Imagine that every time you heard the word 'Derek' you experienced a strong taste of earwax in your mouth.
There’s a pub landlord in the UK called James Wannerton for whom this is a reality. Derek is one of his regulars.
James’ senses of taste and sound are somehow cross-wired, so that certain words trigger distinct flavour experiences for him. Say ‘Matthew’ to him and he can taste toffee, ‘us’ is bacon-flavoured, ‘truth’ tastes like ‘powdery mint’ and so on. Apparently this has caused James some issues in relationships and with reading novels, but on the up-side it has aided his memory no end.
This intermingling of the senses is a neurological phenomenon called synaesthesia, where the stimulation of one sense results in a sensation in another.
James’ particular strain is Gustatory/Auditory, but over 100 different forms exist – the most common is Grapheme/Colour, when words, numbers, or letters, are seen as different colours in the mind’s eye.
It’s relatively rare (about 1-4% of the population) but more common in creative types. Geoffrey Rush, for example, is a synaesthete, and Pharrell Williams sees musical notes as colours.
But where it gets particularly interesting for the marketing world, is that patterns of synaesthetic associations are identifiable in the wider population.
Try eating some Skittles blindfolded and see if you can tell which flavour is which. It’s surprisingly hard. We need the colour cue to experience the flavour. You do, literally, 'Taste the Rainbow' to some extent – a fact Wrigley played with when they brought out Skittles Confused in 2012, and the colours didn't match the flavours.
And similarly there’s evidence that most of us taste sounds, and hear colours and shapes in consistent ways.
It's been shown, for instance, that most people associate low pitched musical notes with dark flatter colours and higher pitched notes with brighter colours like yellows and whites.
So if synaesthetic patterns exist, it also means that synaesthetic effects can be created and manipulated. Which means we can potentially affect the sensory experience of a brand without changing the product itself. Which means we can create a point of difference where none exists.
So, a quick caveat. This is not the re-packaging of semiotics, symbolism or sensory marketing. The use of those things to infer quality or affect consumer decision making is not new news.
Synaesthetic effects have the potential to affect the actual sensory experience of that product, not just to create expectations about what it will taste/smell/feel/sound like.
The leading scientist in the field is experimental psychologist Professor Charles Spence of Oxford University. He’s already been consulting to the likes of Unilever, Starbucks, Toyota, Nestlé and JWT London on this subject, as well as working with Heston Blumenthal. Not surprisingly most of his work with these brands revolves around the relationship between taste and the other senses.
In essence it can be shown that we taste what we expect to taste. Spence has tricked people into confusing salt and vinegar chips with cheese and onion, just by swapping the packets around.
The colour red is a powerful cue of sweetness, probably due to our associations with ripe fruit.
It’s not just colours. Sweetness has also been found to be linked to high pitched sounds (music and words especially the letter I), tinkling pianos, softer music with low dissonance, smaller things, rounded forms and a white background.
What this means is that by manipulating these factors around their product consumption, potentially food manufacturers have the chance to reduce sugar and make their products healthier – without compromising taste and the accompanying risk of defection.
At the extreme end of the theory, you could make your product taste sweeter by simply changing its name to something short with an ‘I’ sound as in ‘tin’. Or manufacturers of weight loss products and dietary aids can make their products taste sweeter and more palatable without adding more sugar or sweeteners and compromising their dietary effectiveness.
Likewise, brands can make use of this knowledge to avoid costly mistakes. When 7Up added 15% more yellow to the green on its can design a few years ago, people reported the taste to be more citrusy and protested about an utterly non-existent formula change to the product.
So is synaesthesia the panacea of all FMCG product differentiation issues? Unlikely. There’s still a lot of academic debate on exactly what’s happening in the brain, and how and to what extent brands could harness it. Isolating its effect within the whole marketing mix is difficult to measure at present.
But major international manufacturing brands are starting to sit up and experiment with it. And if for that reason alone I think synaesthetic marketing is definitely worth keeping an eye out for. Or a tongue, nose or ear…