With increasing social digitalisation, comes a greater need for interpersonal sharing, real-life interactions and sensory experiences.
Dr. Monika Imschloß has held the position of IFH Junior Professor of Marketing and Retailing at the University of Cologne since 2015. During her time at the University of Mannheim, she wrote her thesis on Multisensory Marketing and specifically how it affects customer behaviour. Dr. Imschloß was on the "New Luxury: Sensor Technology, Happiness and Luxury” discussion panel at the Berlin 2019 ITB.
Dr. Imschloß, what is sensory marketing?
Sensory marketing appeals directly to the senses via audio, visual, olfactory, gustatory and tactile stimuli. The individual sensory perceptions need to be differentiated. For example, take the sense of smell. There’s the signature scent of a hotel, the particular smell of a room, the fragrance of soap, the scent in a shop or of a product as well as random scents. Auditory stimuli help you to differentiate between the advertising jingles of different brands, ambient sounds or the sound of a door closing. Our sense of sight primarily distinguishes colours, as well as shapes. Or in the case of a hotel website, we can identify moving or still images, image quality, colour saturation and different hues. There are numerous different parameters each of them influencing how we perceive something. For example, the colour and saturation of my tea influences my taste experience. In short, sensory marketing refers to addressing or activating all the senses.
In your opinion, which of the five senses is the focus now on? Which has the highest potential for success in marketing?
We have to define what is meant by success in marketing. Which senses are most effective really depends on the context, so you can’t generalize. In the food industry, taste and smell are decisive. In respect of some products, the olfactory sense is emphasised while for others it’s more visual: perhaps a question of getting the right lighting. In terms of other products, the auditory sense might be a stronger driver. If a customer hears French music, he or she might be more inclined to choose a French rather than an Italian wine.
Has that actually been proven? Do we really allow ourselves be so strongly influenced and, if so, how does this happen?
Yes, there’s plenty of empirical research that reaffirms the effectiveness of sensory response. For example, there’s a study showing that customers buy more French wine when French (rather than say, German) music is played in supermarkets. One of my own studies conducted in cooperation with a food retailer, produced similar results. Customers tend to look more at French (rather than Italian) products when French music is played over the sound system in the shop. It seems that the soundtrack generates a subliminal stimulus of "France" or "Italy".
But getting back to the hotel industry: I can’t think of any reason why one sensory stimulus should be less important than another. Let’s look at where the guest has the greatest number of contact points. Haptics should be emphasized as part of the tactile experience. This pre-natal sense that develops in the womb is the only sense enabling us to understand the world. In essence, haptics is our sense of reality. Everything I touch and thereby "understand" is real for me.
Which companies use your services and what is your contribution?
Currently, I’m mainly in touch with the retail and service sector including banking and medical. Most recently I’ve had a first enquiry from a hotel chain. My empirical and corporate research is primarily concerned with the workings of sensory stimuli and digital interfaces.
As far as I know, sensory marketing is not so widespread in the hotel industry at the moment...
Anyone starting now in sensory marketing would be well-positioned to make a breakthrough, attracting widespread attention.
The success of sensory marketing also depends on companies using sensory stimuli not only subliminally but in specific applications.
Competitors don’t perceive the real impact of sensory marketing, since it’s a very subtle form of marketing. Isn’t that an advantage?
That’s right, it isn’t easily replicated and needs to be studied and tested. For a hotelier, it isn’t enough to play a certain soundtrack or emit a suggestive fragrance in their hotel. They will still need to think carefully about what they want to achieve. Sensory marketing depends on the judicious use of sensory stimuli not just intuitively but with a definite outcome in mind. Only then can its effectiveness be assessed and whether further optimization is needed.
Which real-life sensory applications are there in the tourism sector, especially in the upmarket hotel market?
As I’ve said already, many hotels and hotel chains have their own signature fragrances, which are used in rooms, or found in complimentary hotel cosmetics such as shower gels, lotions, etc. Some of these might also be for sale in the hotel shop. Signature scents reinforce the hotel brand, replicating a certain atmosphere. In sensory marketing, the aim is to take a pleasant experience at the hotel back home with you. The hotel stay should not just be a pleasant memory, but also a take-home gift. Hotels consider how to replicate a great holiday experience, even with birthday presents. A shower gel with the hotel signature fragrance helps to recreate the pleasant holiday experience. Or at check-out, a take-home gift brings the hotel brand experience into a guest’s daily life.
A new touchpoint in the customer journey can help to bond the guest to the brand/product. In fact, many upmarket hotels already offer such haptic farewell gifts...
If I’m paying over € 1,000 per night in a hotel, then I ought to expect a small birthday present. I’d also be glad if it was tailored to my taste. So, if the hotel restaurant notes that premium guest X prefers this or that type of food or likes certain spices, you could offer this spice mixture to the guest as a gift, perhaps together with a suitable recipe. Or you might even send a cook to the guest’s home to prepare his/her favourite hotel holiday meal. The idea is to extend the holiday experience at home and not limit it to the stay at the hotel. So, it's not about addressing just one of the senses, but about bringing together a combination of sensory experiences.
It's not just about focusing on one sense, but about the strategic, overall sensory experience.
Who are the pioneers in this type of marketing? Any examples of best practices?
There isn’t any single ground-breaking exponent in this field. Some of the early successes might be attributed to the authors of hotel playlists on Spotify or those who developed strategic fragrances. And if the images, videos and descriptions shown on the hotel website match the actual experience – such as the Soneva Resorts, where everyone walks around barefoot focusing on nature and ecological sustainability – then it's a good match. This shows that it’s not just based on one of the senses, but on the coherent coordination of multiple senses.
Is sensory marketing only currently researched and applied at points of sale/contact points or can the initial study findings and recommendations for action be extended to online marketing & sales?
Sensory marketing should be managed as part of client communications where the intended recipient is able to anticipate the online sensory experience in advance, through images, videos or text descriptions. Visual elements on the website that can be manipulated include the choice and design of colours, fonts and colour saturation. In the up-market segment, the website design should exude quality and not appear shabby in any way. A well-known hotel chain already has the advantage of its established brand name, but for a first-time client the website of a no-name hotel is the first and only visual interface and thus it carries more weight. A website needs to convey the intangible sensory experience. Nowadays, it’s no longer enough to show just a few pictures of the hotel rooms.
In concrete terms, what does this mean?
Instead of static pictures of some rooms, rather show a video with an ambient soundtrack. If I use images, then I should convey the full sensory experience. I can describe a room with a sea view with a caption like: "Relaxing sleep against the sounds of the sea and the waves".
Why do people go on holiday? It isn’t just to replicate the same experiences as at home, but to experience new sensory stimuli.
The discussion panel that you are part of declared that ‘Luxury has reached the level of sensorial contentment in life’. What does this mean?
Sensorial technology does actually influence the extent to which a holiday stay or experience has been pleasant and memorable, and whether one has experienced something truly different. After all, why do people take holidays? Not to repeat the same home routines, but to experience new sensory stimuli. Conscious sensory experiences can enhance self-perception, (i.e. "self-knowledge"). If you try something new and surprising you might get to know yourself a bit better. Experiencing Nature differently might be because you simply didn't perceive it that way before. By "reconnecting" with nature, you’ll take a completely new experience home with you.
Would you care to forecast the future of sensory marketing, say in 2030?
The relevance of this topic is on the rise, both in retail trade and in the hotel and service sector. This is simply due to the fact that, as the result of increasing digitalisation, more people are seeking new experiences. Many people fail to perceive sensory experiences or just don't pay enough attention to them, and too often there’s a lack of awareness and consciousness. As we try to reconnect with the real environment, we’re already in the middle of the first wave of digital detox. Our increasing environmental awareness represents another change in values. This can be seen in the fact that people are now thinking longer-term, about sustainability and taking responsibility for future generations. This, in turn, makes people want to connect more directly with Nature. As a hotelier I would ask: how can I render the "experience of Nature" more tangible and share it with my guests – even if my hotel is nowhere near the sea or far from the sound of birds in the morning. In addition to sensory stimuli, I think one might add value to the holiday experience by hosting social projects in which guests can participate. These are the kinds of things that bring us closer to ourselves, to others as well as to the environment.
In which direction is new research moving?
In future, there’ll be a stronger focus on how the senses interact and the way different sensory perceptions influence each other. This might take the form of interactive sensory experiences and whether this produces different effects as compared to any one sensory stimulus.
Is there any one exponent of tourism, marketing or technology who you’ve always wanted to meet? If so, which would be the main question that you’d like to address to that person?
To be honest, I don't know to whom I’d direct such a question. But a question I’d like to have answered is: “In the long run, does Artificial Intelligence lose its innovative capital?”. Can real innovation emerge if we limit ourselves to optimizing processes/things on the basis of previous data? Wouldn’t we run the risk of losing our intuition, creativity and independence of thought? These are some of the questions I’d like answered.