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.”

No Responses to "Q&A with Charles Spence, JWT Europe head of sensory marketing"

Comment Form

SIGN UP FOR OUR WEEKLY EMAIL NEWSLETTER:

New: The Future 100

The Future of Payments & Currency

JWT AnxietyIndex

Things to Watch

  • Tears become… streams become…
    December 17, 2014 | 1:50 pm

    Artists and performers are increasingly creating multisensory pieces that immerse and envelope audiences, who in turn are embracing these one-of-a-kind experiences. In New York, the latest example is the performance and installation tears become… streams become…, a “field of water that harnesses light, reflection, music and sound” by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon and French pianist Hélène Grimaud.

    Continue reading “Tears become… streams become…” »

  • The Glade Boutique
    December 11, 2014 | 5:16 pm

    More marketers across the spectrum are creating novel pop-ups and activities that add dimension to the brand and satisfy consumer interest in experiences. These experiences are also increasingly interactive, immersive and multisensory, as our past trend reports have discussed. In line with these trends, a Glade Boutique holiday pop-up in New York City’s Meatpacking district, created with fashion designer Pamela Dennis and interior designer Stephanie Goto, features five rooms themed around “scent-inspired feelings,” like relaxation and “energized” (complete with an Oculus Rift virtual thrill ride).

    The pop-up is a departure for the mass-market candle brand: It has no outside signage, just a keyhole with a neon sign asking, “What will you feel?” Inside, with white walls and polished concrete floors, there’s all the cues of a groovy concept store. Visitors walk past a terrarium to the “Feelings Lounge”—sofas arranged around an objet-bedecked coffee table—then find the new collection of candles covered in bell jars for sampling the scents, akin to the merchandising format of ultra-luxe candle brand Cire Trudon. There’s also a backlit installation made up of hundreds of Glade candles.

  • Cheap-phone wars
    December 3, 2014 | 11:54 am

    Obi Mobiles

    Mobile brands are creating cheaper, stripped-down smartphones for emerging markets, competing with domestic brands producing their own low-cost phones. The field is getting more competitive with Obi Mobiles from former Apple CEO John Sculley, which targets young, image-conscious consumers. Obi launched recently in India, the Middle East and Singapore, and plans for further expansion in 2015.

    Obi will be taking on Chinese up-and-comer Xiaomi, which is entering five new markets this year. Meanwhile, Google launched the Android One OS in India last month in tandem with several domestic brands, which are pricing the phones at around $100. Prices will get lower still, at least for the most basic smartphones: Mozilla has announced plans to sell phones that use its Firefox OS in India and Africa for just $25. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Obi Mobiles

  • Snapcash
    November 19, 2014 | 4:54 pm


    Disruption in the payments sphere is opening the way for social media brands to act as intermediaries between consumers and their money, as we note in our report on payments and currency. Facebook is said to be planning a P2P payments feature for Messenger, South Korea’s KakaoTalk announced a PayPal-like service in September, and Line is creating a mobile service that will let users make on- and offline purchases. Now, Snapchat is partnering with Square to enable payments between users, as explained in this video’s energetic retro musical number.

    After users (U.S. only and 18-plus only) enter debit card info, they simply send a cash amount within a text. While Snapchat’s recent data breaches may give some users pause, the P2P payments space is a smart place to be as young consumers get accustomed to services like Venmo that make it easy and even fun to pay friends. —Marian Berelowitz

  • Payment in a heartbeat
    November 11, 2014 | 5:26 pm

    Nymi-paywith

    Our recent report on the future of payments and currency spotlights the rise of biometric payments—using a unique physical characteristic to authenticate transactions—which promise to greatly improve security and help remove friction. So far we’ve seen systems that rely on fingerprints (e.g., Apple Pay) and the palm’s unique vein payment (see Quixter). Now, the startup Bionym is exploring ways to harness its Nymi wristband, which uses the wearer’s unique cardiac rhythm as authentication, for payments.

    Bionym is linking with MasterCard and the Royal Bank of Canada for a test in which an NFC chip in the wristband enables contactless payments. The company, which is looking to license its technology into other wearables, recently raised $14 million in a Series A funding round and has racked up 10,000 preorders for the Nymi. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Nymi

  • Vegetable co-stars
    November 4, 2014 | 6:31 pm

    veggies_4

    “Vegetable co-stars” is one of our 100 Things to Watch in 2014—the idea that veggies are gaining a higher profile on restaurant menus—and more star chefs are indeed embracing this trend. José Andrés and his ThinkFood restaurant group plan to open Beefsteak (as in tomatoes), a vegetable-focused fast casual eatery in Washington, D.C., next year. The Washington Post also points to chef Roy Choi’s new greenhouse-like Commissary in L.A., which says it serves “good food and drink based around plants as the foundation.”

    “Chefs around the country, and the globe, are pushing meat from the center of the plate—and sometimes off it altogether,” notes The Wall Street Journal, citing examples like Alain Ducasse revamping his menu at the posh Plaza Athénée in Paris. Catering to a growing group of diners looking to eat less meat, vegetable-heavy dishes also offer new opportunities for creativity. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Plaza Athénée

  • Xiaomi zooms ahead
    October 30, 2014 | 4:44 pm

    Xiaomi, which we included on our 100 Things to Watch in 2014 list, is now the world’s third-largest smartphone maker, according to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. The young company has seen triple-digit year-over-year growth in smartphone shipments, per IDC, surging ahead of both LG and Lenovo. Often described as the “Apple of China,” Xiaomi released its first phone just three years ago; its latest, Mi4, is an iPhone clone that runs on a modified version of Android.

    The company is expanding beyond China into India and Singapore, and planning to enter a slew of other growth markets, including Russia, Turkey, Brazil and Mexico. For more on whether Chinese brands can succeed on the world stage, see our report Remaking “Made in China.”Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Xiaomi

     

  • Money & messaging apps
    October 23, 2014 | 11:13 am

    LINE_icon02

    Given the primary function of mobile messaging apps and their technical capabilities, money transfer and payments are an alluring proposition, as outlined in our new report on payments and currency. Snapchat filed two trademarks in July that indicate a potential move into peer-to-peer payments. The recently announced Line Pay will let Line users make purchases through their Line accounts, send funds to each other, and split costs using a “Dutch Pay” feature. Line Pay will launch in Japan and, as Tech in Asia reports, serve as “an entrance to new industries” thanks to integration with the new Line Taxi service and Line Wow, for food delivery. In South Korea, KakaoTalk launched the PayPal-like Kakao Pay in September, and a remittance service, Bank Wallet Kakao, is in the works. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Line

  • The #TimsDark Experiment
    October 14, 2014 | 3:46 pm

    To entice customers into tasting its new dark roast, Canadian fast food chain Tim Hortons, with the help of JWT Canada, created a surprise immersive experience. A store in Quebec was wrapped in material that blocked all light from the outdoors. Patrons entered warily and, once inside, heard a staff member (who was wearing night vision goggles) guiding them through the dark. At the counter, customers were handed a cup of the dark roast—the brand’s first new blend in 50 years—with the darkness heightening their sense of taste. When the lights came on, the patrons saw they were on camera.

    The #TimsDark Experiment has garnered YouTube views and some press attention, and shows how creatively imagined immersive experiences—one of our 10 Trends for 2014—can encourage consumers to engage with a brand.

  • Bitcoin bank Circle
    October 7, 2014 | 4:40 pm

    Circle

    In late September, the startup Circle launched a web app that effectively functions as a bitcoin bank. Using a debit card or bank account, users transfer funds to Circle, which converts the money to bitcoin at no fee. Circle also insures this money at no cost. The company aims to make bitcoin more accessible via consumer-friendly design and is aiming to take on traditional banks and companies like PayPal, as The Guardian reports. Next up: Android and iOS Circle apps.

    Circle co-founder Jeremy Allaire gave a keynote at the Inside Bitcoins conference in April, citing the need for a “killer app” to bring bitcoin into the mainstream. Now Circle seems to be taking the lead, and others are sure to follow. —Nick Ayala

    Image credit: Circle

  • RSSArchive for Things to Watch »