Coming to Their Senses

See, hear, touch, smell and taste. Each sense can evoke powerful memories and emotions that can alter simple and big decisions. Research has told us: the more senses you appeal to — in a positive way — the better opportunity you have in creating a sale.

As a marketer, are you taking advantage of this powerful tool? Is it possible to appeal to your customer’s five senses in a multichannel world?

The playing field may seem unfair to those merchants who do not have the luxury of a retail experience. What about those companies that share all three channels — can the store experience carry over to the direct channels? How can merchants that sell only via direct channels take advantage of their customer’s five senses to create a branded experience?

First, understand that all channels can make grave mistakes by not understanding what they are selling before considering how they might sell it. Your brand is the most important asset you own. It’s your company’s reputation — it’s who your customers think you are. Your brand can be communicated as a promise to your customers stating what you can uniquely deliver better than anyone else.

So before you can effectively sell to your customer’s senses, you must first understand your own brand promise. What differentiates you? Why do customers seek you out? What is it you deliver better than anyone else? And most important, what emotions does your brand appeal to?

As mentioned earlier, the sensory system evokes powerful memories and emotions. So if you truly understand your brand’s emotional benefit, it follows that using the five senses will help create emotions that mirror your brand promise.

Sure, it’s easier for a brand with a retail channel to appeal to many of the five senses. A customer can see, hear, touch, smell and even taste the merchandise before making a decision. But many stores go beyond direct interaction with the product and create an atmosphere that appeals to all of the senses.

Consider Pottery Barn, whose brand differentiation offers a unique lifestyle. Its brand exists to help you create a world that expresses who you are. When people walk into a Pottery Barn store they are immediately engulfed with a sensory experience that has more to do with product alone. You’ll experience a unique staging of products, a comfortable scent and a proprietary compilation of music — anything that supports the unique lifestyle that Pottery Barn is selling.

Even better: Customers who have had the “PB experience” at the store will most likely remember those same emotions when shopping from the merchant’s catalog and Website. No, the direct channels cannot appeal to the same senses, but as long as the three look the same, visual cues will help customers remember the entire sensory experience.

For this to work, the visual experience must happen — the same posters, the same staging of products and, for the Website, the same compilation of music. What visual cues can be transferred to your Website, allowing you to take advantage of the sensory branding used in your store environment?

Doing it directly

Appealing to the five senses in the direct channel is harder and it takes a savvy and capable creative team that has a clear understanding of three things:

  1. Your unique brand positioning and the emotions your brand provides. It’s not enough to know what differentiates you in the marketplace — your creative team must understand the higher order benefit — the fundamental emotional benefit that the customer gets from doing business with your brand.

  2. A clear understanding of your customer, inside and out. Not just their demographics, but anything and everything you could possibly know about them. What do they look like, what are their hobbies, where do they vacation, what do they read — anything that can give you insight into how they think or how they will respond to stimuli.

  3. The landscape of pictures and words your team can use to evoke memories and emotions associated with the five senses. More important, what pictures and words will support your brand positioning? If you are selling food, what adjectives will best describe what something tastes like and, better yet, the emotions tied to that taste?

Or, what about emotions evoked from a story about a certain sound? For instance, a catalog brand that sells spirituality items described a common set of chimes by likening them to “… peaceful tones reminiscent of Gregorian chants, the medieval music sung in European churches since the late 8th century …”

It’s much easier to appeal to the senses at a product level using pictures and words, but the creative team must constantly be vigilant in appealing to the overall brand promise. Let’s say your brand is all about selling “comfortable” clothes. That’s what sets you apart.

In the direct channel, a customer cannot experience the comfort of your clothes, but you can help convey the benefit by using descriptive words that connote comfort and other terms that will appeal to the sense of touch, such as “velvety soft” or “relaxed fit.”

You can also use exceptional photography in which the details make the fabric look soft and comfortable. And as a direct merchant, you can reiterate the sentiment through other points of contact. What if a buyer were to hear a telephone rep talking about how comfortable a pair of pants were? They are “hearing” about your brand differentiation.

Sensory and sensibility

There are many examples of multichannel merchants using sensory branding to deliver their promise and tell their story. Let’s consider a few:

For years, Patagonia has understood the art of selling an aspirational and environmental brand. Very few of its customers have climbed the peaks of the Patagonia mountain range, but many of them aspire to do something just as adventurous.

Patagonia always sells the adventure in both copy and photography. You can almost feel the rugged mountain as a mountain climber clutches a rock. You can almost smell the ocean breeze as a surfer crests a wave.

One client, Tahitian Noni International, sells a health drink derived from the secrets of the ancient Noni fruit found and harvested in Tahiti. The company realizes that instead of selling “bottles of liquid vitamins,” it sells a healthy and pure lifestyle shared by the ancient inhabitants of Tahiti.

So instead of picturing only bottles and containers, products are photographed as if they were shot in Tahiti. The book’s lifestyle photography demonstrates healthful living in Tahiti. Looking at the photos, readers can picture themselves enjoying the rays of the Tahitian sun and the sand under their feet.

Cigars International really knows its customers. The merchant understands that it is selling an experience, and the only way to share this experience is to get fellow cigar smokers together. That’s what their customers do — get together and smoke, whether that’s after a satisfying dinner or at Cigar International’s Annual CigarFest.

At this sold-out event, customers use all of their senses to enjoy the Cigar International brand. New and old cigar brands are celebrated by vendors and personalities. What’s more, customers must purchase tickets to this sold-out event! And best of all? Cigar International really gets to know their customers. They know what they look like, how they talk, how they make purchase decisions — everything necessary to sell better in their direct channels.

A brand doesn’t have to stop the sensory selling after the purchase has been made. Impromptu Gourmet understands this concept; the cataloger delivers dining music along with product sales that meet a certain price threshold. This brand is about “the art of dining in,” so to deliver that promise Impromptu Gourmet completes the experience beyond the food and offers customers the choice of several dining CDs from Vivaldi to modern jazz.

Paul Frederick is known for beautiful, high-quality menswear — and its ability to customize. The merchant understands the importance of how a fabric feels when worn. While its catalog and Website do an incredible job of describing the quality and texture of garments, Paul Frederick realizes that’s not always enough. The company offers swatches to customers who ask for them. This reiterates the “customization” benefit of the brand.

What about your “on-hold” music? While your customers must wait to place an order, can you ease the pain by engaging them in your brand through the sense of hearing? What about your box shipment? What opportunities are there to get your brand into their hands? How about “how to” videos on your Website, coupled with brand-enhancing music?

So it is indeed possible to use the five senses when selling your brand, even outside the retail channel. The examples described above did not happen by accident.

For each brand, success involved at least three factors: a clear understanding of the company’s promise and the emotional benefit, a clear picture of the customer and what motivates them, and an educated team willing to work diligently toward selling to the heart of customers.

Lois Boyle-Brayfield is president of J. Schmid & Associates (, a catalog consultancy based in Mission, KS.

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