What have airline meals and headphones got to do with brand? On the face of it, not a lot (except that none of them are really edible).
Airline food isn’t always the most palatable stuff. Often bland, frequently overheated, it’s enough to make you want to bring your own picnic. However, research recently aired in Food Quality and Preference (and picked up by the Toronto Star as well as other news outlets) suggests that the sounds you hear whilst eating have an immediate impact on the taste experience.
(The research also makes note of the fact that if you like the music you’re listening to while you eat, you’re more likely to like the food as well – I’m less interested in that and more fascinated by the actual shift in taste perception. After all, if you’re in a good environment and having a good time, your pleasure centres are all fired up anyway, so automatically the food stands the chance of tasting better)
But what has this got to do with brand?
We’ve evolved as a sensory species, using our five ‘core’ senses to explore the world around us, stop us getting eaten and finding things to eat ourselves. (I say core because we’ve got up to 20 senses, depending on who you listen to – sense of balance, sense of pressure etc)
Brands often engage only one or two senses at the most. On seeing a logo, we associate brand meaning and the choice of colours and shape help us to subliminally understand the brand’s position. On hearing a sonic trigger, we identify what it is that we’re listening to and make the choice (consciously or subconsciously) to tune in to find out what’s going on.
And since we’re a connective species, we’ll use these triggers to make a giant dot-to-dot in our brains, helping us to fill in the blanks and recreate a memory image, triggered by that initial sensory input. So when I see a Starbuck’s logo, my brain will fill in the blanks by inserting the smell of coffee and the sounds of a coffee shop. When I smell fresh bread, my brain will fill in taste and texture blanks.
However, the research quoted in the Toronto Star suggests that these sensory inputs aren’t fixed. An airplane lasagne might taste different if you’re listening to Bach, say, rather than the roar of the engines.
By extension, the sight of a beautiful sunrise would probably become something entirely different if you’re listening to Uriah Heap over the tweeting of birdsong.
And for the future of brand and marketing, this raising a very interesting prospect. What if we, as marketers and creative communicators, were able to bend the reality of sensory input through combining one input with another in a combination which changes both (i.e. not just playing a branded jingle in a brand-coloured store)?
OK so it would take quite a lot of R+D and, if we were marketing a new food concept, we’d probably need a gym membership at least. But this could be a new branch of user experience marketing. Think of the cross-brand or cross-portfolio opportunities – the cross-selling that could take place. And think of the end result for the consumer – a heightened state of awareness for product, leading to positive reinforcement and thus an increased purchase-propensity.
The key here is ‘awareness’. If we can make our customers more ‘aware’ – by bending sensory perception if necessary – I will be willing to bet that we’ll see our campaign results soar.
So, lasagne and Bach at the ready – let’s see where this takes us…