THE POWER OF THE SENSES. Sensory applications in retail


Image by artchandising

Every day we are bombarded with some 2,000 messages (ads, ideas, suggestions) but only a tiny fraction of them – the ones the brain thinks might be relevant – are actually perceived by customers.

Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), neuroscientists now know that 85% to 95% of human decisions are implicit and not conscious. In other words, reasoning with people to convince them about how good a shop (or product) is, is a waste of time strategy.

What is the so-called sensory marketing?

Triggering emotions makes persuasion much easier because emotions bypass the filter of selective perception. But this is only possible with help from the senses, which are the fast track to emotions.

Stimulating the senses triggers an emotional response. Consumers then experience sensations that make them aware of an external factor.
This is the biological explanation for what is known as sensory marketing, a term I’m not particularly fond of because despite its biological basis, it’s just part of the favourite store creation process.

Point of sales sensory marketing consists of using ambient elements that impact customers’ senses and make their emotional, cognitive and behavioural responses favour the creation of a brand image and encourage purchases (Manzano et al., 2011: 74).

Greater awareness

This is where the senses step into the limelight. We all know the traditional five senses – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell – but there are others that deserve a closer look. Ken Robinson, a creativity and innovation expert, points out the importance of the senses of balance, motion (spatial perception and spatial self relation) and heat, to name but three.

Antonio Damasio, a foremost Portuguese neurobiologist, explains that if someone screams, for example, our heartbeat accelerates and we think there’s danger nearby. We’ll then either listen hard or run away. All of this together – the stimulus, the body’s response and the consequences – is what constitutes feeling. Feeling is the perception of all this. It’s something that starts externally, affects our body, because the brain says so, and then we perceive it.

Beyond sensory marketing: “implicit marketing”

Because of the way the brain works, the most appropriate term for marketing, that is the processes and methods used to become a favourite store, would be “implicit marketing “or marketing of the implicit.

There are lots of examples of “implicit marketing”, but I’d like to focus on one particularly interesting case that casts a bold, new slant on an apparently well-established area: in-store music.

Since March 31st 2010, 17 million customers have been shopping without music at L’illa, Barcelona’s leading town-centre, shopping centre. The mall replaced its background music with computer-generated abstract sounds. It represents quite a radical innovation in the shopping experience.

Back in 2001, M. Gobé, the author of the best seller “Emotional Branding” said that music affects the time and speed of shopping and even the amount spent and is, therefore, a major factor in consumer behaviour. Therefore, replacing background music by abstract sounds could trigger different, new responses, and even more so bearing in mind that customers are used to listening to music while they shop.

Chapin et al (2010), from Florida Atlantic University, discovered that emotional responses and neuronal triggers depend as much on the parameters of the musical stimulus (e.g. the type of sound, or its tone or tempo) as on the prior musical experience of the listener. In an area like a shopping centre intended for a variety of segments, such as a shopping centre, maybe this project is not as crazy as it might seem.

Image by artchandising

The relationship between culture and the senses

Although “culture” can be defined from very different viewpoints, the UNESCO definition is very interesting for retail and marketing.

According to the UNESCO, “culture can be defined as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, the basic human rights of the individual, value systems, traditions and beliefs.” In other words, the way in which we live together. Hence, culture plays an important role in the way in which we interact with each other and our surroundings.

Each culture has a different way of defining, understanding and experiencing “the non conscious”. The processes generated by the implicit part of our minds are greatly influenced by the culture to which we belong.

Ken Robinson, for example, says that the sense of balance is essential in Africa. Whereas Mediterranean cultures place great importance on smell, taste and touch (hand shakes, hugs, cheek kissing, etc). This way to understand the sense of touch is very different from Anglo-Saxon or German cultures in which physical proximity is interpreted in other way.

The future of sensory marketing

Sensory marketing could be a powerful segmentation strategy because it is based and works from the non-conscious.

The senses can even be used in the online arena, particularly in product delivery time. Some of its applications are related with packaging used for product shipment, using innovative designs in contrast with the traditional and impersonal cardboard box. went one step further by expanding their on-line advertising strategies into their off-line activities, and sending small gifts to their customers to remind them of specific experiences. One such gift was a small tube of suntan lotion to remind them to plan their summer holiday (see font).

In the not-too-distant future it will be possible to sense smells in digital platforms and the media. As Russel Brumfield and other experts have already said, we’re on the brink of a breakthough into the world of smells: in the near future phones will probably enable us to smell who is calling, and websites and emails will be aromatised (Manzano et al., 2011: 154).

But there’s still a lot of uncharted territory in the sensorial marketing. Aradhna Krishna (2011) believes we still know very little about how the senses interact, and about possible clashes between sensorial perception and oversaturation in different people.

A final note

Until now, the highstreet stores able to exploit the senses best to create specific experiences and sensations have had a great advantage over e-stores. The full sensory experience in highstreet stores in comparison with just the two senses (sight and hearing) used by e-shoppers has been a huge advantage that drove Dell USA to copy Apple’s strategy of allowing their products to be sold on the high street too.

But touch-screen phones and tables have enabled another sense to make inroads into the digital world: touch. It’s no coincidence that shopping on these devices is rocketing.


Chapin, H.; Jantzen, K.; Kelso, J.; Steinberg, F.; Large, E. (2010): Dynamic emotional and neuronal responses to music depend on performance expression and listener experience. PLoS One, Vol.5, No.12, p.1-14.

Krishna, A. (2012): An integrative review of sensory marketing: Engaging the senses to affect perception, judgment and behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology. Vil.22, No.3, pp. 332-351.

Manzano et al., Marketing Sensorial: Comunicar con los sentidos en el punto de venta. 2011, Prentice Hall, ISBN: 978-84-8322-812-8

Lluis Martinez-Ribes

Source: Código 84, nº 170.

A GUILD-BREAKING RETAIL FORMULA. An interpretation of Cookiteca

Image provided by Cookiteca

It is 5.30 on a Friday afternoon. After hanging up their coats, and carefully washing their hands, 15 children excitedly open their eyes as they enter a kitchen larger than the front room of their homes. There was a rising crescendo of murmured admiration. One of the children, Julia, has invited the others to celebrate her birthday. However, this was not going to be a conventional birthday party; rather they were going to have fun learning, and then eating, a cake. Hopefully, there will be enough left over for them to take samples home to show their families.

The party was taking place at Cookiteca, a new business that is hard to define yet easy to understand and love. This Barcelona-based firm is less than 30 months old, yet it has already opened four locations and served more than 11,000 clustomers. The firm is managed by the two partners Sílvia Mirabet and Neus Canal.

When Neus describes the business she uses different ways according on who is he addressing. She tells suppliers that Cookiteca is a cooking course centre and a shop. However, she tells prospective clients: ‘Cookiteca is a place where you can enjoy cooking and have a good laugh’.


Neus is an architect, entrepreneur, and business consultant. I met her when she came to visit me at ESADE to discuss attending a 3.5 day course in retail innovation. Registration for the course would cost €3000 and it was clear that she wanted to make the very most of her time and money. I was delighted with her vision and focused energy.

Cookiteca began in January 2010 when Sílvia, a cooking lover, asked Neus for advice about a business concept based on cooking. The idea hinged on the fact that it was easy to find cooking courses, but very difficult to find utensils and ingredients. They founded the business in May and opened their first location four months later in an attractive building in the traditional neighbourhood of Sarrià in Barcelona.

On entering Cookiteca and seeing a display of semi-professional cooking tools you might feel that you had entered a rather stylish kitchen utensil shop. To one side is the reception desk that doubles as a cash desk. Enter a little further inside and you will find an area displaying utensils and ingredients for making desserts. This area leads on to a very large and well-equipped kitchen where cooking classes are given. But it does not end here, further on there is a room with a large table where participants can taste what they have just prepared. On their way out, participants can buy some of the more unusual ingredients used in the class.

This is a guild-breaker retail formula: it is simultaneously a kitchenware store, a specialist bookstore, a cooking school, a restaurant, and a grocery. And sometimes it is also an event planning company, whether it is for individuals or companies.

Who does Cookiteca serve?

One of the strengths of the business is the diversity of segments served. The business aims at three segments – although never simultaneously:

  • Adults interested in cooking
  • Event planning businesses where the kitchen plays a leading role
  • Children

There is a growing public interest in cooking. According to Neus some 20% of people who could cook do not know how – and there are many others who want to expand their abilities by learning a manual skill that is unrelated to their professional work. Neus says that by learning a new skill people gain more self-confidence and escape from daily life tension.

Activities range from a basic healthy cooking course to more skilled and fashionable courses – such as backery. The usual price of registration is between €35 and €45.

Part of its activity is B2B rather than retail. Cookiteca sells active kitchen-based events to local companies: such as cooking demonstrations and tastings. The firm has a psychologist on call who helps clients design specific events.

But it is children who have made Cookiteca famous and remain a vital segment. Children (who must be older than six to follow and enjoy the learning dynamics of the classes) always have plenty of fun cooking and many develop latent abilities. Their self-esteem is also given a boost when they return home with something they cooked themselves. The children make Cookiteca a happy place, and have quickly spread the word about Cookiteca around Barcelona.

In addition to the scheduled courses, various other events and birthday parties are hold (with cooking always as the main event). Self-catering courses for children are organised during the school holidays. The children arrive early in the morning, prepare their breakfasts, eat together, go grocery shopping at the local food market, attend an external workshop, return, then prepare and enjoy lunch together before going home. The course serves as a rounded experience in cooking and working together – while having fun.

Offline and online combined

The company web plays a key role in creating awareness and marketing the cooking classes (25% of places are booked on the web). It is also increasingly used for selling other products.

Cookiteca has not yet offered what will become the main digital interface, a smartphone app, and for the moment the business remains a good example of a start-up that is not technology based.

The current revenue pie shows 35% earned from cooking workshops, and 65% from shop sales. The partners aim to balance both items and expect to reach breakeven soon.

Image provided by Cookiteca

More than cooking

Neus is clear that she does much more than co-manage a cooking school.  She is establishing Cookiteca as a strong brand with humanist principles. Neus says the company emphasizes the role of good cooking for well-being, and maximises the fun inherent in group learning.

Brand building, explains Neus, is more important than aggressively aiming at short-term profit.

There are two essential elements for building the business:

  1. A competent and enthusiastic team – perhaps the most difficult element to achieve in a retail model.
  2. A suitable building as “package”, Neus says locations must be: cosy, authentic, practical, inexpensive, and undecorated. The food, she says, tends to provide the colours needed.

My six tasting notes:

My tasting notes for Cookiteca suggest that the business leaves the following after-tastes:

  • 1. Cookiteca offers a retail model that understands the economic reality in the street, and treats customers as people.
  • 2. Cookiteca has devised a solution tree, with a common trunk (the love for cooking), but with different branches yielding in an unique and intense experiences as fruit

⁃ Using a mixture of products, services, and activities;

⁃ Combining products usually found in very different sectors.

  • 3. It is a business model that serves different segments at different moments – but never simultaneously.
  • 4. Cookiteca knows how to answer the question that I usually put: ‘what do you mean in my life?’ Cookiteca is a place where I can meet with other ‘foodies’ like me.
  • 5. Improvements will come from a better fit between the three dimensions:

⁃ Solution portfolio

⁃ Segments

⁃ Locations (including the online shop)

  • 6. Despite requests and having prepared some documentation, Cookiteca does not yet wish to franchise the business because the founders feel that further fine-tuning is needed. Franchising means offering the franchisee a reduced risk of failure, and Cookiteca wants to improve their model first. This is a good example of an ethical business philosophy.


Lluis Martinez-Ribes

Source: Código 84, nº 169.