In the struggle to achieve stand-out, clients are embracing branding that appeals to more than just the eye. But wooing the other senses is a matter of trial and error, and there is a fine line between memorable and irritating, says David Benady
A whiff of flowers on a Tube platform, Intel’s five-note signature tune and the sensuous ribbing on Coke’s curved glass bottle – all show that there is more to a brand than meets the eye.
Brands and organisations are going beyond the overcrowded domain of the visual and are exploring the senses of smell, taste, sound and touch, as they seek to differentiate themselves from their rivals.
There has been a lot of trial and error in the world of multi-sensory branding. Odour branding consultancy AromaCo has worked on a project for British Airways, releasing a pleasant smell in one of its passenger lounges at Heathrow Airport. It was also employed by banking giant Lloyds TSB to create a branded odour in some of its branches, though this was axed after a change of management. Shirt-maker and retailer Thomas Pink tried piping the odour of freshly laundered linen into its store in London’s Jermyn Street, though a spokeswoman says it is unlikely to continue with the experiment.
Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s denies that it creates artificial ‘smellscapes’ in its stores to get people’s mouths watering and encourage them to spend more. Its in-store bakeries create smells only in the area where they are situated, according to a spokeswoman, and she denies that any odours are piped across the chain’s stores.
Even London Underground has dipped its toe in the water. It carried out a test release of floral odours on station platforms by placing tiny capsules on the ground that emit sweet-smelling aromas when crushed under foot. The intention was to cover up the odours of cleaning fluids, but the trials were abandoned after complaints from members of the public who did not like the fragrances.
Packaging itself can emit a bespoke smell. For instance, Eastman Chemical Company has developed a jar with a cap that encapsulates and releases a choice of odours. It can be used as a guide to consumers about the contents of food, cosmetics and personal care packs, and the company thinks it is a ground-breaking development. The intensity of the smell can be preset, with a low level suggested to avoid ‘interference’ with other odours.
Marketing manager Valerie Bouvignies says Eastman has had the technology to create such packaging for over 20 years. ‘The market wasn’t ready to accept that kind of application. Now we think the market is ready, because the senses of sight, touch and sound have been exploited, and smell is the only sense that hasn’t,’ she says. ‹ The jar has yet to be put to a commercial use, though, she claims, there has been a lot of interest in it from the packaging industry and designers of products such as mobile phones, for whom a sweet-smelling handset could provide an interesting USP.
Then there are plans to bring aromatic communication to the Internet. Chicago-based designer San Stone has created a computer peripheral, called ScentDome, for US manufacturer TriSenx Holdings. It stores fragrances in a 20-chamber cartridge and these aromas can be combined to create thousands of smells. Scented e-mails or websites containing electronic signals can trigger the release of the designated smells from the ScentDome attached to a personal computer. These could include the smell of freshly cut roses for a Valentine’s Day message, or the odour of hot bread from an on-line recipe.
Many of these sensory innovations are the work of a new breed of specialist design consultancy, which argue that that the need to create ownership of sensory logos is becoming ever more important.
Simon Harrop, who set up AromaCo in 1992, admits the company struggled to attract custom in its early days, but, he claims, business is taking off. ‘Over the past two or three years, we have seen a huge uptake in interest in this whole field,’ he notes. ‘It is more than a flash in the pan, because brands that appeal to the eyes alone are wasting their money. Recall of purely visual communications is plummeting, partly because we are overloaded and traditional media is becoming more fragmented.’
Harrop claims that smell is a powerful tool for creating strong brand experiences as it is connected to the ‘limbic system’- the part of the brain that controls emotion. ‘If you create a link between a product experience and a smell, you can render a positive association, which leads to a deeper relationship,’ he says. This applies to odorous products, such as perfumes and personal care brands – where a sample of the odour can be scratched off the packaging. But smells can also be used to create an identity for other products. For example, design consultancy Jones Knowles Ritchie tried to create packaging for Bacardi Breezer, where a smell associated with the drink was released from crystals, carried in the ink on the label. However, it was too expensive and impractical to develop further. JKR chairman Andy Knowles warns, ‘People are always trying to find a great story that makes them look new and interesting. But I am not sure how saleable it is for a brand to release the smell of apples.’
In terms of creating aural themes for products, consultancy Sonicbrand helps companies create sounds to identify their brands. Managing director Dan Jackson says, ‘We set up guidelines for brands, so they can keep music for longer than one campaign.’
The consultancy has carried out research into sonic logos, which shows that while a sound or jingle may be memorable, it is not always well-liked.
The most recognised audio branding devices in the UK are signature jingles from PC World (‘Where in the world? PC World’), Kit Kat (‘Have a break, have a Kit Kat’), Direct Line (trumpet call) and Danone’s ‘Mmm…Danone’. However, when it comes to the most-liked brand sounds, the list is different. Carphone Warehouse’s ‘Talk Talk’ comes top, followed by Hamlet (‘Happiness is a cigar called…’). Then come Kit Kat, British Airways and Frosties.
Part of the challenge for audio branding is creating a language to describe the emotions stirred up by sounds. These are often referred to as colours – electric guitars and loud trumpets sound ‘red’, saxophones stand for ‘blue’, and a Wurlitzer organ sounds ‘orange’. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Concerto Spring movement is considered to denote ‘yellow’, while white is a combination of sounds.
Bill Wallsgrove, who previously worked at brand consultancy FutureBrand but has set up his own sonic consultancy, Sound Idea, says it is hard to create a sound theme which can be repeated many times and will appeal widely. Sounds have an ability to irritate more than visuals. ‘It’s a very fine line, because sound is in the ear of the beholder. The trick is to create something that creeps up, but doesn’t offend,’ he says. He points to the Intel theme as achieving this successfully. He says it was created out of desperation, as the microchip company tried to find a presence for something ‘invisible’ – the microchip. Despite the visual rebrand, the sonic identity is being left well alone. He believes that with the growth of digital appliances, such as mobile phones, multi-channel television, gaming and computer devices, it will become vital for brands to have distinguishing aural themes.
Designers do not confine themselves to the usual five senses. They use ‘equilibrioception’ – the sense of equilibrium, in designing skateboards and motorbikes. Then there is ‘proprioception’, our sense of position and movement, useful when designing cars and fairground equipment.
Brands are keen to find new ways of distinguishing themselves, as the world becomes ever more crowded with their logos and ads. They are taking the initial, faltering steps on the road to multi-sensory branding, but perhaps need to engage in a lot more trial and error before they hit the right note.