromise these perceptions with such tactics.
Our research provides some of the first evidence that consumer preference can indeed be altered by sensory marketing tactics. At the same time, the effectiveness of a tactic is highly dependent on a brand’s personality. This suggests that marketers shouldn’t take uniform positions on sensory marketing across a variety of product lines; instead, each product must strategically consider its positioning in the marketplace. And marketers should not fall for the common belief that sensory marketing tactics must always elicit surprise.
For your packaging to evoke the right narrative, it must be designed intentionally. Consider how innovation in packaging would communicate to your consumer in the larger scheme of your brand’s perceived personality. Above all, remember to design accordingly. Use the combined potential of sight, touch, sound, taste, and smell to present your product in a way that reinforces your brand’s image — not in a way that violates it.
Aparna Sundar is an assistant professor of marketing at the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon. Her research focus on aesthetic issues in marketing.
Theodore J. Noseworthy is an associate professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University, a Canada Research Chair in Entrepreneurial Innovation and the Public Good, and the Scientific Director of the NOESIS: Innovaton, Design, and Consumption Laboratory