How brands are using sensory experiences to improve retail

Life is a multi-sensorial experience, yet with so much of our time spent online many of us are engaging mainly with our visual senses. But things are starting to change, especially when it comes to the way we behave as consumers. We no longer just want to buy products, what we are looking for is experiences that create memories, and brands are falling over themselves to oblige by providing immersive consumer experiences that stimulate all our senses; vision, smell, sound, taste and touch and take our engagement with them to new levels.

So what’s been driving this trend? Some experts point to the younger generations, for example, a study by Harris Group found that 72 per cent of millennials prefer to spend money on experiences than material things. But it is not exclusive to this generation, and the reality is that most people today value experiences more than products and services.

The evidence for this is all around us, from a design perspective, in the new retail spaces where brands are harnessing individuality and specialness to develop immersive interactive environments that enhance the brand experience.

You don’t have to look far to find some great examples, from TopShop that gave customers a sense of what it would feel like to sit in the front row alongside the likes of Anna Wintour by way of a virtual catwalk show, to running events organised by Nike, where special rewards are given only for participants tied in with the brand’s fitness schemes.


Optimised by technology, the next generation of retail space proposes a customer journey that is more emotive and serendipitous than ever before, as Michael Sheridan founder and chairman of retail and brand design agency Sheridan & Co explains.

He says: “Visual merchandising is increasingly geared to resonate with today’s perpetually connected consumer. Even ‘standard’ stores have converged into ‘life stores’ in a literal sense; havens in which to live and work, revive and rest, contemplate and learn, and consumers are enticed into challenge within a setting that is relevant to real life.”

This trend towards the experiential is underpinned by technology that facilitates the convergence of online and offline worlds, and has been used to great effect by innovative brands.

Premium eco cleaning brand The Laundress cleverly transformed a mundane domestic category by creating an ‘edu-tainment’ focused store that elevates the act of cleaning to a luxury experience.

Sheridan says: “In store, its products were presented to mimic the feel of a perfumery, elegant, simple, and with an air of scientific authority. They were brought to life further through product demos, washing workshops and an ‘Ask The Laundress’ advice station, all geared towards educating consumers about the cleaning process and complementing the brand’s digital library of laundry tips embedded in its e-commerce offering. ‘Laundry’ and ‘luxury’ might seem like two irreconcilable elements, yet the brand executed the converged concept perfectly.”

Another great example of experience-driven engagement is Sephora and its flagship Paris flagship store. Here shoppers were greeted by a tiny robot that dispensed a card, which served as a ‘virtual shopping basket’. These enabled customers to combine online purchases with items found in the store and pay for everything at the cash register.

The store also has fragrance counter designed for the discovery of premium perfumes, from classics to niche fragrances. Placing a perfume tester on a Near Field Communication tag unleashes a wealth of information on the fragrance, which the shopper can add to their digital basket.

Other popular Sephora immersive services include the Make Up Bar and the Flash Bar, equipped with a large selfie mirror, a mobile phone charger and a Mini Beautic, the smart sampler developed by the brands in house lab.

“The brand seamlessly blended the digital with physical, with the bricks-and-mortar set-up acting like an immersive portal to its website that gives shoppers access to more than 14,000 products,” says Sheridan.

The science of the immersive experience

Behavioural communications agency HeyHuman has run numerous immersive campaigns including last year’s neuroscience research for Green & Black’s to ascertain the effectiveness of immersive experiential campaigns that engage consumers in an interesting or creative way, versus simply handing out product samples en masse. The project involved Green & Black’s new Velvet Fruits range.

Participants were initially invited to measure how positively they felt about low engagement methods compared with creative campaigns, which involved measuring their subconscious reactions to different chocolate brands by recording their brain activity with a neuroscience kit.

The group was then split into three. One was shown a social media ad for Green and Black’s Velvet Fruits product, a second was just given a sample via low engagement sampling, and the third was exposed to a Green & Black’s Velvet Fruits creative sampling experience, which included a luxury velvet tasting chair. A few weeks later all three groups were brought back and repeated the first step.

Aoife McGuinness, a neuroscience consultant at HeyHuman, says: “By far, the biggest increase in positivity towards the new product came from those exposed to the creative sampling, proving that immersive experiential creative campaigns leave a long-lasting impact on consumers.

“As we expect more from our every day entertainment, dinners, concerts and shopping will become more multi-sensorial as experiences are increasingly designed with every sense in mind. And as trends towards mindfulness continue to grow I believe a focus on the multi-sensory will not only lead to richer experiences but also greater peace of mind - by helping us live in the now.”

Spotify's David Bowie subway station takeover

Brands everywhere are waking up to the potential of immersive event experiences, and interest is coming from some unlikely places. Events organiser Clownfish Events is working with a law firm that is keen to introduce the concept across all their events planned for 2019, from conferences and internal meetings to gala dinners, not at all what you’d expect from such a traditional professional services sector.

“Law firms are typically associated with very traditional activities, usually involving ‘death by PowerPoint’,” says events director Hannah Sheppard. “Their new events programme is going to be very different, using event aromas to introduce segments of the agenda schedule; 20 minute working sessions, dynamic networking and yoga breaks. It gives them a way to clearly differentiate who they are and engage a completely different audience.”

Delivered properly, surprise is always a defining element of experiences, which is why people were smitten by Spotify's stunning David Bowie ‘Subway Takeover’ in New York City’s interconnected Broadway-Lafayette and Bleecker Street stations.

“It used colour and sheer scale to catch commuters off guard and created interactive spaces with activations, graphics and other content that paid tribute to the late artist,” says Christophe Castagnera, head of experience at global creative agency Imagination.

In the sports arena Nike created a powerful amplified moment in London this year with 'Strike Night', which centred on a head-to-head knock-out competition using a full sized LED goal that was broadcast live to the world via Facebook. Meanwhile in automotive circles, Jaguar's innovative 'Pace Series' saw the luxury brand create a unique fusion of live music and data-driven art with singer Dua Lipa.

“A stunning live gig experience in Amsterdam was broadcast online to a vast audience and a remixing app also launched as part of the campaign has seen over 75,000 remixes of her track, 'Want To',” adds Castagnera. “Brand experience is now at the top table when it comes to marketing communications. In a world in which people are overloaded with information, successfully delivering a real-life experience that catches our attention and creates memories is the best way for brands to stand out.”

As consumer expectations continue to change rapidly marketing is giving way to a more human and authentic mode of communication, where meaningful engagement is achieved through brand experiences and activities that cannot be found anywhere else.

Hannah Sheppard adds: “We know from studying the psychology of events, that if you can create an immersive experience it becomes embedded in your memory bank for much longer. Memories come to life when our senses are activated through the experience. Products are consumed very quickly, but, experiences stay with you.”


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