Sensorial Branding: Deep meaningful UX for all 7 senses

Last Modified: Nov 28th, 2023 - Category: Branding, Theory, UX, UX Theory
Sensorial Branding and Meaningful UX cover image

Sensorial branding is a strategy to create impactful user experiences (UX) that elevate ordinary brand initiatives. Beyond mere images or names, the branding realm is expanding into a broader landscape. Brands aim not just to communicate but to deeply engage users, accomplishing this through all seven senses as defined by Sensorial UX.

This approach leads to a crucial question: How can these dynamic brand characteristics be accurately captured and represented?

Our discussion will explore the complex aspects of sensorial branding, covering its inception, evolution, and the legal protection of these unique attributes. This exploration will shed light on how brands can effectively harness and safeguard these sensory elements to forge stronger connections with their audience.


Sensory Brands Communication and Trademarks

Human beings have an inherent desire to communicate, a fundamental function rooted in building relationships. From ancient times, with symbolic representations evolving into complex verbal languages, we have always sought ways to share stories, knowledge, and connect with one another.

As centuries passed, communication methods diversified and advanced, adapting to technological progress, cultural trends, and societal changes.

The corporate world reflected this evolution. Businesses transitioned from transactional interactions with their audiences to fostering deeper, more meaningful connections.

In today’s fast-paced, multifaceted world, characterized by rapid changes and intense competition, businesses face market saturation. They are compelled to adopt innovative strategies to differentiate themselves, increasing the appeal of their offerings. In this context, brands become crucial assets.

Increasingly, non-traditional brands are leveraging sensory branding and sensory user experience (UX) to complement traditional branding methods. By engaging human senses beyond sight, these brands gain uniqueness, offering a psychological advantage over competitors.

Trademarks, traditionally a mix of names, symbols, or designs identifying and distinguishing a brand, are evolving to encompass this sensory branding dimension. There’s a growing recognition that brands can forge strong associations through sensory experiences. Consequently, many jurisdictions are expanding trademark protection to include sounds, smells, and even tactile sensations.

This expanded perspective on trademarks ensures these sensory brands not only make a memorable impact on consumers but also establish a strong legal foundation. By trademarking their unique sensory elements, these brands reinforce their market position and deter imitators, protecting both their brand identity and commercial interests.

Sensorial UX creates better brands

The primary function of a brand is to differentiate your products or services from those of your competitors, while also embodying the reputation and values you aim to convey.

In the current market landscape, the scope of a brand goes beyond just the product. It plays a critical role in not only distinguishing but also in eliciting emotions, thereby providing a deeply personal value to consumers. Brands can cater to psychological needs like belonging or self-actualization, extending far beyond the functional advantages of a product or service. This emotional connection transforms how consumers perceive and interact with a brand, making it a pivotal element in shaping customer loyalty and preference.

The distinction created by branding is akin to choosing between a generic laptop and an Apple Macbook Pro.

From a marketing perspective, sensorial branding establishes a competitive edge by forming psychological barriers against competitors. It carves out a unique, exclusive niche that remains unchallenged.

Legally, a trademark represents a significant competitive advantage. It grants exclusive rights to use a specific sign for a set period, serving as a legal barrier against competitors.

Importantly, these rights are established through registration, not just use or originality. Only the owner of a registered trademark has the right to use it, either directly or through licensing agreements.

To be registered, a trademark must meet certain criteria, including distinctiveness and relevance. The principles of specialty and territoriality are also crucial.

From the Registry’s point of view, trademarks are generally recognized as any sign with a distinctive character, including numbers, letters, colors, sounds, or other unique elements. These are classified into conventional and unconventional trademarks.

Conventional trademarks, the more familiar type, usually involve words, graphic elements, or a combination.

Unconventional trademarks, though less common, encompass visual types (like three-dimensional, color, or motion marks) and non-visual types (such as tactile, olfactory, or auditory marks).

The changing social and business landscapes have encouraged the evolution from traditional to a wider variety of unique trademarks that connect more directly with consumers.

Modern entrepreneurs understand the need to engage with their audience in a unique and memorable way, going beyond the basic differentiation offered by conventional brands. This approach reflects an evolving understanding of branding in a competitive marketplace.

A study by Rockefeller University found that people recall 35% of what they smell, 15% of what they taste, 5% of what they see, 2% of what they hear, and 1% of what they touch.

Sensory stimuli undeniably impact how consumers perceive products and services. These stimuli can notably influence purchasing decisions.

Consequently, modern businesses focus on brands that engage with the senses of smell, touch, taste, and hearing. This strategy enhances the value of products and secures a strong competitive position in market communication.

The roles of senses in Meaningful UX

Explaining Meaningful Design / UX

Meaningful UX, also known as Meaningful Design, is a design philosophy focused on creating products, services, or experiences that deeply resonate with users. This approach aims to engage specific core meanings that individuals inherently value, moving beyond superficial interactions and aesthetics. It taps into universally significant experiences and values, transcending cultural and background differences.

This concept is based on the idea that individuals constantly seek meaning in their interactions, including those with products or services. Aligning design with these core meanings helps organizations build stronger, more meaningful, and lasting relationships with stakeholders, such as customers and employees.

Meaningful UX revolves around two main components:

Core Meanings

Through comprehensive interviews conducted globally, 15 core meanings have been distilled, reflecting the universal values that resonate across cultures. They encompass:

  1. Accomplishment: Realizing personal goals and achieving self-fulfillment.
  2. Beauty: Finding aesthetic pleasure in one’s environment.
  3. Creation: Crafting something unique and innovative.
  4. Community: Experiencing a sense of belonging and connectedness with others.
  5. Duty: Embracing and performing responsibilities with dedication.
  6. Enlightenment: Acquiring profound insight or understanding.
  7. Freedom: Experiencing life free from limitations.
  8. Harmony: Finding equilibrium in different life aspects.
  9. Justice: Promoting fairness and impartial treatment.
  10. Oneness: Feeling a deep connection with the broader universe.
  11. Redemption: Overcoming and making amends for past shortcomings.
  12. Security: Ensuring protection from risks or harm.
  13. Truth: Maintaining sincerity and uprightness.
  14. Validation: Feeling acknowledged and esteemed.
  15. Wonder: Being captivated by the mysterious or unexplainable.

Strategic Implementation

Understanding these core meanings provides a strategic advantage in design. This approach involves a deep analysis of user preferences, alignment with organizational ethos, and differentiating an organization’s values from its competitors. It also includes adapting strategies to bridge or leverage the similarities and differences between what an organization stands for and what its customers value. This strategic application is known as RADA and can be summarized as:

  1. Recognition: Identifying the core meanings that resonate most with specific user demographics.
  2. Alignment: Synchronizing organizational activities, products, and branding with these identified core values.
  3. Differentiation: Contrasting and comparing an organization’s core values with those of competitors to establish uniqueness.
  4. Adaptation: Modifying strategies to align or distinguish the organization’s core values from its customers’ values.

In practice, an organization will figure out which core meanings matter most to their target audience and then create products or experiences that highlight these meanings. This method requires detailed and focused work. When organizations match their products with their customers’ most important and consistent values, they can make a bigger impact and offer more meaningful experiences. This leads to stronger, more lasting relationships with their audience.

At its core, Meaningful UX takes the design process beyond just making functional products. It’s about crafting experiences that connect deeply with people’s values and the thought processes behind those values.

Adding meaning to Sensorial UX

How do Meaningful UX and Sensorial UX relate to each other?

Senses play a critical role in our cognitive processes. Without sensory input, cognition cannot happen. By integrating sensory stimuli into branding, direct cognitive patterns and neural connections are established between the stimuli and the brand.

For instance:

The use of scent is a powerful method to engage customers’ senses and memories, drawing them closer to a brand. When a customer encounters a scent that is either inherently pleasant or reminds them of a happy memory, several positive effects can be observed. The inclination to purchase may increase by up to 14.8%; customers might spend over 15% more time in a store; and the scent can become linked with the brand, reinforcing the brand’s memory in the customer’s mind.

Some of the most effective scents include the smell of popcorn, often used in leisure and amusement venues, the distinct ‘new car’ smell, the earthy scent of wet soil, the fresh aroma of cut grass, and the welcoming smell of freshly baked bread. These scents are known to resonate with a wide audience.

The sound of brands

When we talk about sound branding, it’s interesting to note that 72% of consumers can recognize a brand by its sound, and 37.8% can correctly match a specific sound to the right brand. Creating a brand’s unique sound is complex. It needs to appeal to different cultures and be flexible enough to fit all brand experiences.

The growing presence of smart speakers like Alexa and Google Home in buying products and services makes voice and sound even more important for brands. As these devices become a regular part of people’s lives, a brand’s sound identity becomes more noticeable in the market.

While the practical features of products or services are important, the emotional aspects often create stronger connections with customers. Emotions are more likely to stay in people’s memories for longer. Remembering a scent, a tune, or a feeling often has a bigger impact than just logical memories.

Let’s look at some examples of tactile, olfactory, aural, and gustatory brands from a register perspective:

Tactile marks

Tactile marks are specific types of trademarks wherein protection is sought based on the tactile effect of a material or texture. An example of this would be the unique feel of a concrete surface on an item.

Some notable instances of tactile marks include the texture on a purple wallet, the cover of Crown Royal bottles, and the covering of Khvanchkara wines. Khvanchkara wines differentiated their tactile trademark from the Crown Royal velvet bag by integrating the fabric directly onto the bottle. Their trademark description reads, “the velvet texture covering the surface of a wine bottle”. Further examples are the unique surface texture of the Old Parr drink bottle registered in Colombia and the iconic design of the Coca Cola bottle.

However, registering such marks is not straightforward. Beyond the need for distinctiveness, one major challenge faced by tactile marks is the criterion of functionality. Specifically, the tactile aspect of the product must not serve a technical function. This ensures that the tactile sensation is indeed serving a branding purpose rather than a functional one.

Sensorial branding: example of tactile branding

Olfactory marks

In the realm of olfactory trademarks, the primary challenge for registration revolves around their representation or fixation. Nevertheless, other frequent barriers include a lack of distinctiveness and potential functionality, both of which can lead to rejection of registrability.

For instance, in 1996, Sumitomo Rubber Co. of Japan achieved a milestone by registering the UK’s inaugural olfactory trade mark for “a floral fragrance/smell reminiscent of roses” when used in the context of tyres. Subsequently, the ownership of this mark was transferred to Dunlop Tyres. In that same year, Unicorn Products, a London sports equipment manufacturer, secured a UK trademark for a scent described as “the strong smell of bitter beer” when applied to flights for darts.

In 1999, a significant event in the fragrance industry occurred when Vennootschap onder Firma Senta Aromatic Marketing, a company from Holland, achieved a milestone. They obtained the first Community Mark for an aroma, specifically for “the smell of cut grass” in relation to tennis balls.

Chanel N5 provides a relevant example in this context. There are many imitation versions of this famous fragrance, each closely resembling the original but with minor differences. These differences are not due to a lack of ability to replicate the scent, but rather a strategy to avoid patent infringement, which is often considered a more serious issue than selling fake products. Although Chanel did not succeed in trademarking the distinct scent of Chanel No 5, they protected its formula with a patent.

Sensorial UX: the iconic Chanel No 5 bottle
Sensorial UX: the iconic Chanel No 5 bottle

Addressing the topic of functionality, it’s evident that outside the world of perfumes or colognes, scents are not typically seen as an “inherent attribute” or a “natural characteristic” of most products. Yet, a unique aroma can be so closely associated with a particular product or service that it serves to identify its origin, thus warranting protection as a trademark.

When evaluating distinctiveness, it has been observed that products not traditionally associated with specific scents stand a better chance of having their aromas deemed distinctive. Moreover, a fragrance that is exceptionally unique, to the extent that consumers can readily identify it, also holds a strong case for distinctiveness.

Gustatory marks

The primary challenge in registering flavors stems from their application methods. Issues like lack of uniqueness and potential functionality often make registration difficult. However, this doesn’t mean they can’t be effective in the market even if they are currently not registrable.

In terms of functionality, it’s important to note that, unlike perfumes or colognes, flavorings are not usually seen as an ‘inherent attribute’ or a ‘natural characteristic’.

The idea of scent is widely understood from personal experience, but it remains somewhat unclear.

For registration purposes, the sense of taste is particularly complex, especially given the need for distinctiveness, representation, and potential functionality.

Looking more broadly, many flavors serve a functional role, like the taste of medicine, which makes it easier to consume.

Regarding distinctiveness, many flavors are closely associated with their product, making it hard for them to stand out from competitors. Additionally, taste is subjective; what appeals to one person may be ordinary to another.

The standard for representation is especially challenging. With the difficulty of preserving a flavor sample over time, the focus is on providing a clear and thorough description of the flavor, aiming for a universally understandable level of detail.

Despite these hurdles, registrations in this area are rare. However, there are notable cases, such as the registration of the licorice flavor for stationery products.

Sound marks

We have moved from making jingles to developing unique auditory signatures for brands.

Visual identity, which includes logos and colors, has traditionally helped brands stand out. It’s common to recognize a brand by its visuals alone, without needing its name. But what about adding an audible element to create the same recognition?

Think about the recognizable sounds of Windows or Intel. These sounds are now key parts of their brand identities. Turning a brand’s essence into a short audio clip is an interesting and challenging task.

Sensorial Branding: a cool video featuring all MacOS start-up chimes through history

Take, for instance, the unmistakable yell of Tarzan or the catchy Mercadona jingle. To represent such sound-based brands, innovative methods have been developed: the oscillogram, spectrum, spectrogram, and phonogram.

Furthermore, since 2005, the European Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) has been accepting sound submissions in electronic formats. These sounds are then digitally published in the office’s bulletins.

Sensorial branding: Towards a deep understanding of user experiences

The branding landscape is changing fast with the rise of unconventional trademarks. Businesses are now using these trademarks to stand out in a crowded market, creating brand identities that catch people’s attention through more than just sight.

Traditionally, trademarks were visual – logos, symbols, and similar things. Now, branding is evolving to include sounds, smells, and even touch. Consider the distinctive sound of a tech device starting up or the special scent of a high-end store.

These modern trademarks give brands an edge, but fitting them into existing legal frameworks is tough. Regulatory bodies worldwide are working to update trademark laws to cover these new types of trademarks while protecting the rights of traditional brands.

At its core, the issue is still about brand recognition. Whether a trademark is traditional or not, the main goal is for a brand to be memorable to consumers. Brands that don’t connect with their audience risk being forgotten.

Looking ahead, the focus in branding is likely to move from just being seen to creating experiences that involve all the senses. This approach, called sensory branding, is set to be the next big thing in marketing and brand development.

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