LS: From now on, will companies be employing people to simply observe us?
DH: They already are. Ethnography—the scientific study of culture—is now emerging as the research method of choice, over focus groups and interviews. It goes beyond what people say to explore how they actually behave in everyday settings. This allows ethnographers to uncover the implicit perceptual categories that people use to order the world of goods—as in the Corona example. Another famous example is the practice of adding weight to remote controls, after manufacturers discovered that users tended to perceive heavier remotes as being of higher quality.
LS: Does sensory cross-referencing ever backfire?
DH: Yes. Take the "Got milk?" ad campaign in San Francisco bus shelters. The marketers hoped the association with the cookie scent would be irresistible, but interestingly, a lot of people complained. They felt it encouraged overeating, and that it was insensitive to homeless people.
In another case, responding to a perceived consumer desire for purity, Pepsi marketed a clear cola drink in the 1990s with the slogan "You've never seen a taste like this." The idea proved popular in the lab but failed in the real world because people associate cola flavor with a dark, rich color, so they associated no color with less flavor. Marketers are now realizing that, to avoid these kinds of mistakes, it is important to conduct fieldwork first.
LS: What other fieldwork has been done to investigate these cross-sensory associations?
DH: My colleague Bianca Grohmann has studied how background music and ambient scent together influence people's perceptions of shops at Christmastime, for example. When combined with tracks from Christmas albums, room sprays that people associate with the holiday enhanced positive evaluation of a store and its merchandise. But if either the scent or the music was not considered Christmassy—if the combination was perceived as incongruent—there was no such enhancing effect.
LS: Is more of this kind of research now happening prospectively?
DH: Yes. Researchers at the University of Mainz in Germany have determined, for example, that the color red suggests sweetness—at least to Westerners. They had participants taste white wine served in black glasses under different ambient lighting—red, blue, green, or white. It was the same wine, but they said it tasted 50 percent sweeter in red light compared with blue or white light. Obviously, this could have implications for the color and packaging of products, and even for the retail site.
LS: Are companies increasingly staking claims on things like scents and colors?
DH: It used to be you trademarked brand names and logos. But now, trademark protection has been extended to colors, shapes, sounds, and scents. This started in earnest in the 1990s. To use the earlier examples: Tiffany's had been using its shade of blue since 1845, but trademarked it in 1998. Last year Cadbury won a long legal battle to trademark the purple wrapping of Dairy Milk. These are associations that both companies don't want other brands to take advantage of. Our sensory world is being divvied up and privatized, limiting the palette for a marketer fresh on the scene.
LS: How easy is it to trademark across the senses?
DH: It doesn't always work. Harley-Davidson tried to trademark the "hog" sound of its motorcycle engines revving, but the application was turned down on the grounds that the sound was not distinctive enough.
LS: Even so, are these cultural links between the senses the next land rush for marketers?
DH: Potentially, synesthesia offers advertisers a way round the trademark problem. If they can establish a cross-sensory correspondence, then even though they can't use a certain color, say, they may be able to suggest it indirectly through a sound, texture, or taste.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.