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Making sense(s)? Why nostalgia is key to successful sensory marketing

Stella Artois and The Roots

Consumers are bombarded with brand images and sounds, but, historically, they encounter scents and tastes less frequently – at least in overt campaigns.

Part of that is simply because of executional challenges to date, but that’s not to say brands can’t tap into senses like taste and smell. Look no further than free samples as an early example of sensory marketing, which Margaret King, director of the research institute the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, noted have long excited consumer senses and spurred purchases.

And as experiential marketing grows, it stands to reason brands will incorporate more senses more frequently as they attempt to capture attention and forge emotional connections.

A multi-sensorial song

Belgian beer Stella Artois, for example, recently announced a partnership with hip-hop and The Tonight Show house band The Roots to create a “multi-sensorial song” the brand claims consumers can not only taste, but that “[complements] and [enhances] [the beer’s] flavor profile.”

Per Stella, this alleged flavor-enhancing song is based on the research of a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, who found stimulating one sense triggers an effect on the remaining four. And, as a result, Stella said The Roots created two versions of “Bittersweet” – one high-pitched version that “triggers the enhancement of the lager's sweet, fruity notes” and one low-pitched version that “enhances the bitter notes.”

Science in action?

The release also claimed the beer-song combo would “change your perceptions of food, science and entertainment,” so I was eager to try it for myself.

For the record, my first exposure to Stella was as a college student in England. I liked it then, but my taste has changed. However, I’ve always hated that blasted chalice as it makes me feel like I should be at Medieval Times.

In the name of science, I took a sip before I played the first song and was reminded why I moved on: There’s nothing wrong with it per se, I just think it’s a little bland. Like a European Bud Light, which is somehow fancier because it hails from a more exotic locale than St. Louis.

But, if anything, when I drank it while listening to the first song – which was supposed to enhance sweetness – I tasted bitter. And then I just sat at my kitchen table, focusing intently on sound and taste and repeatedly asking myself, “Does it taste any different?” and coming up empty-handed.

But, according to Joseph Anthony, CEO of the creative agency Hero Group, I might have done it wrong.

“I think it is absolutely possible for a beer to taste better if paired with the right music,” he said. Not because the music is inherently special, but if the combination of the stimuli creates an environment that triggers a positive memory in the consumer. An ice cold Coors Light presumably tastes better in a dive bar playing Southern rock than at an upscale restaurant with adult contemporary in the background.”

‘The most powerful sense is not taste or smell but nostalgia’

In other words, despite my clearly valid experiment, Stella isn’t necessarily peddling junk science because effective sensory marketing needs some atmosphere.

Shama Hyder, CEO of digital agency The Marketing Zen Group, noted these “interactive, integrated, immersive experiences” that incorporate the senses are “very much the future” in marketing.

She pointed to neurogastronomy as a new field dedicated to studying how the senses affect each other and said it makes sense progressive brands would use it to their advantage, although she made it clear that the practice is nascent.

Indeed, Anthony said marketing is moving beyond promoting the functional benefits of products – which consumers now expect, particularly from reputable brands – to forging emotional connections.

“It’s more about what’s going to make me adopt your brand into my lifestyle that transcends product attributes and delivers an emotional benefit,” he said. “How does it make me feel, is it an extension of my values, what is that kind of immeasurable quality that I get from having your brand in my house and having a connection to it?”

And, as it turns out, emotions are a byproduct of sensory experiences, Anthony noted.

Ergo, the key to sensory marketing is tying both sense and emotion to a brand. And in this scenario, product attributes take a backseat to the feelings the product generates in the consumer, not unlike consumers who feel compelled to drink Corona at the beach or who lather up with Dove every day and feel good about themselves.

“Corona doesn’t promote how it tastes — it promotes how it makes you feel. It makes you feel like you are on a tropical island and every time you taste it, you have a nostalgic recall of vacation,” Anthony said. “Dove doesn’t sell soap — it sells self-confidence. So if you use Dove, it’s not because you think it’s the best soap that cleans your body, you feel they get you as a person. And having that brand in your home is an extension of the values you subscribe to.”

So while it remains to be seen whether Stella can create such an environment with emotional resonance, it seems likely more brands will follow.

“I believe the most powerful sense is not taste or smell but nostalgia,” he added. “If your brand can create an experience that flips a switch in the public’s brain, you’ve succeeded in affecting their habits on a subconscious level.”

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