Category Archives: Branding


‘It s(m)ells like fresh bread’

Recent advances in the field of neuromarketing have raised awareness of the ways in which consumers can be influenced by sensory stimuli that they are not necessarily aware of – or that they react to before making cognitive sense of. Such insights provide empirical backing to the theoretical premise of what has been labelled the ‘affective turn’ within the social sciences and the humanities (see Clough, 2008 for an overview). Namely that, to simplify the point somewhat, ‘the skin is faster than the word’ (Massumi, 1995). We experience affective intensities before we can describe them as emotions – and we react on our affectively triggered instincts before we know, let alone can justify, what we do.

These points are not in themselves novel, but today marketers have more sophisticated means of putting them to use. For instance, a supermarket may dispense the smell of freshly baked homemade bread in its aisles to increase sales of its absolutely odourless, mass-produced toast.  Or, even more cunningly, the supermarket could place its in-store bakery near the entrance so as to whet customers’ appetites, since hungry shoppers are heavy shoppers (Ashford, 2015).

In a broader sense, just as Marcel Proust famously was prompted ‘in search of lost time’ by eating a madeleine cake, the smell of bread may transport consumers to sweet memories of homely comfort. These may also, as we pass the bakery time and again, come to be associated with the store. And once the supermarket has caught the scent of money, why not move on to the other senses?

Neuromarketers have found that taste testing reduces customers’ sense of risk-taking just as touch is often used to validate a product (e.g. add weight to a product to indicate its sturdiness, seriousness, quality), likewise colour-coding (e.g. blue for trust, green for relaxation) and other visual stimuli (pictures of fresh fruit or models making eye-contact) can influence our shopping behaviour and, more generally, sounds (energetic music) can put us in the right mood (Genco, Pohlmann & Steidl, 2013).

Even if customers are not, or only vaguely, aware of all these sensory stimuli, they more likely than not shape each trip to the local supermarket decisively, just as they may be brought to bear, more generally, on our experience with brands (Lindstrom, 2005). Even brands, which do not have the same intuitive link to the senses as supermarkets, can profit greatly by working on and with the senses – just think of the crisp smell of a new pair of sneakers or that strangely satisfying sound of turning on a computer.

Luring as it may be, neuromarketing is not unproblematic. First, there is the ethical issue. Do we really want marketers to be messing around at the liminal zones of our consciousness – and beyond? Second, neuromarketing may seem soundly based in scientific advances, and the combination of marketing tools and brain scans does provide impressive backing for claims to effectivity. However, affect is not the same as effect. Or, in plainer terms, the route from stimulus to response is not as direct as the above account might suggest. While the model of decision-making that we espouse in Strategizing Communication firmly breaks with the idea of rational choice, we are equally uneasy with the ‘emotional determinism’ of neuromarketing. Decisions, we propose, are much more complicated processes in which sensory impulses do play a key part, but in which conscious cognition is also involved. The real potential, then, lies in finding ways of combining the two.

Native advertising

Native advertising is camouflaged advertising, meaning it is advertising, or strategic communication, that presents itself as something else. See for instance this infographic on oysters: though it purports to teach you about different oysters, it is (also) an ad for the beer Guinness.

Beyond advertisements-turned-infographics (or vice versa?), you have probably stumbled upon native advertising online, e.g. on news sites where you will find articles that appear to be written by a journalist, but actually were written and paid for by an organization. The point with native advertising is that the advertisement is camouflaged – its form, content and function matches that of the platform it appears on. The word “native” hence refers to the ad’s coherence with the content normally found on the platform on which it is published. Check out Native Advertising Works for more examples.

Native advertisement is not new per se. It shares many similarities to product placement (also called embedded marketing). But unlike product placement, where the goal is to place a product within an already existing content (think Aston Martin, Bollinger and Omega in James Bond movies), with native marketing the goal is to merge the product and content

In an article on Native advertisement, the American law professor Chris Jay Hoofnagle and the civil rights lawyer Eduard Meleshinsky, argue that the concept can be traced back to 1951. In particular, the publisher of Atlantic Monthly, Donald B. Snyder, who then “observed that products had become more complex and that the existing advertising jingles and slogans could not convey the messages that consumers needed to understand in a modern economy” (Hoofnagle and Meleshinsky, 2015). In the article, they quote Snyder for writing:

“To provide the facility for advertising to convey information, the Atlantic has developed a new form for the expression of business ideas. We call them Advertorials. They will be paid advertisements…They will involve the thoughtful participation of the reader; they are intended to give him pause—and in the pause, compelling facts about the way American business works. They are predicated upon the belief that the free competition of ideas has made this country great.” Following this announcement were five pages of advertorials paid for by the American Iron and Steel Institute. Each page was prominently labelled “An Atlantic Public Interest Advertisement.”

But it is not until more recently that this practice has become widespread. Why? Because of two trends: 1) people are less inclined to be persuaded by ads and commercials (many of us directly shun them), and 2) ad-blocking technologies available on our multiple devices have made it more difficult for organizations to reach us. Combined, these trends have forced companies to come up with other ways of grabbing our attention, and one way is to camouflage strategic communication as other types of communication, e.g. news stories and memes.

And it works! Research shows that we, the consumer/citizens, are more engaged with and persuaded by messages delivered as native advertising compared to other forms of advertising/commercials/strategic communication.

Although this is great for organizations, there are a number of ethical and regulatory issues connected to this practice. In particular, how native advertising is designed to disarm the consumer/citizen’s natural defence against advertising by blurring the lines between objective, third party produced content and content produced and paid for by organizations. Why could this be problematic? Because it makes it difficult for the consumer/citizen to identify who the writer, and hence source, of the information is. Making manipulation and propaganda uncontrolled tools for organizations to employ in their strategic communication. For more on this, check out Amar C. Bakshi’s interesting read on the question of ethics and regulation, in Journal of Media Law & Ethics