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The Secrets of Sensory Marketing

Bentley University Observer

Have you ever been tempted by the smell of a bakery? Drawn in by the color of the walls of a restaurant? Or wondered why certain music is being played in a store?

It's called "sensory marketing," a field that USF Associate Professor of Marketing Dipayan Biswas knows a lot about.

“Anything that appeals to our senses are more impactful in sort of influencing our behavior, our choices, and often, it happens at a very subconscious level, so we are not even aware of that,” according to Biswas, the author of a dozen articles and over fifty studies on sensory marketing.

He points to the mall, where scores of retailers use scents and sounds to draw consumers in.

“Like Abercrombie and Fitch, with its very loud background music, very strong ambient scent, is more appealing to let’s say younger groups, or like teenagers, versus a store which might have more subtle ambient scents or softer music, which might appeal to a different age group or a different demographic.”

Another industry that Biswas singles out for using sensory marketing tools wells is restaurants. For example, compare Bern’s Steakhouse and McDonald’s—not the food, but the ambience—particularly the darkness of Bern’s versus the brightness of McDonald’s.

“Usually, more expensive restaurants have more dimly lit environments than let’s say a fast food, low-priced restaurant," Biswas said. "So we would often associate a dim light with something being more expensive, more fancy.”

And then, there’s the matter of light and its effect on taste. In a variety of studies, Biswas and other researchers had test subjects sample different things—like chocolate, cookies, or beverages—but in the same setting. The only difference was how much light was in the room.

The subjects were then asked to guess how many calories were in the samples. The more brightly lit the room, the lower their calorie perceptions ended up being.

That’s because taste is highly subliminal, and is actually influenced mostly by your eyes and nose more than your tongue. Biswas points to a study where participants were blindfolded and their noses were plugged. They then tasted a cola and a lemon-lime soda—most couldn’t taste the difference.

“So that again provides sort of evidence that our brain is wired in a way where the taste thing is not just formed from the tongue, it plays just a small role, the visual and the smell cues play a big, big role.”

Biswas says consumers should be aware of some of these 'tricks' marketers use.

"If it’s something of real importance, like if it’s a choice about whether you’re making healthy versus unhealthy options, one should think through carefully because the sensory cues usually appeal to more the affect or the emotional aspect rather than the cognitive or the rational aspect.”

At the same time, there's no reason to be so cautious that we miss something good. 

“Sometimes, for lack of a better word, it’s good to be fooled if it gives you the overall positive experience.”

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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