This is a guest blog post by Prof. Charles Spence, Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University

Sensory marketing is big business, and getting bigger(1) . While Aradna Krishna was hinting at the "sensory explosion" to come just a couple of years ago, the signs are that 2016 is the year that multisensory goes mainstream. So, welcome to the exciting new world of sensploration(2). While marketers have been stressing the value of atmospherics(3) , and the experience economy (4) for decades, it always felt like companies were trying to use scintillating sensory cues in order to massage the wallets out of their consumers' pockets, rather than to deliver genuinely engaging and stimulating experiences in their own right(5).

However, times are a-changing. Wherever one looks one can see signs that the white cube model is crumbling(6), and is being replaced by a future that is much more multisensory that any of us could have imagined even a few years ago. "Sensorium" is very much the buzz word in branded and artistic endeavours these days: Everything from the original The Singleton Sensorium(7), through to Tate Britain's Sensorium in the summer of 2015(8). Naked. Cinema with food, virtual and augmented reality entertainment with scent, music concerts with matching wine(9), and Bompas and Parr's Edible Architecture. Similarly, at the high end of modernist cuisine (formerly molecular gastronomy) one sees a growing number of chefs, like Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, Paul Pairet of Ultraviolet, Chef Andoni at Mugaritz, in San Sebastian, and Paco Roncero concentrate on delivering "off the plate" dining. Meals accompanied by projections, music/soundscapes, and scent – the smell of the sweet shop at The Fat Duck through to the smell of incense in Sublimotion(10). Marketers are also showing greater interest, with separate events being held in late-February 2016 by Warc and agency Naked.

Where the Italian Futurists led a century ago, with their tactile dinner parties and multisensory clothing, technology and neuroscience are now allowing all of us to enjoy enhanced multisensory experiences, no matter whether we are in the restaurant of a high end chef, or flying with BA, delivering their sonic seasoning at 35,000 ft. While some of these sensory interventions might now seem 'obvious', think listening to the sounds of the sea while eating the seafood dish at The Fat Duck(11), what is increasingly grabbing people's attention is the more elusive, yet intriguing, area of synaesthetic design(12). The more surprising connections between our senses. Like synaesthesia in the sense that these connections are surprising, but different in that the majority of us seem to associate round with sweet, high-pitch, and tinkling piano, bitter with angular, brassy, low-pitch and black. While synaesthetic marketing and advertising has been around for a few years now, it has previously been governed by the intuitions of designers, but increasingly we are starting to see the emergence of neuroscience-inspired evidence-based design.

Furthermore, the emergence of sensory apps, or scent-enabled plug-ins for one's mobile devices are allowing all of us to play, to experiment in the home environment to uncover our own connections(13). In an era of growing personalization after all, why not personalize our sensory spaces. Some, let's call them the 'sensory junkies' will likely enjoy stores like Lush, and Abercrombie & Fitch(14).

What I also see is the increasing interest in the senses that have for so long been ignored by marketing, smell, touch, and taste(15). They need to be stimulated if one is to deliver a truly multisensory experience – and the evidence suggests that these are the more emotional senses as well. No matter what sector or service, it can be as simple as providing sweets, as done by Helm bank in Colombia, or the cookie on arrival at the Hilton Doubletree hotel chain. After all, we all know how powerful that new car smell can be. So why should my newly purchased consumer electronics smell like it has been sitting on the shelf in some warehouse for a couple of years? In the years to come, the most successful brands will, I believe has distinctive sensory touchpoints in as many senses as they can.

  1. Cooper, 2013
  2. Leow, 2015
  3. Kotler, 1974
  4. Pine & Gilmore, 1998, 1999
  5. Spence et al., 2014
  6. O'Doherty, 2009
  7. see Velasco et al., 2013
  8. Davis, 2015
  9. Spence et al., 2013
  10. see Spence & Piqueras-Fiszman, 2014
  11. Spence et al., 2011
  12. e.g., Haverkamp, 2014; Spence, 2012
  13. Braun et al., 2016
  14. Cliff, 2015
  15. see Spence & Gallace, 2011; Spence et al., 2014