Visual representation of the 5 senses activated in a woman

Want a memorable event? Activate the 5 senses

Topic: Insight /

Have you ever wondered why fragrance ads are so weird? We all know the formula: a beautiful woman or handsome man, lustrous visuals, and no real plot to speak of. The trope is so well worn that they’re the butt of many a joke.

At first glance, the format might be hard to understand - but there’s a reason for the perfume industry’s emphasis on overstylised visuals and extra-sensory stimulus in their ads. Fragrances can’t be smelled through a billboard or a TV screen - so brands have to create a feeling through sound and sight.

Can you actually recall a specific fragrance ad, though? Perhaps one or two, but the rest congeal into one. They don’t work because they don’t appeal to the one sense they need to most. Compare the TV ad experience with going into a perfume shop, seeing a beautifully designed bottle, touching it, spraying it on yourself - the full experience (we’ll ignore taste for obvious reasons).

It’s here where events have the upper hand over other forms of marketing and brand activation. Events are unique because they heighten (or can heighten) all five human senses.

Our memories are scattered across the brain's sensory centres. "That's the beauty of our memory system", says Jay Gottfried, a scientist at UCL who led a recent study of memory retrieval. "Imagine a nice day on the beach. The smell of sun lotion, the friends you were with, the beer you were drinking; any of these could trigger memories of the whole thing."

And that’s what we remember: being there, experiencing a moment. Digital or TV ads can't replicate that sensation. Events can - and if you want a memorable event, you have five excellent opportunities.

Sight

Sight is the dominant human sense and it works in parallel with memory. Remember how bright fireworks were when you were a kid? Or the height of the first rollercoaster you went on? The eyes and the brain process visuals together, working back and forth to find meaning. Sight’s role in consumer decisions is well established: clear, visually striking product pictures are known to have a powerful effect on people’s willingness to trial a new product.

For event organisers, the right imagery can add meaning to the decor of a room, the design of a space or the feel of a networking area. Visuals can excite, engage and entertain. They can make a space feel homely or professional, fun or serious, warm or cold.

Think about the social media feed from your last event. If it was full of pictures of people networking, that’s fantastic, but you want people to be wowed by the event too. Visually striking installations, vibrant screens and engaging visual stimuli can make all the difference, both to how they remember the event and how they share and document it.

Colour, too, plays a factor. We’ve covered colour psychology in detail before, but it’s worth noting here. Colour functions as a powerful information channel to the human cognitive system and has been found to play a significant role in enhancing memory. Colour can increase brand recognition by up to 80% which has striking implications for the event venue. The entrance, the main hall, the stages for keynote speakers: how is your use of colour tying into your brand identity and appealing to the memory faculties of your attendees?

There’s long been a debate around which colours make people more receptive to messaging. Colours are, of course, embedded in personal preference, but it’s still possible to use colourful visuals to enhance memory. Red, for instance, is the most effective at enhancing our attention to detail.

Touch

Touch is the first sense that humans develop. And it consists of a few elements like pressure, temperature, light touch, vibration, and pain.

It’s also intricately tied to our memories: specific parts of the brain deal with haptic (or touch) memory and touch has also been shown to stimulate the hippocampus (an area of the brain central to memory).

So for event organisers, the different facets of human touch offer numerous routes towards creating a memorable experience. This can be more conventional, like the textures and the literal feel of the event’s furniture or eating and drinking implements. Textures affect how we remember an occasion: different kinds of paper, for example, are imbued with tradition and social significance, triggering associated memories.  

Or it can be a specialised installation that appeals to touch. The recent blockbuster film Ready Player One, for instance, used interactive, touch-sensitive film posters in its promotion. Instead of just visuals, cinema goers could use haptic technology to physically interact with the branding.

Sound

Anecdotally, auditory memory is perhaps the easiest part of sensory memory to relate to. We can all recall the moving power of a sweeping film or TV soundtrack, and how it makes a visual scene more epic or sad.

The chef Heston Blumenthal is well known for mixing sound with his gourmet dishes. His dish ‘The sound of the sea’, for instance, comes with an iPod accompaniment, playing ocean noises into diners’ ears.

Blumenthal’s pricey creations are onto something important. Sound has an incredible ability to enhance experiences. The noises from the shoreline that diners hear can unlock emotional memory, deepening their experience of the dish. But sound also literally affects taste: with the presence of loud music, sweet and salty tastes become less intense.

In a similar way, sound can unlock deeper levels of experience at an event, making it memorable. We’re able to remember not just sounds, it turns out, but the personal experience of the sound in a particular moment.

It’s why an installation like Porsche’s “The sound of Porsche” is so clever. The installation combined upbeat music, moving imagery and projection mapping to mimic the experience of a high speed drive. It creates a potent cocktail of sensory memory, making the event truly memorable.

Smell

While it’s now a film industry punchline, Smell-o-vision was a serious attempt to incorporate smell into the film going experience. When the popularity of TV exploded in the 1950s, film studios scrambled to lure the audiences back to the theatre.

That’s where Smell-o-Vision came in: the innovation would release odours from vents under the seats. It didn’t work - but it’s indicative of how long we’ve tried to nail the role of smell in creating memorable experiences.

Thanks to our anatomy, smell is a particularly powerful memory agent. Incoming smells first arrive at the olfactory bulb, a piece of biological equipment directly linked to the hippocampus (which, as we mentioned earlier, is the seat of memory). This explains why smell is so successful at triggering memories.

Smell can help the memory event quite literally linger. Give scented gifts, or perhaps use diffusers to spray distinct scents at your event at intermittent intervals to conjure an association with the day.

You may not have heard of Lizzie Ostrom aka Odette Toilette, but she’s a consultant specialising in using smells to power interesting events and conversations. As part of the Museums at Night series, for instance, she helped to create smells true to the period of art that attendees were looking at. The audience could breathe in the scent of violets while looking at Belle Epoque artworks, for instance.

Virgin Atlantic has taken things one step further, launching its own signature scent. While your event doesn’t need to go that far, you can be far more creative with scent than you may think.

Taste

Adults have between 2,000 and 8,000 taste buds. This cluster of nerve endings help us to experience all of life’s many gustatory delights.

Most events will have a food and drink component. It’s one of the largest, if not the largest, expenses for your events. But more than just sustenance, it’s a key part of creating a memorable event.

As John Allen points out in his book The Omnivorous Mind: “Evolution has seen to it that food in general may be a privileged target of memory in the brain.” Tastes and food experiences are often some of our most potent memories.

So the food you serve at an event should be more than fuel. See it as a vehicle for memory enhancement. Why not, for instance, serve regional or local food as a nod to both local taste preference and local culture?

Why does all this matter?

Ultimately, you want your event to be memorable. And amid a packed event schedule, that can be hard to do. But by exploring the many sensory avenues of the human brain, you can build a truly memorable experience.

Our senses have a crucial role in how we retain information. They act as a buffer for stimuli. And leaving a lasting impression means moving past these gatekeepers.

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