Laura Petrolino

Sensory Marketing: How the Senses Affect Purchase Decision

By: Laura Petrolino | June 25, 2018 | 
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Sensory MarketingAs communications pros, one of our tasks is to evaluate and optimize factors in a customer’s experience which influence a purchase decision.

Smart communicators evaluate their buyer’s journey, test messaging, optimize landing pages, and create high converting funnels.

Smarter communicators evaluate those things regarding the cultural, social, personal, and psychological tendencies of their target markets.

And EVEN smarter communicators do all the above and evaluate how sensory marketing fits into the mix.

Because it does.

In ways so powerful they can make or break even the best conversion strategy.

Sensory Marketing and Purchase Decision

The more of your senses you can recruit to motivate purchase decision, the better.

In the online world, these were previously limited to sight and sound. But with the continued development of virtual reality technology, online brands will soon be able to join offline organizations and take advantage of the sensory marketing opportunities of smell, taste, and touch as well (or at least evoke those senses).

Many of the iconic brands we look to today have gotten to that place partially through leveraging as many sensory marketing opportunities as possible.

Think about Disney. From music to selected smells throughout the parks and in their different hotels, to strict guidelines on employees and characters, Disney has remarkably mastered sensory marketing and branding.

You walk into any of their properties, and it just has a magical feel about it. That’s not just because of the fairy godmother (although she has a lot to do with it).

Likewise, if you’ve ever stayed at a Westin, you know their signature white tea scent.

And there’s a reason Cinnabon places stores in areas where smells can get trapped, puts ovens near the front of the store, and heats up baking sheets with cinnamon and sugar to intensify smells.

Most of us don’t have the budget or resources to be Disney or Cinnabon. What we can do is take the time to think about how sensory factors motivate purchase decision and implement them into our communications strategy accordingly.

Successful communication is in the details, whether they be through language and content or sensory marketing.

Heat Up Your Purchase Decision

Last winter (which for some of us only ended two weeks ago), I walked into a cozy and warm jewelry shop and was reminded of a study I saw in the Harvard Business Review‘ Daily Stat email a while ago discussing how customers are willing to pay more when they are warm.

The study found:

  • Online shoppers were about 46 percent more likely to go to a purchase page when the daily temperature averaged 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) than when it averaged 20 degrees (68 Fahrenheit).
  • People in a warm room were willing to pay more than those in a cold room.

The study concluded that exposure to physical warmth also made people feel a sense of “emotional warmth,” eliciting positive reactions and increasing perceived product value.

Fascinating, right?

Now obviously online we can’t force people to be in a warm spot before viewing our content, but understanding that these factors DO matter is crucial.

The Nose Has It

Sometimes we don’t know what we have until we lose it. The best way to understand the power of our sense of smell is research around those who have lost their sense of smell.

Sufferers report feeling isolated and cut-off from the world. They often suffer from depression and struggle with personal relationships.

Our sense of smell is highly connected to memory, nostalgia, and emotion. All things which are also extremely powerful when it comes to purchase decisions.

Martin Lindstrom discusses the use of smell in both purchase decision and branding extensively.

He recounts a study by Dr. Alan Hirsch in which two identical pairs of Nike running shoes were placed in two separate, but identical, rooms.

They infused one room with a slight floral scent.

Overwhelmingly, by a margin of 84 percent, consumers preferred the shoes displayed in the fragrant room. Consumers also estimated the value of the shoes inspected in the scented room an average $10.33 higher than the pair in the unscented room.

When you compare that to the familiar scents of hotels such as the Westin or Four Seasons, you’ll find it’s strategic, not just pleasant.

In fact, numerous studies have shown the power of ambient scent to motivate purchase decision and get customers to return to a store.

Nobel Peace prize-winning research in 2004 showed that the sense of smell is one of our most “emotional senses,” being highly connected to emotions and memories.

Thus, smell triggers feelings and feelings affect the purchase decision.

Seeing is Believing…and Buying

Visual marketing is powerful.

Whether color, photos, video, or other visual cues, our sense of sight subconsciously affects our actions as consumers.

This works both online and off.

Not only that, vision is such a powerful cue it can evoke those senses (like smell and touch), which we can’t produce online. This is why food porn on Instagram is so popular and effective. The right photo of something delicious and you CAN almost smell and taste it. That’s how powerful your vision is.

Even if we look at color, vision is a ridiculously powerful conversion source.

Studies have shown that people make a subconscious decision about a product within 90 seconds of viewing it and 90 percent of that judgment is based on color alone.

This includes hues, color pairing, and contrast.

Research from KISS Metrics found 85 percent of shoppers place color as a primary reason for why they buy a particular product. Color increases brand recognition by 80 percent.

And the science behind color and calls to action is a favorite for both marketing researchers and data nerds.

Beyond color alone, imagery sets environment and emotion. It can set the right scene, transport our viewer to a different place, or realign and challenge their perceptions.

Placements, Fonts, and Hunks…Oh, My!

Additionally, visual cues extend to page placements, fonts, even beautiful people.

For example, some tests have shown that people prefer things on the right-hand side of the page, and the bottom of a list.

Additional research shows the power of humans in photos. Their presence adds a sense of human connection. And when humans in photos focus on certain parts of a website the area of focus experiences increased conversion and action.

Still, others look at the types of fonts we use and their effect on perception (Comic Sans, much?).

Abercrombie and Fitch was ostracized for only hiring good-looking employees. However, this tactic works subconsciously through the “halo effect,” coined by Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: Science and Practice, to increase sales.

Would you hire a personal trainer who was out of shape? Probably not.

Buyer Personas Lead the Way

Sensory marketing tactics must reflect your buyer personas.

I was working with a client last week who told me red call-to-action buttons (which are successful for most organizations) failed miserably for them due to a negative connotation their target market had with the color red.

Use the facts and figures to guide you, but your knowledge about your target to make final decisions.

Smells, sounds, tastes, and visual cues are perceived differently based on the general frames through which the consumer gives context to them.

However, tapping into as many senses as possible is a powerful force in purchase decision and branding overall. Be creative in how you use this power. Especially if you are an online brand. Think outside the sensory box (or maybe smell outside it?).

Sensory marketing can help a valuable product or service reach and resonate more effectively with its target market. And, in turn, convert a casual visitor to a loyal customer.

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

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