Guest Column - February 2007
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Senses and Sensibility

Creating a sensory experience to bring patrons back time and again

By Michelle Rodwell

or park districts, fitness and sport facilities, spas and other recreational sites, it can be difficult to remember the importance of marketing. And part of marketing is creating a "brand"—no matter how informal. But creating a brand can go far beyond simply designing a logo and tagline.

When you think about a brand that elicits a powerful response, are all of your senses heightened? The book "Brand Sense" by Martin Lindstrom discusses how powerful brands today are built through touch, taste, smell, sight and sound—all of our senses.

Sensory branding heightens the impact of a product or service by fully utilizing all of our senses. Most brand marketing initiatives appeal to only two senses: sight and sound. Why does the lion's share of marketing and brand building concentrate on two senses when appealing to all five—or as close to all five as possible—is likely to strengthen the impression a brand leaves on its audience?

While still in the minority, some high-profile companies are moving beyond the status quo to explore new dimensions of sensory branding. No longer content to rely on the ubiquitous broadband service and fluffy pillows, some major hotel chains provide a memorably aromatic stay. Omni and Starwood Hotels, for example, use ambient scents ranging from calming freesia to home-and-hearth-inspired apple-pie aromas as brand-building exercises aimed at boosting guest loyalty. These hotels' subtle yet compelling ambient scents live on in the memories of each guest long after they've checked out.

If you don't want to scent your locker rooms with aromatic essential oils, try a different approach.

Interior plants resonate with four of the five senses—touch, smell, sight and even sound. (Think how rustling leaves resonate with the gust of an interior fan.) Plants themselves are powerful brand-builders. A vibrant display of interior plants artfully displayed in a corridor, atrium or retail mall conjures up commanding brand-building emotional signals. Our view of that company's brand is influenced by the types of plants showcased, how healthy (or unhealthy) those plants look and even the types of containers that are chosen. Interior landscaping is becoming a fashion-driven business, where as much effort is now put into the design of the containers, accessories and overall "look" as into plant selection.

When you visit Sea Island at the Cloister Spa nestled in a five-star resort in coastal Georgia, you expect luxury. The Cloister Spa goes beyond sheer luxury, however, to literally transport the senses of the spa visitor. Cascading water calms overloaded senses. Nature is brought inside the spa garden as visitors wait for their treatments surrounded by spectacular foliage including Washingtonian palms, a giant black olive tree and bamboo.

More and more colleges and universities are enhancing their recreational centers with an eye toward beautifying the surroundings to enhance the senses. The University of Missouri completed a $50 million renovation of its Student Recreation Complex last year, and students are receiving the benefit of sensory satisfaction.

In addition to state-of-the-art swimming and diving facilities, a high-tech fitness club, and climbing and bouldering wall, swimmers renew and invigorate at the indoor Tiger Grotto area, which includes a club pool, lazy river, swirling vortex, hot tub and waterfall. The natatorium's lush tropical interior features tropical palm trees that provide a tranquil and exotic vibe.

The interior landscaping sector understands how plants can act as status symbols in the corporate world. Some executives measure their merit by the size and grandeur of their interior plants. Partners at major law firms often require a large tree in their office, which connotes prestige. Associates are often treated to a smaller plant with the size and caliber of the individual plants synonymous with the level of the position.

Plants can boost morale and reduce absenteeism in the workplace, or they can provide an enhanced experience at your recreational facility. Their natural scents and look contribute to a general feeling of well-being.

Scents have been casting their spells on humans for thousands of years. Our olfactory sense is widely considered to be the most receptive of the five senses. Smells summon memories and appeal directly to feelings without first being filtered and analyzed by the brain, which is how the remaining four senses are processed.

We are all universally stimulated by the scent of ocean air, flowers, freshly popped popcorn and bread baking in the oven.

A study by researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan studied the importance of smell as compared to other senses. The researchers asked 452 subjects to rank the relative desirability of permanent loss of their sense of smell, their hearing in one ear or their left small toe. About 50 percent of subjects ranked loss of their sense of smell as most unacceptable. Researchers concluded that "for humans, it seems that the sense of smell (along with taste) stands out as having more immediate and direct emotional impact."

Like memories hidden in the recesses of our brains, sensory perceptions are unique to each of us and trigger powerful stimulations.

The opportunity of brand-building by leveraging the five senses is wide open. Think about the relaxing and welcoming feeling you have when you enter a spa, a retail store, an office or even a medical office that has a pleasant aroma. Today's cutting-edge brands are evolving into 360-degree experiences that satisfy, refresh and invigorate all of our primary senses.

How many of the five senses does your facility incorporate as part of your brand?


Michelle Rodwell is international branding and marketing director at Initial Tropical Plants, a provider of interior landscaping, design installation and maintenance services to businesses in North America. For more information, visit