May 8, 2013

Q&A with Charles Spence, JWT Europe head of sensory marketing

Posted by: in Europe|North America

Experimental psychologist Charles Spence heads the Crossmodal Research Lab at the University of Oxford, which uses neuroscience to study the ways in which our senses interact and how marketers can benefit from these insights. Recently JWT Europe brought him in as head of sensory marketing. At Crossmodal, Spence has worked with brands including Unilever, Starbucks, Nestlé and Toyota to fine-tune product development and the customer experience using multisensory approaches. For instance, the lab has researched how lighting and sound can impact our sense of taste and how vehicles can best alert drivers of dangerous situations. In line with one of our 10 Trends for 2013, dubbed Sensory Explosion, we’ll see an increasing focus on sensory stimulation now that more of life is virtual and online. Spence talked to us about why it’s important to understand how the senses work together and what brands can learn from this type of brain science.

How did you get involved in the study of sensory research?

I’m a psychologist by training, here at Oxford. After leaving the university as an undergraduate, I went to work with the European Space Agency and with BMW in Germany, doing human-computer interaction modeling. I came back to the U.K. via Cambridge with these twin ideas: I was very interested in the senses, and that was from my undergraduate work. And I was very interested in the application of those findings, and that was from the work in Germany.

Ever since, I’ve been trying to merge the theoretical interest in how the senses interact with a practical output: How can I affect people in the real world? Academics tend to think it’s all just about the theoretical issues. If you get your hands dirty with the real world, with business and industry, then that must mean it’s not a very good science, or that you can’t do the hard stuff. But the landscape is very much changing now as the British government is starting to judge academic departments on their impact on society. So the table is starting to turn, and what we’ve been doing here for 16 years by ourselves is now flavor of the month.

What does your Crossmodal Research Lab focus on?

The challenge for us is to take the latest insights from brain science and figure out how to apply them in the real world. Examples would be to make warning signals for car drivers safer, to make food taste better or different, or working with product packaging to make things stand out on the shelf. The senses are much more interconnected than any of us realize. The question, then, is, How can we use those insights and the rules that are coming out of the neuroscience together with some real-world application or instance to enhance people’s experience?

In the lab, we have psychologists, marketers, product designers, sensory scientists, musicologists and neuroscientists. Occasionally, chefs, artists and neuromarketers come through. Many of those coming from a marketing background think you must try to stimulate as many senses as possible. But what they don’t realize is just how much the senses interact and how sometimes changing one thing—say, changing the color of something might change its taste. That’s the bread and butter of the work we do here. 

Can you explain in more detail how you work with different industries?

There are four or five ways in which we work with industries. In one case, it can be claim support: I have a product called Brand X, and I want to say mine is better, mine makes the wrinkles go away, mine tastes better, feels softer, whatever it might be. Then we do research. Neuroscience has very robust testing techniques that have been fine-tuned to measure tiny effects in the most efficient manner possible. We take those techniques and see how can we apply them to the investigation of a shampoo or a teabag—that’s the challenge for us.

We also do a lot of scoping out. Say you’re selling coffee; maybe you’ve got your ear to the ground and you hear a bit about brain science and neuroscience and neuromarketing, but you’re not quite sure how all those new disciplines apply to your category. We might write a state-of-the-art report highlighting the many ways in which neuroscience insights could impact on a given product or category. Often that will lead to longer-term research projects for companies. It might be on product formulation, it might be on packaging design, it might be the advertising.

Increasingly, our work is at the borderline of neuroscience and publicity. So you have some new product or brand that you want to get out there into the press, and the English press is pretty cynical about product placements. But if you commission some neuroscience research around your product or brand, that can be a much more appealing story to tell the press about.

Last week we had a multisensory whiskey-tasting event in London for three nights and with about 450 people coming through the door. Each room had different sounds, different scents, different lighting and a different feel. Each of these sensory stimuli had initially been tested in the lab. We’ve done experiments where you can sort of break down the aromas in a wine or a cognac and match them with music. So for this event, I’d interact with [attendees] and  convince them, and then they’d convince themselves, that you taste the difference in the three different rooms as a function of what you were hearing, smelling, seeing and feeling.

What is your general perspective on sensory stimulation and multisensory marketing?

There is potential for confusion certainly. Sometimes people randomly say “Let’s change the color of this, or let’s change the smell of that,” but they’re doing it on a sense-by-sense basis, not thinking about how the senses are coordinated. You have to know how to sense what the senses are also saying and then build up congruent messages so that each sense is pulling in the same direction. But also sometimes maybe you go deliberately toward incongruence if you’re a high-end modernist restaurant, say, or a design store.

If it’s done badly, or you randomly start bringing in more senses or changing the individual sensory impressions you already have, there is a danger of confusion. If done well, though, the senses will become congruent, and hence you’ll have a more intense experience.

Sometimes the most sensory approach involves giving you a more stimulating experience through more of your senses that may be superlative. But other times, you can use the senses without consumers being aware of what’s happening. So if we’re working with a soft drink manufacturer, then we’re thinking about how can we reduce the carbonation, or reduce the sugar in the drink, without consumers realizing it. We’re being forced by governments to foods more healthy. So we’re thinking about how can you use some of these multisensory illusions so consumers don’t notice what’s going on and yet you’re delivering something healthier. Can we deliver sweetness through the more effective use of color? Can we reduce the carbonation in the drink (to help save our teeth) while keeping the perception of carbonation unchanged simply by changing the design of the can?

Have you seen any shifts in sensory marketing in the recent past?

Spirits brands are suddenly all over the area in ways that they weren’t even a couple of years ago. Everyone from Heineken to Molson, Pernod Ricard, Diageo, they’re all jumping in in a huge way. Whether it’s delivering multisensory experiences through advertisements or packaging or events, they’re all putting money into design labs, into the virtual multisensory bars and experiences. There’s huge interest there.

Can you share any examples of how your research is being applied?

We’re now looking at ways to sort of tap into the driver’s brain much more quickly, no matter what they are distracted with, traffic or an iPhone. We have some nice research on the design of headrest-mounted warning signals to tap into our different brain circuits, something that can be engineered. Normally, if you think about warning signals for drivers, it’s probably coming out of somewhere on the dashboard or the loudspeakers in the door. But it turns out our brains have specialized circuits dedicated just to monitoring the space just behind your head, the space you can’t see. That’s where all the body’s crucial cables and wires are, and nobody’s putting sounds there. So you can put a warning signal in the headrest that’s maybe 20 centimeters behind your head that you can’t see, but it goes straight to the brain. And no matter what else you’re doing, it triggers a much faster response to get your eyes back on the road.

We can figure out what’s the fastest route to the brain when every millisecond does matter. We do a lot of work with vibrating car seats, and now already you see people who make the car parts saying by 2020, all new cars will have vibration as standardit might be a lane departure warning, it might be a crash avoidance warning. Cars will have some sort of vibrating aspect: talking to you through vibrating the seat or the seat belt or steering wheel or the foot pedal. The very top-end models of Jaguars and Citroen have some sort of vibration in cars now. And the new Mercedes S-class will have a scent display that even allows the driver to choose what their car interior will smell of!

What do you see on the leading edge of sensory marketing?

What’s especially exciting at the moment are the various collaborations we have going with chefs, with molecular mixologists. All it takes is to convince one chef or cocktail maker about some of these neuroscience ideas, and suddenly it’s on the menu, and people are talking about it and trying it—there’s a great buzz. That’s what’s helping to revolutionize and speed up the sensory, multisensory design approach. The top chefs running these kitchens become models of integration and design and creativity—kind of like what would be happening with Formula One racecars. Some of those technologies that today are only for the Formula One racing drivers will appear in the high street in a couple of years. The most multisensory and experiential innovations from the world’s top chefs and mixologists will be appearing on the high street associated with some brand or another in a year or two.

That wasn’t happening five years ago. But it really is now, and I see a lot of things coming from that. A lot of marketers are saying, “I ate that, I was at that bar, I’ve tried that multisensory experience, and I want to do it. I want to bring that to my brand.”

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