‘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.