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"The brain makes behavior. Every millisecond of every day, the brain creates your world and the world of your consumers. It alone decides what's important enough to pay attention to, to remember, and to act on."
Dr. AK Pradeep, The Buying Brain

If you were a fan of Starbucks' breakfast sandwiches, you were out of luck for much of 2008. The chain stopped selling them for several months because CEO Howard Schultz didn't like the smell of cooking and, often burning, cheese. It overwhelmed the much more enticing aroma of freshly brewed coffee. (The sandwiches only reappeared after a task force addressed the odor problem). As Schultz recognized, senses play a significant role in purchasing decisions. How can you use the five senses to help propel your brand to success?

The Buying Brain Depends on the 5 Senses

If you've taken a stroll around any shopping center recently, you've undoubtedly noticed loud music emanating from stores like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch; the super-sweet bakery scent wafting from Cinnabon and Auntie Anne's; and the carefully-positioned products in Apple stores, designed expressly so you have to touch them.

In The Buying Brain, Dr. Pradeep writes: "What a gorgeous, vivid, delicious, melodic, aromatic, sensual world we live in!" While other animals may have more highly attuned individual senses - dogs, for instance, have a sense of smell that is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than ours - humans relay on input from all of our senses. As Pradeep says, we're "generalists." What we lack in smell, we make up for in sight. What we lack in sight, we make up for in touch, and so on.

Incorporating the senses and consumer psychology in your marketing and advertising campaigns is essential. Dr. Pradeep explains how we can do this.


Visual processing occupies much more brain space than any other sense. For most of us, the way we experience and understand the world is largely through sight. According to Dr. Pradeep, 70% of our body's sense receptors are in the eyes.

The take-away for Brands:

  • Eliminate clutter. Lose extraneous detail and ensure your messaging is clear and clean.
  • Use the "cathedral effect." When you walk into a cathedral, where do your eyes go? Up. When designing signage and ads, place the focal point at the top.
  • Incorporate puzzles. People intrinsically love to solve puzzles (but make them relatively easy to appeal to a wide audience).


Savvy brands capitalize on aromas to encourage consumers to spend. This is an especially powerful technique because olfactory senses are directly linked to emotional experiences. Remember the smell of spaghetti sauce or turkey dinners from your youth? Freshly mown grass? Sunscreen? Scents travel on an expressway to the brain (and to the wallet).

Panera Bread, for instance, switched its baking hours. Instead of baking at night, they do it during the day so customers are enticed by the smell of fresh goods. And at Cinnabon, even if they're not baking products, employees put sheets of cinnamon and brown sugar into the oven to release the sweet smell of spending.

The take-away for Brands:

  • Does your product/service have an associated scent? Coffee and baked good is an easy one - but could you associate your product or location with a soothing vanilla scent or a clean citrus scent?
  • Make sure any aroma associated with your brand is fresh. Consumers are turned off by smells that are artificial or "plastic."


Smell and taste are inextricably linked. If you depend on the internet, television or print ads, or other indirect means to reach customers, you may be wondering how you can exploit the sense of taste. Good question.

The take-away for Brands:

  • Take advantage of the "mirror neuron systems." Neurons in the brain mirror the behavior of someone else. In other words, if you see someone enjoying an appetizing dish or drink, you're more likely to desire it yourself.
  • Depict tastes visually. Instead of saying, "Hey, enjoy this nice juicy hamburger," use an image of that nice juicy hamburger. As they say, a picture is worth 1000 words - especially when you're trying to sell!


This is another sense that is intricately tied into our emotions. Lullabies, favorite tunes - they embed themselves in our minds and evoke strong memories. (Bet you can still sing the theme song of your favorite childhood show or catchy ad jingles.)

The take-away for Brands:

  • Link your brand to identifiable sounds.
  • Carefully choose the right music, at the right volume, for your target audience. Studies show that sound can affect shopping habits. Music in retail environments, for instance, can create positive emotions and increase sales.


Touch is our most primal sense - the one we rely on most. It is, as Dr. Pradeep says, "the embodiment of sight."

The take-away for Brands:

  • Offer sensory experiences whenever possible. This is why Apple purposely opens its laptops just 70% of the way - so customers have to interact with them. Open them, experience them, play with them.
  • If customers cannot interact with products directly, offer images of "peak sensory and motor experience." Put them atop the mountain or on the crest of a killer wave. Let them imagine the tactile experience they can gain from your product or service.

Ninety-five of our purchasing decisions are made subconsciously. Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch - these guide consumers to purchase. When your organization can make the subconscious choices of consumers part of your conscious marketing strategy, you can achieve enhanced results.


Larry Hart

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