Have you ever wondered why individuals tend to experience different things all together when asked to describe an advertisement they saw somewhere? In a way, they have a modular experience, which is a combination of different senses. This difference yet similarity in registration of the senses is something that the marketing field has really become interested in. Marketers have taken advantage of this by using differing experiences of sensations to market different products.

For example, have you ever thought about what the visual sensation of a rainbow would taste like when it is used to advertise an ice cream? Research has shown that marketing as a field is undergoing what is termed as a multisensory revolution. By using this multisensory approach to designing customer experience around marketing, it has resulted in a field of interest which is constantly growing known as ‘synaesthetic marketing’.  

The condition known as synaesthesia could hold huge potential to help us understand multisensory product marketing. Synaesthesia is described by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a condition in which stimulation of one sense generates a simultaneous sensation in another. These concomitant sensations are automatic (i.e., unintentional, uncontrollable, nonconscious, and efficient), vivid, and consistent over time. There are more than 50 different types of synaesthesia that have been documented. Marketers have applied this experience of different sensations and incorporated it into their strategy for promoting new and existing products. Companies may often capitalise on synaesthetic marketing without even being aware of it, particularly for luxury food and drink products such as chocolate, beer, honey or coffee.  

The first time I was exposed to such an advertisement was from a company called ‘Thumbs Up’. Thumbs Up is an Indian brand similar to Coca-Cola, which advertised its products using the tagline “Taste the Thunder”. This tagline was used repeatedly when the advertisement was played in the background of films and other areas until it became associated with the soft drink brand (Thumbs up case study). Another company that managed to use synaesthesia in their marketing approach has been the ever-popular chocolate brand of Cadbury. It is a classic example described by Charles Spence, the head of the cross-modal research lab at the University of Oxford. He mentions this example of Cadbury changing the shape of its chocolate bar and how the sense of perception can be manipulated by companies to enhance their products.

This concept of using sensations that individuals with synaesthesia have felt within a marketing strategy can have benefits as well as disadvantages to it. This type of marketing strategy has a unique impact on the customer, since it combines a variety of aspects that guide consumer behaviour in a different direction. Since it helps to create a different experience, it can leave a much longer lasting impression of the product in the minds of the consumer [Benefits of synesthetic marketing].

On the flip side, the drawbacks of this approach have been highlighted by various researchers. These pertain to the idea of manipulation on the part of the companies when they use synaesthetic marketing to advertise their products. David Howes, an avid researcher in this field has highlighted that marketing in this way may be seen as exploitative of consumer behaviour. In an interview he mentions that since these techniques have now been studied more systematically, marketers are even more keen on knowing how they might drive such experiences, leading to debate over the ethics of applying this science commercially. Research has found that this ethical debate was largely influenced after the France government put restrictions on this form of marketing when it revised the laws surrounding research and the use of these techniques by companies.  

Before you jump towards synaesthetic marketing as the sole approach to your company’s marketing strategy and start briefing your marketing team, it’s important to understand the impact it can have and whether it is appropriate for your company and product, taking into consideration the ethical debates, benefits and drawbacks involved.