Are Some Senses More Important Than Others?

Mar 24 2014

“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.” – Margaret Atwood

Are some senses more important than others for brands? It is well understood that our visual perception is one of the key reasons for human dominance on Planet Earth, and many brands (and brand guidebooks) focus on the visual appearance of the brand, perhaps to the detriment of other senses. Does this matter and can other senses create the same or greater impact on how we perceive a brand?

Looking at the senses through the lens of information theory and mental “bandwidth” it is clear why sight is often prioritized before other senses. Visual perception dominates the information that flows into our brains from the senses, accounting for around 10 million pieces of information every second with touch the next most information rich with one million. By some estimates, processing of visual information accounts for a third or more of the brain’s processing power.

Although most of this information is processed unconsciously, our vision has more “conscious bandwidth” than other senses with hearing the next most important followed by touch. That is, sight and then sound are the most likely senses to impinge on our awareness and force us to focus on a specific event in the world around us.

The senses have different roles in terms of the information they provide. Questionnaire studies have shown that we often focus on other senses as being more important in evaluating certain types of product. Hearing is the most important for a washing machine or coffee maker, and touch is the most important for a computer mouse or writing pen. And this importance can change over time, so that while the visual appearance of a pair of shoes is the most important criteria at purchase, the feel of the shoes on our feet becomes more important the older they get. This is why we often want to keep old shoes even when they look worn and are falling apart!

Other studies show that although vision is very important in establishing the nature and quality of an object, it is rarely strongly linked to emotional responses in the same way that senses like touch, smell and hearing are. For example, research into sensory dominance has shown that vision dominates when we need to decide the nature of an object and its location in the environment.

However, when we need to decide the timing of events, we turn to our hearing. Our ears are incredibly sensitive to the rhythm of the world around us, helping us to track what happens when (and therefore judge cause and effect which is how we learn to predict the future). Music can have profound effects on our emotional state too, and it is believed that this is because of the analogy between the way that music works (tone, rhythm, melodic leaps) and the way our body moves and feels in different emotional states. Music can be an instant link to a time, place or emotion.

And which senses do we rely on most to tell us about the meaning of the world around us? Smell and taste are very important in deciding the “meanings” of potential food and drink. Even our most basic sense, taste, can tell us if something can provide energy (sweetness), protein (umami) or might poison us through toxins (bitterness) or unripe or bad food (sourness). What we eat is laden with huge consequences for our futures, and therefore rich in meaning.

Smell is often cited as the most powerful of the senses in eliciting emotional responses, and there is certainly good evidence that smell can trigger earlier memories than other senses, as Marcel Proust wrote about a considerable length. This power to trigger is linked to smell’s direct connection to our emotional brain, and the fact that our first contact with a smell often defines whether it is subsequently remembered as good or bad.

While every sense can make a powerful impact on our sense of emotional well-being, I believe that touch has the potential to be the most powerful of them all, and is certainly the most underrated. Consider that touch is necessary for us to learn how to “see”, and in research with those who have recovered sight late in life it has been clearly shown that they could already see the things that they had learnt to “feel” through their skin. Young babies learn the most by holding, grasping, moulding, rolling and squeezing the objects around them, and these learning strategies are then correlated with the world they see around them.

Physical contact is fundamental to the development of young babies, and the need to be comfortable is far more desirable than the need to feed (forget Maslow’s hierarchy). Research shows that once we have ‘touched’ a brand, we are far more likely to buy it, hence the success of car test drives and the Apple store concept.

And although research on sensory dominance shows the primacy of vision for location, hearing for timing and smell for meaning, touch is consistently the second most important sense for judging experiences across all of these needs.

Above all, touch makes the world ‘real’, helping us to truly connect and feel intimate with the world. How are you touching your customers and how can you make them ‘feel’ good about your brand?

You can read more about the role of the senses in branding in Brand esSense: Using Sense, Symbol and Story to Design Brand Identity.

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