How to sell to the senses online

The lack of tactile (and olfactory) stimulation offered by the etail experience is prompting D2C brands to innovate with visual and auditory cues to put customers in the buying mood


Young Woman Taking A Breath Of Fresh Air In NatureYoung Woman Taking A Breath Of Fresh Air In Nature

If you’ve ever wondered why fruit and veg are placed at the front of supermarkets, it’s because their bright colours entice shoppers to make a purchase. Fragrance sections will often be at the front of department stores because the scents stimulate your olfactory system and pull you in. Physical retail is a sensory-rich environment.

“As we head back into stores, brands will be clamouring to provide immersive experiences that not only lure new consumers in, but also encourage them to spend more,” says Nathalie Nahai, the author of bestseller Webs of Influence: the psychology of online persuasion. “Those that create multi-sensory experiences will tend to perform better.”

But a significant proportion of consumers who frequented the high street before the pandemic have grown to prefer the ecommerce experience for the convenience it offers. And several brands have switched from clicks-and-mortar channels to pure etail during the Covid crisis. For those relying on direct-to-consumer (D2C) route, it’s going to be a challenge to find ways of creating sensory experiences that will attract potential customers and encourage them to spend more.

Take Irish drinks startup The Naked Collective, for instance. Although its Mude brand of low-sugar soft drinks is sold on the high street, the firm launched the product online in Ireland and the UK in June 2020 “with the goal of rattling the industry and standing out from other options on the market”, says its co-founder and co-CEO, Niall Phelan.

People think of touch as something that can only be felt, but it can also be seen

Lockdown restrictions have precluded firms from using in-person product sampling to let potential customers try before buying. And, with shoppers tending to stick with known brands during the pandemic, it hasn’t been easy for D2C food and drink producers to engage the senses of consumers and convert them into loyal customers. Phelan says that his company’s sensory stimulation strategy was to design its cans in such a way that they would “remind people of passing a fruit stall or a sweet shop and being tempted to taste all the brightly coloured delights”.

Each of the five drinks in the Mude range has a different function, so it wasn’t a case of picking any old colour. For instance, blue was chosen for the drink that contains ingredients that are known to improve the quality of sleep, as the colour has calming qualities. Similarly, pink was assigned to the energy drink, because the colour conveys feelings of playfulness.

Seeing is feeling

One of the disadvantages of viewing goods online, even if they are an attractive colour, is their lack of tangibility. While the pandemic has made us wary of handling products, it’s been a reminder of the importance of touch and how it can reduce the presence of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies. 

“Touch is the sensory system that affects people’s perception the most,” says Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, an associate professor in consumer psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. “Many consumers have a need to touch. When they are deprived of that, they automatically form a negative perception of the retail environment and/or the product.” 

She continues: “People think of touch as something that can only be felt, but it can also be seen. Visually based textures can act as a substitute for the lack of tactile input. For example, research into biscuits has shown that textures are most persuasive when they are implicit. Visually based haptic cues can be used to communicate with consumers and change how they perceive products.”

Consumers have a need to touch and when you deprive them of doing so they automatically generate a negative perception of the consumer environment

It’s a relatively new field that needs further research, but Jansson-Boyd believes that, if food and drink manufacturers can learn how to use visually based haptic cues, they should have a better chance of connecting with consumers who need to use their sense of touch. For brands selling D2C online, this might mean using photos that accentuate certain textures of a given product to engage more potential customers. 

The sweet sound of sales

Sound is also important in retail environments. The background music that’s played in stores is known to influence people’s buying decisions. High-pitched sounds can enhance the perceived sweetness of food or drink, for instance, while low-pitched sounds can enhance their bitterness. 

“We know from research that music can change the activity in regions of the brain involved in emotion,” Nahai says. “It can alter our perception of a product and influence how we interact with it. The sonic environment we experience can affect our senses of taste and smell – and even change how much we’re willing to spend.”

Similar psychological techniques are being applied in online retail. Fragrance brands that can’t put their products under the noses of potential customers are using sounds as a proxy for scents. For instance, Melbourne-based firm Moody Incense curates Spotify playlists to match the feelings that its products are designed to stimulate. You can guarantee that these won’t feature much heavy metal. 

Engaging consumers face to face has been nearly impossible for The Naked Collective during the pandemic. But, as normality gradually returns, the firm is planning to use audio cues as part of immersive, in-person brand experiences, says Phelan, who adds: “We want to reach consumers in the right place at the right time with the right message, tailored to specific moods.”