Sensing what sells 

By Russ Cooper

Recently-named Concordia Research Chair Bianca Grohmann is researching how different sensory cues can trigger particular buying habits in different types of people. Magnifying glass

Recently-named Concordia Research Chair Bianca Grohmann is researching how different sensory cues can trigger particular buying habits in different types of people.

People have favourite colours, scents and all other sensory preferences. But did you know that those same sensory cues have favourite people?

What's more? They make you want to buy stuff.

Investigating how different sensory experiences affect the shopping desires of different people is what our newly minted Concordia Research Chair JMSB Professor Bianca Grohmann is researching with CFI funding.

The $298 734 infrastructure grant will establish the Laboratory of Sensory Research at the JMSB. The lab is researching the impact of sensory cues on consumers in regards to their judgment and choices, and developing measurement scales that help researchers and marketers in the assessment of consumers’ perceptions of brands.

For example, would someone perhaps be more charged to buy a new motorcycle if 'Born to be Wild' were blasting in the showroom?

According to Grohmann, that just might make you more inclined to get your motor runnin’.

While her research has helped her publish her work in a number of renowned publications (including Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Psychology & Marketing, and the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science), Grohmann is currently focusing her attention on the visual aspects of marketing – namely how colours and type fonts create or reinforce buying habits for men and women.

"Consumers tend to think that products or brands have personalities," she says. "What I've found is that visual elements used in brand communication influence consumers' brand personality perceptions."

A simple example is the ubiquitous font, Arial; the sans serif, geometric typeface tends to appeal in a non-expressive way. "It's static and unnatural looking," she says. "It's a subtle nuance, low on excitability that says 'competence and reliability.' It's better for an accountant rather than a hairdresser." Whereas an extravagant, elegant script fonts such as Zapfino could be more associated with, "positive attitudes and purchase intentions" of feminine product categories.

The same goes for colours. "In my research, I've found brands using green are perceived as rugged and less sophisticated," she says. "Colours like yellow and purple are more appropriate for sensory-social products. Surprisingly, blue and black rated higher than red in leading consumers to consider a brand more exciting.

"You'll never see a power drill in a pink box with a frilly font on it."

To the casual observer, this information may seem quite obvious. But Grohmann is conducting quantitative research about sensory consumption habits and distilling it into raw data to be used by business specialists. And she's eager to get into this area of research that has been surprisingly underexplored.

"You don't find scientific evidence about how sensory elements appeal to different demographics in terms of marketing," she says.

Grohmann points out, however, these findings and subsequent conclusions are primarily concerned with browsing shoppers rather than those with a shopping list in hand.

"All these marketing strategies don't behave in planned behaviour. It's primarily for those not aware of sensory clues," she says.

Ah yes… the malleable consumer: the Holy Grail for marketers. While Grohmann is excited to apply her research in the real world, she knows that consumers are currently more aware of marketing techniques than ever before. She evokes an initiative in Halifax to make it illegal to use scents in retail marketing.

"I sense a backlash coming. It's something consumers can't really protect themselves from unless they act on it," she says. "It may be a sign of things to come."


Concordia University