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Multisensory marketing in cross-cultural perspective (Part II): making sense of the senses

[Marketing multisensorial desde una perspectiva transcultural (2ª parte): el sentido de los sentidos][>>>]

David Howes
Concordia University

As noted in part I of this essay (Howes 2007), the marshalling of the senses –all five (and more) of them– for purposes of selling merchandise has become a key marketing strategy in today's consumer economy. In «the race to embrace the senses», as Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Worldwide Kevin Roberts (2005) styles it, no sense is left unturned. Formerly companies depended on logos and catch phrases or jingles to distinguish their brand from others, whereas now they trademark scents, colours, soundtracks, patent shapes and strive for a particular «feel».

Consider the recent advertising campaign for Westin Hotels & Resorts which centres on its «white tea» signature scent. This ad stretches beyond the two-dimensional surface of the printed page to engage the non-visual senses –literally, since you can smell the white tea scent by breaking the seal of the flap on the right.

The ad is above all addressed to the potential (or repeat) guest's sense of touch. Those who have stayed at the Westin will know the enveloping experience of sleeping in The Westin Heavenly Bed®, with its «ten layers of pure comfort». Such beds can be ordered through the Westin At Home, Inc. on-line service. Having one installed in your bedroom means that you can enjoy all the comforts of the hotel at home, as if you never left.

Some brands do not stop at the five senses but purport to enlist the «sixth sense» as well, as in the following advertising copy for a certain luxury sedan:

You Might Expect A Luxury Sedan To Cater To Your Senses. But All Six of Them?

The sixth sense is a keen, highly intuitive power –a power of perception– that goes far beyond the five senses. That’s according to the dictionary.According to our engineers, it comes standard with every Lexus ES 300. Let us explain.Have you ever been in a new place and felt like you had been there before? Some call it deja vu, but we call it ergonomics: the uncanny ability of our cabin to have everything in exactly the place you would most likely want it. So whether it’s the knob for the climate control system or the switch for the power window or the buttons for the optional six-disc CD auto-changer, or whatever –the first time you reach for it, the very first time, it will be there, as if you had placed it there yourself. Kind of spooky.Of course, we also do a lot for your other senses: the look of a sleek, aerodynamic body, the feel of gentle lumbar support, the smell of available handcrafted leather upholstery, and the soothing sound of eight strategically placed speakers. As for taste, it’s in everything we do. Figuratively speaking, of course.

In some cases, the logic of this new emphasis on diversifying the sense appeal of commodities is pretty obvious. For example, Procter & Gamble offers a product called the Swiffer Sweeper, wet thick mopping cloths which come in packages of twelve. On the packaging, the consumer is invited to «Get the 5 Signs of Clean». These «signs» are illustrated by a series of icons: See (magnifying glass), Smell (daisy flower), Feel (index finger inspection), Shine (sparkling surface), Trap & Toss (cloth disappearing into a garbage can). The implication is that the Swiffer Sweeper cleans in more senses than other brands, and is a lot more disposable than a mop. In this case, however, what seems like a labour-saving device is actually quite the opposite, since it ups the standard of household cleanliness to possessing all five «signs of clean» (where one might have sufficed previously), and also ups the cost (since the cloths are non-reusable).

The checklist approach to sensory marketing is grounded in the idea that the more senses a brand appeals to the more engaging (or emotion-filled) and memorable the «experience» of it will be. Formerly companies sought to spell out the features and benefits of their brand in an effort to appeal to the consumer's «rational choice», whereas now they seek to appeal directly to the emotions via the senses and thereby bypass the consumer's intellect. Affection has taken the place of ratiocination in the new «experience economy» (Pine and Gilmore 1999) where brands are viewed as «lovemarks» (Roberts 2005) –that is, as compelling loyalty beyond reason.

One of the foremost proponents of the «5-D» approach to marketing is Martin Lindstrom, author of Brand Sense: Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound (2005). According to Lindstrom, brands ideally want to inspire the same fervour as religions, since the latter «touch us at a fundamental emotional level, which precludes any rational discussion» (Lindstrom 2005: 169). The great religions of the world have all mastered the «Ten Rules of Sensory Branding», according to Lindstrom, which include using sensory stimuli (incense, chants, candles, etc.) and rituals, among other devices, to build a strong sense of community amongst their adherents. This is a highly revealing construction of the meaning of religions and of brands, since it presumes that in both cases the attachment is an irrational sensory one. Underlying this construction is the longstanding Western opposition between the intellect or mind, on the one hand, and the body and senses as well as emotions on the other. It is ironic that, while contemporary branding appears to embrace the body more than ever before it is actually more concerned with upholding and even exacerbating the old mind/body split –that is, with driving the senses apart from the intellect.

There is no denying that the senses are powerful shapers of behaviour. But they err who think that the senses operate as biological triggers at some pre-rational, infra-cultural level. For in all societies the life of the senses is also shaped by culture. This poses a serious challenge for those who dream of regulating consumer behvaviour through the senses in a Pavlovian manner, because different cultures imbue the senses with different values and uses. The meaning or «sense» which the senses have for people is scarcely addressed in any of the contemporary sensory marketing literature. The latter literature is mainly concerned with the senses as stimulus suppliers and ignores the issue of sensory semantics.

But sensory semantics matter. In the course of my research as a sensory anthropologist, exploring how people make sense of the senses in different cultures around the world, I have often been struck by the evidence I encountered of how the sensory properties of Western products are constructed and exploited in ways that were never imagined by their manufacturers. In Papua New Guinea, for example, Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder® is a much prized consumer item, but it is rarely if ever used on babies. Rather it is used in mortuary rituals to purify the atmosphere of the smell of putrefaction and asperged on the releatives of the deceased to signify the end of mourning. What makes Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder® especially suited to this purpose is its radiant whiteness, vivifying scent, and youthful associations, which tie in with local notions of the end of mourning being a time of rebirth (Howes 2003: 217-21). The KOOL brand of menthol cigarettes is another commodity with a strong following. It captures a disproportionatey large share of the cigarette market in PNG. In this case it is the phenomenal contradiction of a tobacco which, when burnt, produces smoke that is cooling. This makes KOOL cigarettes useful in healing rituals when the emphasis is on balancing the forces of hot and cold. The point of these examples is that sensations are not just pleasurable or painful, they are also meaningful.

A cantine on the outskirts of Port Moresby,
Papua New Guinea

During my sojourn among the Kwoma people, who inhabit the Washkuk Hills in the Middle Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, I conducted a series of experiments to determine olfactory preferences, among other things. I was equipped with a set of 30 odour samples in the form of plastic cards with very distinctive colours as well as aromas, supplied by a major North American manufacturer of artificial flavours and fragrances. The samples consisted of a range of synthetic scents used to aromatize everything from confectioneries to toiletries. I sought to carry out my experiments in as rigorous a fashion as possible, emulating the test procedures used in sensory evaluation laboratories and focus groups in the United States. However, my efforts were repeatedly thwarted and my experiments yielded no determinate results. For example, when asked which scent they liked the most, my Kwoma respondents consistently picked out the red rose scent at first, and I thought I had discovered a cultural universal. «A rose by any other name would smell as sweet». But then it occurred to me that the redness of the sample (red being a colour with many powerful symbolic associations in Kwoma culture) might be influencing responses. I started handing the samples around concealed in envelopes, so their colour was invisible, and the response pattern I had earlier discerned quickly disappeared.

A Kwoma man trying out an odour sample, Beglam, Papua New Guinea

Asked which sample they liked the least, my Kwoma respondents said none. They liked them all. I knew this not to be true, for I had seen many recoil at the brown cinnamon scent. Apparently, they did not interpret their disgust response the same way I did. Indeed, they wanted to know how they could get access to more cinnamon because they thought it might be useful in magic. (The power of a spell is largely in its smell, according to Kwoma notions. Ginger is the local plant most commonly used in magic. It is supposed to «hot up» one's spittle or breath. So does cinnamon, apparently.)

While I was interested in studying preferences, my respondents were more interested in making associations and discovering meaning. For example, they identified the green wintergreen scent with the bark of a local hardwood tree commonly used for building houses. Children were sent scurrying into the forest in search of flowers, fibres and resins (some of which were used as medicines) to match virtually every one of the samples I brought out. In consequence of its natural, as opposed to laboratory setting, mine was a very uncontrolled experiment. There was total distraction: children scurrying about, adults free associating, etc.

I thought the lemon and coconut scents would be easy to recognize. But my respondents did not identify them with the coconuts or citrus fruits that grew locally. Rather, they associated them with the dishwashing detergent and the coconut-flavoured cookies (both imported from China) available from the local tradestore.

Language presented another barrier of sorts, for my knowledge of Kwoma was virtually nil, and my fluency in Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin) was minimal. The biggest stumbling block for me, however, was that in Pidgin (as in most Melanesian natural languages) the term for «smelling» is the same as that for «hearing» so that when you ask someone if they can smell something you are asking them if they can «hear a smell» (harim smel). I was familiar with the phenomenon of «coloured hearing» (a type of synaesthesia), but «scented hearing»?

The indeterminate results of my experiments were frustrating from a «scientific» standpoint, until I began to see that perhaps it was my assumptions that were wrong. Why universalize the «scientific» norms of the laboratory when the laboratory is not the context in which most people experience the world? Why mask differences (such as colour in the event that one is testing for smell) when we do not encounter sensory qualities in the abstract in everyday life? Why be annoyed by the fact that your respondents find and discourse on meaning where (as an experimenter) you want them to only discriminate and rank sensations? Why assume that smelling and hearing are separate sensory functions when it could be more fruitful to explore how some people experience them as inseparable? Why not recognize some sensations (like that of cinnamon) as magical?

The Kwoma inhabit the far borderlands of the global consumer economy. What they make of the sensory properties of globally-circulating Western products will hardly be of much concern to the global brand manager, because the PNG market is so small. Yet there is much to be learned from the study of how people like the Kwoma construe the sensory properties of foreign commodities in unanticipated ways and put them to alternative uses. The Kwoma case underscores the cultural contingency inherent in the way different cultures make sense of the senses. Brand managers should take note, for they risk making many an unwarranted assumption about the potential sense appeal of the commodities they market if they don't (see for example Weiss 1996). And it is not just the hinterlands that pose a challenge in this respect. The metropolises of the world have been equally affected by the increasing mixity of cultures brought on by transnational migration. As Clifford Geertz observes in his article «The Uses of Diversity»:

Social and cultural boundaries coincide less and less closely –there are Japanese in Brazil, Turks on the Main, and West Indian meets East in the streets of Birmingham– a shuffling process which has of course been going on for quite some time… but which is, now, approaching extreme and near universal proportions… Les milieux are all mixte. They don't make Umwelte like they used to (Geertz 2000: 68)

The mixing of cultures brings about a mingling of sensory orders and a corresponding explosion in the range of sensory combinations and associations. The senses are purveyors of signification, not just stimulation.


1.Geertz, C.: «The Uses of Diversity». En: Available Light. Princeton University Press, Princeton, Estados Unidos (2000).
2.Howes, D. Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory. University of Mighigan Press, Ann Arbor, Estados Unidos (2003).
3.Howes, D.: «Multi-Sensory Marketing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (part I): From Synergy to Synaesthesia», Percepnet 60 (2007).
4.Lindstrom, M. Brand Sense: Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight and Sound. Free Press, Nueva York, Estados Unidos (2005).
5.Roberts, K.: Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Worldwide (
6.Pine, J. y Gilmore, J. The Experience Economy. Hardvard Business School Press, Cambridge, Estados Unidos (2005).
7.Weiss, B. The Making and Unmaking of the Haya Lived World: Conssumption, Commoditization and Everyday Practice. Duke University Press, Durham, Estados Unidos (1996).


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