Hue Robertson

The Devil Is in The Retail: The power of creating an immersive environment through the exploration of the senses

By Cat Sterry, Art Director at RPM


From our earliest steps to our last moments, we experience the world through our five senses. Watching a child gummily chewing on a plastic toy in the park the other day, I was struck by how as we grow in life we become less reliant on these senses to explore the world.

While a child will try everything but eat his toy to understand its shape, strength, taste and texture, as adults we become more passive in how we experience the world, often languishing behind a computer or smartphone in favour of the real thing – after all its accessible to anyone at anytime. But is this how we create the most meaningful connections?

As we strive to recreate this sense of childish awe in the consumers we target, more and more brands are moving towards digital solutions within brand experience and trading off the physical experiences – styling, creative set design and sensorial flourishes are often the first things to get the chop when thinning out budgets.

What makes brands memorable to consumers is when brand stories and product truths are brought to life in a way that tickles the imagination – be it digital or physical. Whichever the case, what gets me talking to my friends about a product or brand is when the envelope is pushed and a novel experience is gained – but it’s often a sensorial flourish that gets me chatting, sharing and tweeting.

Johnnie Walker 'Symphony in Blue'

Johnnie Walker took this to sensational heights with Symphony in Blue, and event that transcended the normal nod to the sensorial marketing. To celebrate the flavour notes and premium credentials of Johnnie Walker Blue, they created a journey through each note and manifested this audaciously in different spaces: guests were given the chance to experience ‘smokey’ tones by grabbing a flame thrower and charring a whisky barrel for themselves – or on the flip side could enjoy 10,000 year old glacier ice before heading into a room of spatialised whisky mist, complete with lightening to experience ‘Whisky Weather’. Would guests have recalled the smokiness of Johnnie Walker Blue as well by playing a flamethrower arcade game?

Multi-sensory experience demi-god Sam Bompas of Bompas & Parr, says: “What you’re trying to do is buy time in people’s brains. The more time you have to spend in someone’s brain in a positive way, the more likely they are to buy your product.” And you can’t argue with someone who created the first ever scented firework display.

It’s not just fun, it’s a science thing too – the Immersion Corporation research concluded that viewers were 25% more engaged after viewing material that had added sensorial elements.

More and more brands are starting to see the value of sensorial immersion, and not always the obvious ones. Virgin Holidays recent activation in shopping centres let customers ‘Try on a holiday’ in changing rooms that had sounds and smells of the sea piped in, as well as a warm, sandy floor – they saw a sales uplift of 193%.

Is this a sign of things to come perhaps? A few savvy brands are certainly getting in on the act. While digital experiences are fantastic at amplifying an event beyond its footprint, creating social engagement and help keep brands cutting edge, we should never trade up over a physical experience and rely solely on the virtual world to sell our real world products. If we want customers to buy our products – first we have to buy time in our customer’s brains.

  • Dear Hugh! I loved your article! I am a graphic designer from Brazil, but since 2010, when I have worked with sensorial installations in Germany, i have felt in love with Experiential Design and experiential branding. Currently I am attempting to build a experience economy ¨blogazine¨ (since november). It is a tough work, since I am doing it by myself for now and in 2 languages. Reading articles like this makes me see that I am on the right path, though I still have a long road to walk and a loooottt to improve. Anyway, thank you for that spark of motivation! In case you are curious, here goes the blog.