Are the senses a retail brand’s most understated weapon?


As we enter the next decade of digitally driven marketing, retail landscapes continue to undergo shifts, with new technology-induced realities constantly emerging.

Consumer experiences are fragmented across an ecosystem of platforms, environments, and devices. Brand experiences are growing in complexity, customer journeys are being compressed, and shorter pathways to purchase are surfacing.

Now more than ever, brands need to find new methods of differentiating themselves while remaining loyal to their identities and heritage.



Neuroscience tells us one such way of standing out is harnessing the power of the senses to trigger emotion, activate memory and influence choice and decision-making. The principle itself will be no stranger to retailers, who have likely already been applying sensory marketing in some capacity to elevate their store and online spaces over the years. After all, there’s a reason that Play-Doh trademarked their signature scent, or that we can all recall being hit with an overwhelming aroma upon entering a LUSH store.

Focused and targeted sensory activation, stemming from and powered by genuine human understanding, however, is the real game-changer. This is harder than it may sound since our brains are hardwired to detect inauthenticity – pull the wrong sensory levers and you turn people off your product and perhaps even your brand.

Luckily, the Human Understanding Lab can help with that. Boasting experts across neuro, behavioural and data science, we’re able to inject client briefs and challenges with a deep level of human-led insight, which in turn drives effectiveness and conversion right across the marketing mix. In fact, we’ve done so for Diet Coke, among others.

The FMCG giant were looking to make the right comeback after pausing their comms at the height of the pandemic. Calling upon neuroscience and the golden rules of taste, the Human Understanding Lab worked with TMW UNLIMITED to create an insight driven strategy rooted in our EMMA (Emotion, Motivation, Contextual Meaning, Action) framework.

We decided to take a strikingly simple approach loaded with serious smarts – multi-sensory, iconic in a way only Diet Coke could be, and beautifully resonant in its tone and approach. Spanning, TV, radio, social and national out-of-home, our creative quite literally cut through the noise of the pandemic and got everyone reaching for an ice cold can.



According to research, our brains form judgements about websites in under 50ms; we don’t see or process 85% of in-store communications; and our average amount of time spent watching billboards dropped from 3 seconds in 2010 to 1.4 seconds in 2018, a number sure to fall even lower in the modern day as attention spans shorten and media consumption rises. When the window of opportunity to make an impact is so tight, knowing how to optimise the senses to stir up emotion is vital.

Vision is arguably our most dominant sense. Understanding how the visual system dovetails with attention can help brands plan and cut through in the store environment. For example, playing on “the science of narcissism” (as we like to call it) can increase the chance of a purchase. Ever wondered why apparel stores are littered with mirrors? Walnut UNLIMITED’s study, powered by neuroscience and conducted alongside Mood Media, used a mixture of neuroscientific techniques, including Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) and eye-tracking, to reveal that seeing yourself in the product can help seal the deal and dial up conversion.

In addition to this, manipulating the sound, scent and touch in-store can be powerful. Whether it’s running your fingers over fabrics or weighing a coffee mug in your hand, studies show that touching a product ensures future recognition of it, and can help unlock powerful associations and memories.



It’s not just in a physical space that brands should be looking to engage the senses. The Charlotte Tilbury website is a prime example of this. Bringing vision, touch and even scent to life, each page showcases a person applying the product, employing what is known as haptic priming in their CX – highlighting the texture, thickness, shine and weight to heighten the online user’s sensory response.

With thousands of biases and ways to activate the senses at play, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. That’s why it’s vital to consider retail from the human perspective – shining a light on what really makes humans tick, how they react to different sensory experiences, and how emotions influence decision-making and actions.


Video source: Charlotte Tilbury website


In a world where consumers are often overloaded with information and interaction, striking a balance between sensory stimulation at the right moment and in the right way is the foundation of better retail design. In this world, neuro- and behavioural science can be the key to unlocking the true power of the senses, with human understanding at the very core of commercial decision-making.

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If you’d like to hear more about how we can help maximise your brand’s sensory advantage, Walnut UNLIMITED’s masterclass is a great place to start. From sensory acuity testing to product flavour awareness, our Human Understanding Lab experts can help up-skill your teams to better understand the power of the senses and succeed in the retail space. To find out more, please get in touch with our Human Understanding Lab leaders at or