Making sense of branding in 2021

The bash of a barista’s portafilter as the intense aroma of freshly-ground espresso fills the air. Happy chatter rising up from a busy beer garden on a warm day. Or simply a pleasant “mornin’!” from the shopkeeper as you walk by. What does your business sound like to your customers? What does it feel like, or smell like?

Us humans, we are by nature very visual creatures. Constantly searching, scrolling, swiping, tapping to see what the next photo, video or meme will be, seeking our hourly dopamine hit. Seldom do we switch off our sight and tap into the other senses at our disposal. But letting our sense of hearing, touch, taste or smell occasionally take over can be a powerful thing, and it’s a power that’s rarely harnessed in marketing.

Think about posters, bill boards, digital ads, even the junk mail that comes through your door – marketing is designed to immediately arrest your attention and firmly hammer the message home within seconds. Brands have but a moment to capture your attention and it’s gone in the blink of an eye. And apparently it’s getting harder to do: according to neuroscientific studies, the average human attention span has shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000, to just eight seconds. Still, that’s better than a goldfish – just. These days, most advertisers actually compete to capture your attention within just a three-second golden window. 

But where does this leave the consumer? Overstimulated, overwhelmed? In a year of life lived remote from real human interaction, aren’t we all ready to start having some real-life experiences again? It’s clear to us that brands are going to have to work really hard to cut through the ‘visual noise’ in order to form meaningful connections with customers, and one way to do that is to let vision take a back seat and bring the other senses to the fore.

Consider for instance the power of sound. Sound’s ability to transport us to other times and places is something that has clearly helped us to escape the challenges of pandemic life, and by isolating our ear drums and switching everything else off, our imagination is allowed to run free. This is evident in podcast listenership, which increased significantly in 2020, rising from 27% in 2019 to 33% in 2020. Some analysts speculated that less time spent commuting would negatively impact listenership, however, this data from YouGov suggests that this is not the case and that people continue to find time to listen to content through this medium. 

Some brands have recognised this early on and already started to tap into our new-found hunger for sound. Ikea, recognising its fans were missing their in-store experience, decided to create a new way to explore their digital catalogue, and you can do it with your eyes closed. The Ikea Audio Catalog is a four-hour long, 13-chapter collection of audio descriptions covering each of the 2021 catalogue’s 286 pages. Distributed across just about every audio-friendly platform including Spotify and, it has been met with mixed reactions on YouTube, where it has so far received some 6k ‘views’, or should we say listens. Many are evidently rattled by the lack of accompanying product visuals: the expectation that we as consumers should have to use our imagination – outrageous! But there are listeners that delight in the refreshing change of delivery method, and these are evidently the customers that Ikea is attempting to reach and inspire through this project – those that crave an experience.

Each of the senses, sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, are all really just chemical reactions to our environment that happen in the brain. It’s a fact that switching off one sense has the ability to either cancel out or intensify another. Take smell, pinch your nose, take a sip of your coffee, and you won’t be able to taste it. However this time close your eyes and take another sip, the aroma and flavour feel doubly intense. Don’t believe us? Ask Nespresso aficionado George Clooney. 

The secret to creating these experiences is about layering up the senses in a way that takes consumers on a sensory journey. We believe that there’s an opportunity here for brands to connect with customers like never before, by thinking cleverly about how they layer up sensations: Re-think the ratio, what to amp-up and what to dial down. Playing with the balance gives us the power to surprise, delight and enthral in new ways. From simple, everyday things, like taking a shower, to indulgent treats such as eating a brownie or going on holiday, there is an opportunity for all brands and businesses to show customers what it’s really like to experience their product or service in a multi-layered sensory way.

Our SENSES campaign, launching this month, encourages businesses to understand what makes them unique and turn that into multi-layered sensory experiences for customers. We go beyond what their brand looks like, delving deep into what it feels like, sounds like, smells like, and even tastes like, and create a combination of the senses that is right for your product. We can then translate this into experiences that bring customers and brands closer together than ever before, forging new connections and capturing imaginations.

So next time the visual-fatigue sets in, try just closing your eyes. Dial in to your other senses and allow your entire self, ears, nose, fingertips and tastebuds included, to experience brands, products and moments in a whole new way. As for us, as spring arrives we’ll be trying out a bit of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, to get in touch with our senses (and our inner squirrel). Find out what’s involved on the National Trust website: (