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Sensory Marketing  – When Music Makes You Buy

Sight. Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Touch. 

Since the 1940s, major marketing corporations have studied ways to appeal to our five senses to convince us to buy. Today, manipulating the human psyche is done in such complex ways that it has become something of an art form. Which colors stimulate your appetite? Which “new car” smell is most likely to make you buy? Which songs orient you toward a specific product? Influencing our senses has become fair game, and most of us now purchase experiences rather than a product itself. 

Although this manipulation of the senses is often subtle, is it truly ethical ? Of course, sensory marketing cannot overpower free will; yet it can influence your purchase decisions in a way that has made sensory marketing so profitable that it has grown exponentially in recent years. Because of the huge sums of money spent in this field for both research and implementation, I believe that there is value in exploring the secrets of these marketing techniques; for it is only by being aware of these marketing stimuli that we can become more informed customers and ultimately make better purchase decisions.  

What is Sensory Marketing? 

Let’s talk about sensory marketing. According to Philip Kotler, an award-winning professor at Kellogg School of Management, sensory marketing is meant to engage certain consumers’ senses to affect their perception, judgment and behavior. These senses, called “atmospherics” or “marketing stimuli,” can be studied and controlled to influence the consumer’s buying mood.  Initially, sensory marketing emerged in the 1940s, with a focus on sight for billboards and advertising as a whole. Because of its ability to create unconscious reactions beneficial for businesses in the customer’s brain, music eventually became an important focus in this field.

Sensory marketing is often unknown to the public for obvious reasons: sensory marketing affects consumers’ minds and influences buying decision, making it controversial. This leads to an ethical question: should music be used to raise sales in stores and restaurants? To answer this question, we need to understand to what extent music can be manipulative. Let’s examine the impact music has on the brain, and how businesses use it to their advantage.

Why Does Sensory Marketing Matter? 

It’s important to know that music can be used in three aspects of sensory marketing: in establishments, advertisements and websites. What all of these platforms often choose and adjust music to have specific impacts on the customer, with the ultimate goal to make profit. In facilities, because consumers are already in the environment intended for purchase, they are more likely to buy products once under the influence of music. 

In this case, music is called an ‘atmospheric,’ as it is part of the facility’s atmosphere, which is studied and controlled to incite the customer to buy. This takes advantage of the fact that, according to Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman

“95 percent of our purchase decision making takes place in the subconscious mind.”

 Music is therefore the perfect tool to influence our decision making; while visual information needs to be processed and interpreted by the brain before it becomes meaningful, music influences our emotions on a subconscious level. That means businesses have everything to gain in adopting music as an atmospheric, as converting an area of traditional marketing to a multi sensorial area can result in a substantial raise in sales. 

How Does Music Impact Purchase Decisions? 

Surprisingly, music impact sales in a variety of ways, and because unconscious listening is as efficient as conscious listening, consumers are mostly unaware of the influence background music has on their perception, behavior and final purchase decision.

The main advantage of background music is that it successfully lowers customers’ guards, ensuring that they are more receptive to eventual purchases. The human brain has a primitive fear of silence, which was crucial to our survival during prehistoric times––when we entered a silent environment, our brain immediately alerted us that something wasn’t right. Therefore, according to Olivier Covo, CEO of the company Brandy Sound, silence makes humans more discerning and observant, while music has the opposite effect. In light of this, the majority of facilities now play music in their establishment to anesthetize their clients’ mistrust and optimize conditions for purchase.

But what I find most fascinating is that music also has the ability to alters our time perception through tempo. For the brain, the unit that determines its time perception is the second, which it confuses with the beat. Hence, music with slow tempo leads to time being judged shorter, while music with rapid tempo has the opposite effect. Therefore, to maximize profit, supermarkets put slow music in their facility; this leads to consumers staying longer in the establishment. Ronald Milliman, a prominent sensory marketing researcher, has demonstrated that “consumers spend 38 percent more time in the grocery store when the background music is slow”—which inevitably results in greater spending. Contrarily, fast food stores play music with fast tempo to make clients consume quickly, which allows them to serve more consumers; therefore, “fast music increases turnover in restaurants.” However, certain restaurants might find it more advantageous to increase the spend-per-customer ratio: they thus play slow music, which “leads to a 29 percent increase in the average bill.”

On top of that, music is known to successfully triggers emotions. When listening to music, the brain releases dopamine, which is a central element in our brains’ reward systems. By triggering it, marketers can spark customers’ interest and strengthen their loyalty. Therefore, in the presence of music, customers are more likely to be overtaken by a positive emotion, and thus evaluate the merchandise more favorably, view the personnel as friendlier, and are more likely to remain in a store and make a purchase.

Another interesting characteristic of music is that it orients clients toward a specific product. For example, my favorite study on the topic revealed that when French music was diffused in a wine store, French wines outsold German wine, and vice versa with the diffusion of German music. Even more surprisingly, customers were actually completely unaware of music’s influence on their product choices! 

Aside from this surprising characteristic, music gives the brand an identity by contributing to their atmosphere, and by using targeting, which is “focus[ing] more selectively on a particular group or class of potential consumers”.  This can be done by associating musical styles with a social group. Moreover, via music, businesses try to project a specific image, which is crucial for customer loyalty: an international study shows that “businesses with music that fits their brand identity are 96 percent more likely to be recalled than those with unfitting music or no music at all.” In light of this, businesses now pay close attention to their style of background music. For example, Victoria Secret plays classical music for a more sophisticated atmosphere, which is meant to please its female clientele. 

Finally, background music also insinuates quality. Because classical music is associated with sophistication, a product might seem to be worth more if classical music is played in the store or restaurant. For example, wine and expensive restaurants made more profits by diffusing classical music than popular music.

What is the Future of Sensory Marketing & Neuromarketing ? 

To determine if sensory marketing is ethical, it is crucial to examine how it is and will be employed in the future. Sensory marking is quite controversial. However, this practice has been put in place for a reason: to compete with online shopping. As the U.S. online retail sales are quickly increasing, many businesses viewed sensory marketing as the only solution to stay competitive, which is why more and more establishments adopt this practice. However, sensory marketing is spreading so quickly that soon, if a brand wishes to differentiate itself and build consumer loyalty, it will have to embrace multi sensory marketing. In result, we “will not choose the product or the service based on the equation cost-benefit, but for the experience that will be offered before and during the purchase.”

Moreover, as technology is evolving, sensory marking as we know it is just the beginning. For example, sensory marketing is now increasingly combined with an even more advanced practice: neuromarketing. Neuromarketing, as its name indicates, is “marketing designed on the basis of neuroscience research”. It attempts to analyze subject’s responses to advertising, packaging or specific marketing products.  Its main advantage? It reveals what consumers truly think about a product, which, surprisingly, is different from their answer when asked directly. To do so, this practice relies on the latest technological discoveries, such as electro-encephalography (EEG), which precisely tracks marketing relevant parameters such as emotions or memory while watching a packaging or advertisement. The fMRI is used as well to detect activated brain regions, in order to predict purchase decisions. Finally, neuromarketing uses eye tracking technology, which tracks the eye trajectory to determine what catches consumers’ attention. Neuromarketing’s results are so precise that by analyzing volunteers’ brains while listening to music, the neuroscientist Gregory Berns was able to predict which songs would be a hit! If such a thing is possible, who knows what marketing will be able to do in a few decades…

Is This Practice Ethical?

Because companies that use sensory and neuromarketing are often criticized, they try to justify their actions with four key arguments.

The first justification is that sensory and neuromarketing would be able to extend our knowledge of the human brain, which could then be used for medical purposes. However, medical research should receive more attention and budget than marketing, not the other way around. Moreover, many scientists see these practices as a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Therefore, as clients are not ill, their privacy not respected, and their decisions subconsciously influenced, sensory and neuromarketing break this oath.

The second justification is that ‘in-store marketing is threatened because of online shopping’s expansion.’ However, with sensory and neuromarketing tools being very expensive, only wealthy brands can use them, and they do so to generate additional profit. Moreover, to stay competitive, businesses should improve the merchandise itself, not the experience provided to subconsciously convince clients to buy. 

On top of that, sensory marketing firms state that while ‘consumers don’t know what they truly want, businesses do.’ However, instead of being told their preferences, consumers should have a certain power of decision making, without the burden of being influenced by sensory stimuli wherever they go. 

Another justification for the use of background music is that individuals all have different tastes in music. However, music styles can in fact be associated with demographics groups, as age, sex and social background play part in our musical preferences. Moreover, while tastes might vary, musical factors, such as tempo, affect everyone the same way.

Overall, the main criticisms addressed to sensory marketing firms is that they adopt a certain form of psychological manipulation. Because sensory marketing influences customers to alter their perception or behavior through abusive tactics affecting their subconscious without their knowledge, it could indeed be perceived as such. 


Now you know what goes on behind the scenes. Something as innocent as music can be manipulated to influence our purchase decisions in way most of us would have not thought possible. And because of the impressive technological improvements made in the neurological field, these marketing methods are improving to reach deeper parts of our subconscious. 

While this strategy is surprising, it is not necessarily unethical; businesses have full control of their store as an incentivizing environment, regardless of their use of the subconscious to incentivize purchase. Sensory marketing can also be considered fair game in places where customers are paying for an experience rather than a product — in spas, for example.

However, every time you step foot in a shop or supermarket, you now become a potential subject in a sale experiment. This is why being aware of those practices is the key to offsetting the powerful effects of sensory marketing. So next time you find yourself in a store, think about all the stimuli that you are presented with: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Take a deep breath, and think about what you’re about to buy.

Do you truly need it?

Featured Image Source: Poster

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