Can white really smell cleaner?

“I am not absent-minded. It is the presence of mind that makes me unaware of everything else.” – G.K. Chesterton.

Flooded with impressions, messages and choices, consumers increasingly navigate the planet with their ‘eyes wide shut’. Attention has become today’s scarcest resource. In what Beck and Davenport first called the “attention economy”, marketers need to understand the power of multisensory enhancement to boost brand success.

Our five senses are the gate to our environment

Multisensory enhancement is a phenomenon that occurs when the same message enters our brain through different perception channels (senses) and results in a neuronal boosting mechanism.

As a consequence, we experience this event a lot more intensely than one would expect by the sum of the single sensations. The brain not only adds up the sensations, it multiplies them.

This is called super-additivity. At the same time, if the sensations are incongruent, they get suppressed.

What does the phenomenon of super-additivity mean for strategic brand management?

To manage a brand effectively from the brain’s point of view, we need navigation and positioning tools that help to find sensations that match the brand and all the other sensations evoked by the product. Aiming for emotional congruence creates a good chance to achieve an attention-grabbing and memorable brand experience.

While the benefits of getting the overall multisensory brand or product experience right can be significant, the costs associated with getting the multisensory components of a brand’s image wrong, or even simply neglecting one particular kind of sensory impression, can have dramatic consequences.

Just think of a beautiful bottle of Champagne: No matter the origin and how enticing the etiquette of pouring looks, no matter how beautiful its sparkles, if it happens to be served at the wrong temperature (e.g. warm) or in a plastic cup the whole experience will be ruined. This is only one of many examples which show the importance of considering all of the senses when designing a product/experience that people will enjoy.

Now – can white really smell cleaner?

Remember the perception of whiteness and softness of your sheets when they came out of the wash last weekend? It is all about what you see and feel, right?

No quite. Many companies have been made speechless by the results of their sensory evaluation panels showing that when they add a ‘clean’ fragrance to their new laundry detergent, their consumer panels start saying their clothes ‘look’ noticeably cleaner, and that their whites look whiter than ever before.

How can it be that changing a product’s fragrance changes what people see? Well, our brain is fundamentally limited in its capacity. It simply cannot cope with all of the different sights, sounds, and smells which flood the senses at any given time.

“Consequently, our brains use a number of heuristics, or cognitive short-cuts, in order to reduce the amount of information we have to process, and hence avoid ‘sensory overload’”, as Oxford professor and experimental psychologist Charles Spence explains.

Companies like Baiersdorf, Unilever & Co consciously use the discovered rules of super-additivity, to combine individually weakly effective signals, such as a faintly perceptible taste and a just discernible smell, to give rise to a flavour percept that is far stronger than the sum of its parts.

The soft drink 7-Up is another example, where the Oxford research team showed that with the help of super-additivity, it is perceived to taste up to 30% more lemony/limey to people when more yellow is added to the colour on the can.

And while you might still be considering the taste of your breakfast cereal this morning, don’t forget to dedicate your scarce attention to the music that is played in the supermarket when you shop for dinner after work – it may well be that you are primed into buying French wine (previous blog ‘in wine there’s truth’) by a barely noticeable French chanson that tells your brain it’s a great night for a romantic, French tête-à-tête.

Multisensory take-outs

The deployment of sounds, smells and other sensory cues can strongly impact on purchase behaviour, brand and product perception and the emotional connection between customers and brands.

But: The multisensory stimuli must (1) be congruent and (2) they must fit the brand personality and be meaningful to the category. Then there is a good chance you will stand out in the minds of consumers.

Katharina Kuehn is the director of RDG Insights.


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