Scratch and Sniff: How Multisensory Marketing Can Elevate Your Brand

We are savvy marketers targeting sophisticated consumers – but there is a little bit of dog in all of us. Pavlov’s dog, to be exact. 

Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course knows the story (sort of, at least). In the 1890s, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov noticed that his dogs would salivate not just when his lab assistant fed them, but at the mere sight of food. 

If this doesn’t sound particularly groundbreaking, there’s more: Pavlov realized that his dogs would start drooling in response to any sensory stimuli that they remotely associated with food, even if it had no inherent relationship to eating. 

But how can engaging one of the senses activate others? And, most importantly, what does this have to do with advertising? Classical, or Pavlovian conditioning, allows marketers to proactively create relationships between brand messages and the target audience’s sensory response.

Connect words and images to an immersive tactile, auditory, olfactory and even culinary experience, and you’ll form an unforgettably powerful brand stance.

Marketing through multisensory integration.

We like to think of the buyer’s journey as a cerebral process that occurs over time, but what about those fleeting moments before we are able to intellectualize a message – the ones that we spend simply reacting, feeling and remembering? 

As humans, so much of our sensory processing goes on behind the scenes. The cortex, or outer covering, of our brains is made up of distinct regions responsible for interpreting different kinds of sensory input. Though each area of the cerebral cortex has its own job, they rarely work in isolation. When you recall opening an ice-cold can of Coke on a hot day, you don’t just visualize the can. You feel its coldness in your hand, hear the snap of the aluminum tab, taste and smell sweetness, and feel the rush of tiny bubbles in your nose.

If you are amazed by how easily accessible all of these sensations are, you can thank a winning combination of branding and neuroscience. By addressing more of the senses throughout all of their branding touchpoints, the folks at Coke have actually managed to engage more of your brain.

Multisensory learning creates neural connections that lead to powerful associations and deeper memories. Create a full-body brand experience, and over time, your audience will be transported by the subtlest of cues, like a glimpse of iconic Coca-Cola red.  

So often in traditional advertising, art and copy steal the show. While they are certainly vital to any high-impact messaging strategy, let’s explore some ways to engage your audience’s other four senses to make your campaign truly, neurologically, unforgettable.


Can you close your eyes and hear the “ta-da” sound of your Macbook starting up? What about Netflix, Siri and Alexa? 

Though most of us probably haven’t put much conscious thought into the distinctions between these sounds, the fact that we have no trouble playing them in our heads indicates that they are a subtle (yet powerfully effective) branding tool. 

Our brains like to pair sounds and visuals so much, they will even adjust the processing speeds of the two inputs by a few milliseconds to make sure they sync up. This is especially true when the sounds in question have a musical quality. We are so hard-wired to complete patterns that musical rhythms have a direct line to the brain’s limbic system. For this reason, we will process, and often retain, a catchy jingle even if we weren’t paying attention to it. 

Circling back to the snapping sound of a tab on an aluminum can, beer drinkers may be more apt to remember Busch beer. From the late 70’s to the early 80’s, Busch ran commercials relating that sound to their brand name – the opening of each cold beer was accompanied by a satisfying Buuuschhhh. The campaign was so iconic, the brand has recently re-adopted it. 

Leverage sound stimuli in advertising and your audience can even be reminded of your brand when they encounter certain sound cues out in the wild. 


Scent and memory are deeply intertwined. Scientists believe that this is because olfactory cues are the quickest to reach our limbic system, and our real-world experiences confirm it. Catching a whiff of your grandfather’s cologne or your mom’s homemade pasta sauce can make you immediately nostalgic, even emotional. 

While some smells are inherent, like fresh-cut grass and burgers on the grill, many brands have successfully leveraged Pavlovian conditioning to create an association between their brand experience and a signature scent. If you ever owned a Strawberry Shortcake doll or shopped in an Abercrombie and Fitch store, smell is an unmissable component of that memory. 

Even luxury hotels have made scent a part of their branding, pumping signature fragrances into their lobbies via the HVAC system to create a cohesive experience between their properties, regardless of where you are vacationing. This olfactory tactic is subtle enough that most people don’t notice it unless it is pointed out to them, yet salient enough to become part of their memory. 

While not all products lend themselves to being sniffed (wafting the fragrance of burgers through a bay of grilling products makes more intuitive sense than grass-scented garden shears, for example), it pays to tap into your audience’s sense of smell in other branding touchpoints. Use the interconnectivity of the senses to your advantage, and look for ways to suggest scents through your use of vivid imagery, descriptions, and sound cues. 


The average adult person has approximately 10,000 taste buds. That’s a lot of sensory opportunities.

How powerful is taste? When they hand out samples at Costco, they’re not just providing a freebie. They’re tricking you into conversion. Those 10,000 taste buds are so important to our perceptions, 88% of people who trial a CPG brand away from the point of sale will remember to put it on their next shopping list.

But what about non-food products? It may seem like the sense of taste has no role in marketing products that aren’t meant to be eaten, but take a second look at Pavlov and his canine companions.

For dogs and humans alike, food is hardwired into our brains’ reward systems. Smart marketing campaigns can leverage the sense of satisfaction we associate with eating just by reminding our audience of something delicious. 

A company that sells mattresses, for example, is also selling a leisurely weekend breakfast in bed. If you deal in patio furniture, don’t miss your chance to deal in hot barbecue and cold beer. When we look for ways to find the gustatory experiences associated with a brand or product, we can make the experience of ownership feel rewarding for the audience on an almost primal level.


Why do velvet and leather feel luxurious? Why do products that are heavy for their size seem like a better value?

Whether they are buying tools, clothing or a new car, consumers rely heavily on touch when making purchase decisions. In fact, shoppers will pay more for items that they can handle than those that are completely sealed in packaging. 

What’s more, consumers tend to have fixed systems for evaluating the quality of goods. If you study the way that shoppers interact with your category in the aisles, you are likely to notice some patterns. For example, professional construction workers shopping for carpenter’s levels size up products in the same way so predictably, consumer researchers named the process the SHEEV test (Pros systematically check out the level’s size, heft, edges, end caps and vials).

Because being able to interact with products is such an important part of establishing brand loyalty, it is wise to use packaging and display models to create opportunities for touching. But as more and more sales migrate online, marketers have to be more creative in how they represent their products to first-time buyers. 

High-quality photographs, demo videos, reviews and highly descriptive copy can do wonders to bridge the gap between shoppers and a real-time multisensory experience. Look for ways to help your audience understand how they can expect the product to feel in their hands by providing detailed specs, and displaying goods in a context that paints an immersive picture of the ownership experience. 

Whether we’re recalling a treasured childhood memory or just wondering why we can’t get a jingle out of our heads, chances are high that more than one region of our brains are involved. Activating more senses only deepens this experience.

When marketing constraints prevent you from addressing all of your audience’s senses directly, tap into the connections they already have to create a positive association with your brand. Build this connection into all your branding touchpoints, and you’ll be top-of-mind the next time your prime prospect is ready to make a purchase in your category.