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Chief Creative Officer Matt Batten argues Sensory Branding isn’t revolutionary

With the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift due to launch its first consumer-focused product later this year, virtual reality is about to make the leap out of the ad agency labs and into consumers’ homes. Facebook itself has confirmed that it is in the process of creating a series of Oculus Rift apps that would also enhance the user experience and allow users to share VR experiences.

Consequently sensory branding via such technology is assured to become the creative palette du jour in 2015 and correspondingly generate acres of news coverage. But is this such a major revolution? I’d argue not.

After all, studies have shown vision is more memorable when combined with another sense. That’s probably why TV commercials have been so effective and remain a staple of marketing, because they use sight and sound.

In other media, brands have been utilising multi-sensory branding for decades. For example, direct mail has long been a combination of sight and touch, while poster sites that have audio or olfactory stimuli have long been a employed on the High Street – a well-known example is McCain, which promoted oven-baked jacket potatoes with posters in bus shelters in which pressing a button released the aroma of baked potatoes. A lesser known, but far more creative example was Affinity pet food’s low-hanging billboards that enticed dogs to lick the poster with the smell of the product.

In the experiential space, multi-sensory effects are expected for engaging a consumer in an environment, but some have taken this to extreme levels. Singapore Airlines specially designed a ‘feel good’ perfume fragrance for their stewardesses and hot refresher towels, and more recently when Vodafone sponsored the New Year’s Eve fireworks display in London, they released the smell of peach, orange, banana and strawberry in conjunction with the visual display of the pyrotechnics.

In reality, technology like Oculus Rift is just a further development of the combination of sight and sound in an experiential medium but with stereo-optics to give a sense of 3D depth, plus the added sense of equilibrioception (balance) and proprioception (the body’s sense of where it is in space) that comes from an enclosed immersive video and sound experience.

In 2007, Millward Brown and the Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology at Bangor University used functional MRI scanning to show how the brain reacts differently to physical and virtual stimuli. The findings suggest that tangible advertising engages more sense, produces deeper engagement, and evokes more brain activity when vision is integrated sound and touch.

So it stands to reason that a welcome and clever evolution of VR technology – and an interesting new creative opportunity for brands – would be the addition of smell, which is the most evocative and powerful of the human senses. Watch this space. Or smell it, as the case may be.