Uncommon Sense

For weeks now I have mainly been writing about decisions in business, politics and sport. It is high time to return to the area of decision making that has been the focus of my working life for over 40 years – how the consumer decides, and what influences those decisions. 

On Friday last week I had the opportunity of an interview that did a great deal to get me back inside the consumer’s head. I spent a riveting two hours with the Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. Charles Spence is one of the world’s leading experts in the science of neuromarketing. Unsurprisingly he is in as much demand from marketers, as from his students and research assistants. 

I am sure that in his private and family life, Charles has a healthy supply of common sense. But when it comes to the application of his academic training as a psychologist and neuroscientist to understanding and stimulating his fellow humans as citizens, patients and consumers, he is truly the master of uncommon sense. 

During the course of sessions in his spectacularly untidy office and the Aladdin’s cave beneath that is his laboratory, I learned an extraordinary amount about how we experience products, brands and marketing communications through our senses, and how marketers and others can influence consumer behaviour by simultaneously impacting on more than one sense at the same time. 

Importantly, I also learned how much I don’t know. 

We are dealing here with the principles of synaesthesia: the interconnection between stimuli to our five senses: vision, smell, taste, touch and hearing.

For instance: 

  • We are well aware that appreciation of the taste of wine is enhanced by its smell – or ‘nose’. But as we look for inspiration in Majestic, how consciously are we influenced by the colour of the bottle, and its shape and weight? Do we realise the impact of the shape of the label?
  • How susceptible are we to the smell as well as the feel of a garment treated by a fabric softener…
  • …or to the noisiness of a packet of crisps, which ‘says’ crispness just as much as the contents deliver the taste we expect?
  • Does strawberry jam taste better out of a jar with a red label?
  • Has the sound coming out of an iPod been as important as the taste of the ingredients in turning ‘Sound of the Sea’ into Heston Blumenthal’s signature dish at the Fat Duck? [A Charles Spence project.] 

This week I will be exploring more aspects of how consumer decision making and behaviour can be influenced by communicating with the senses as opposed to just using reason and emotion. I have a hunch that neuromarketing might throw even more light on Behavioural Economics in the ‘Nudge’ or Rory Sutherland sense, and give us some powerful new examples of ingenious and hyper-effective ideas. 

Next week I want to move on to see if considered or macro-decision making in the corporate or institutional context is also capable of being enhanced by appealing to the senses. We already know how important the evidence of the different senses is to people in the armed forces, emergency services, A&E, on the flight deck, and even referees and umpires – who are all tasked with making decisions in very short order. 

Could it be that we are just touching the surface by only applying reason and logic to big decisions in business and public life? Maybe we should be factoring in seeing, smelling, hearing and tasting, as well as touching!