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How the 5 Senses Inform Effective PR Strategies

Brendan Reilly

Brendan Reilly

I love communication in all its forms, perhaps to a fault. I can’t watch a movie or TV show, listen to a song or read an article without running through a series of questions in my head about the purpose, design and strategy behind the content. What was the director looking to accomplish with this shot? What was the writer setting up with that line? Why was that particular shade of blue used in this magazine ad?

It’s true that sometimes decisions are made with little thought beyond the preferences of the person creating a piece of content. But, more often than not, there is a very specific strategy behind each element. Communication is both an art and a science, and as such, it is constantly evolving. The most successful films, TV shows, books and more — the ones that resonate with audiences and help to build brand awareness and loyalty — are the ones that respect this fact.

An Anthropologist’s Take

In light of my inability to refrain from examining each piece of content I come across, you can imagine how intrigued I was by a recent interview with anthropologist David Howes in New Scientist, where he discussed the new ways that marketers are exploiting the five senses in their communications strategies.

Howes went into detail about synaesthesia, a neurological condition that allows individuals to essentially “taste shapes,” as odd as that may sound, thanks to certain sensory pathways being linked to one another. Synaesthesia goes beyond tasting shapes, but I’ll leave that for someone else to explain. What caught my attention is when Howes started to explain that there are cultural manifestations of synaesthesia.

One example offered by Howe is the color white. In China, white is typically associated with harsh, foul odors, while in the Western world it more often evokes thoughts of soft, sweet smells. Basically, different images, sounds, tastes, smells and tactile sensations can impact perception based on cultural factors. When we take this into account in the PR and marketing worlds, we start getting into a level of detail that could play a major role in the success or failure of certain initiatives.

“Researchers at the University of Mainz in Germany have determined, for example, that the color red suggests sweetness — at least to Westerners,” Howes said. “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.”

The Direct (and Indirect) Approach

Now, obviously when we’re developing digital content as part of a content marketing strategy, we can’t directly introduce smells, tastes or tactile feelings — at least not until Google decides to make its April Fool’s joke into a reality. But, in the meantime, we can touch upon each of the five senses in either direct or indirect ways, as Howes alluded to.

We can factor into our content creation processes the impact that certain visual and auditory elements will have on specific audiences. Then carefully choose songs that we use in online videos or embed as playable MP3s in eBooks. Specific shapes and colors can be chose for a brand’s logo design, infographics or artwork accompanying contributed articles.

When we can’t directly target one of the other senses, we can always come at them from a different angle. Like Howe’s earlier example, thinking about what type of mood or emotional response certain colors evoke could enhance the effect that visual collateral has throughout a PR or marketing campaign.

There’s a lot of room to maneuver here. We’re also not just limited to broad cultural paradigms, either. Knowing the type of people who work in a particular industry or company can inform the decisions we make about colors, shapes, sounds and how they are presented in PR and marketing collateral. These can be just as important as the written content that they support.

Remember that communication is both an art and a science. Finesse, creativity and strategic thinking are all needed to get the most out of any initiative. Now, take a moment to think about the full array of content your company has been producing lately, from microsites to blog posts, infographics to online videos. Have you taken into account the cultural and industry-specific paradigms prominent in your target audiences today? Have you thought about how visual and auditory elements broach the other senses and how you can use this to your advantage? If not, what are you waiting for?