Expert comment
8 min read

The future of marketing is sensory

Associate Professor of Marketing Rhonda Hadi says the next 25 years will see the further rise of sensory marketing.

For much of the 20th century, and for the first decade of this millennium, the media mix of a brand was relatively simple: a billboard by a motorway, an advert in the daily newspaper or the right kind of magazine, maybe a TV commercial reaching millions if the marketing budget was healthy.

Of course, the advent of smartphones and social media has changed everything. Since then, digital ad spend has grown exponentially.

In 2015, the UK became the first country in the world where half of all advertising went on digital media. Six years on, digital still dominates, constituting nearly three-quarters of total ad spend (74.8%) according to market researchers eMarketer.

But this advertising only targets eyes and ears. What if you could reach consumers by making the phones in their pockets quiver like a cocktail shaker? Or appeal to their altruism through virtual reality ‘empathy machines’? Or get their Alexa to emit the smell of a tropical beach if they bark ‘Barbados holiday’ in the kitchen? In a saturated market for online advertising, brands may need to appeal to all five senses to stand out.

84% of smartphone users, especially younger demographics, skip adverts

Sensory marketing could be pivotal in breaking through to those consumers increasingly indifferent to online advertising (one Magma Global study found 84% of smartphone users skip adverts while on the go), particularly younger demographics.

‘Consumers are inundated with so many messages on their screens, while many are advertising averse and know how to skip ads,’ says Rhonda Hadi, Associate Professor of Marketing. ‘How do you infiltrate and gain the attention of consumers’ cluttered minds?’

Making marketing sensory

One way that brands can make them take notice is by bypassing the screen altogether and getting consumers to experience the tactile joys of haptic technology instead. While people expect their phones or wearables to vibrate when receiving calls or notifications, Rhonda says the haptic feedback technology inside our smartphones is more advanced.

‘We’re used to rudimentary vibrations for emails and calls, but the haptic actuators are capable of delivering sophisticated, nuanced haptics that feel soft or hard, fast or slow – nothing like a buzz at all,’ she says. Some brands have already experimented with touch technology. Smartphone users who watched a Stolichnaya vodka video showing a woman making a cocktail would have felt their phones shake in time with her gyrations, while Visa has developed a signature vibration for when customers make payments using the service.

In the future, a Hollywood blockbuster may alert users about a film premiere by using haptic feedback to simulate an explosion; a health-and-fitness app may issue haptic alerts to tap users’ wrists when they tire during interval training.

Either way, haptic feedback delivered by devices increases consumer engagement, possibly because it generates a ‘social presence in what might otherwise feel like an impersonal technological exchange’, according to 2019 School paper, co-authored by Rhonda.

AR restaurants?

The potential for haptic technology isn’t limited to mobile phones. In 2018, the MIT Media Lab and Disney developed a haptic jacket, which stimulates sensations such as being punched, hugged or feeling a snake slithering across the wearer’s body.

Rhonda says such technology could be synchronised with e-books, so that ‘when [the prose] describes wintry conditions, [the vest] will enable you to feel cold. Or feel a synthetic heartbeat whenever the storyline becomes more intense.’

At its most extreme, in 2019, Northwestern University developed a flexible ‘haptic skin’ that, used inside gloves or joysticks, could allow gamers to feel pain whenever their character is shot or hit.

Augmented reality is predicted to add $1.4trn (£1.04trn) to the global economy by 2030

Augmented reality (AR) is another area that could shape the adverts of the future. Until recently, the idea of AR – which overlays data and images onto a physical space – was met with derision in the tech world, possibly due to the failure of the much-mocked Google Glass.

Yet, AR is forecast to add $1.4trn (£1.04trn) to the global economy by 2030 according to a 2019 PwC report. Part of its renewed appeal is that AR doesn’t require clunky headsets like its virtual cousin. Instead, all it needs to operate is a screen and a camera: something built into all our smartphones.

AR is also more useful for consumers than VR, as it allows consumers to model future scenarios by visualising virtual objects in the real world. A fashionista can see what they’d look like wearing a luxury dress seen at Paris Fashion Week, a user of make-up app Meitu can conceptualise their appearance with glossy lips, while homebuyers can envisage what their sofa would look like in a new living room while wandering the aisles of their local furniture store. AR is much more than chasing Pokémons or teens using filters to give themselves Bambi eyes.

When information is presented in AR, consumers often find it more desirable. In 2019, Rhonda and colleagues conducted experiments in our canteen and a restaurant, in which dessert options were presented on menus displayed in both AR and two-dimensional format. Diners found the AR menus more appealing, because it heightened their senses and stimulated their tastebuds.

Spatial audio

Spatial audio is another area set to be harnessed by the marketing industry, capitalising upon recent trends for auditory technology, such as voice-activated virtual assistants and search queries, podcasts and Spotify playlists. Such is the penchant for digital audio, some media commentators predict the comeback of the brand jingle.

Spatial audio turns such listening experiences into 3D and 360 degrees. Rhonda gives the example of a video of a ticking clock that uses spatial audio to interact with a user’s body movements. If they walk towards the device, the clock gets louder. Turn their head to the left, they’ll hear the timepiece in their right ear.

Spatial audio mimics the natural world in the virtual world. It understands depth, distance, direction and makes it lifelike

‘Spatial audio mimics all the laws of the natural world in the virtual world,’ says Rhonda. ‘It understands depth, distance and direction in a way surround sound doesn’t. It makes it all much more lifelike.’

Spatial audio technology is currently being used by Apple Music, but Rhonda spies an opportunity for advertisers. ‘Usually, audio hurts advertisements; social media platforms were designed for a “sound-off” world where people have their devices on mute,’ says Rhonda. ‘But with audio-centric social media apps like TikTok, people are increasingly keeping it switched on. So, there’s lots of opportunity now to invest more in what adverts sound like, which didn’t use to be the case.’

Smells good

The world of smell-based content could also be used by the advertising and marketing industries. Companies such as Valencia-based Olorama Technology and Silicon Valley’s Aromyx are developing smell simulators, voice-activated aromas (olfactory data could be added to search engine or voice queries), digitally scented VR packs and bespoke odours for customers.

Deploying sensory marketing isn’t just a matter of increasing profit and discovering new audiences for brands; it can also aid their purpose commitments too.


In the fashion/textiles industry – which emits more CO2 than global air travel and shipping combined – AR can create digital samples, rather than those in wasteful fabric. 

Sensory technology can also enable consumers to experience what life is like for others who don’t share the same characteristics, whether of gender, race or physical ability.

‘Virtual reality has been called an “empathy machine” because it puts you in the shoes of others, such as a refugee in social housing,’ says Rhonda. However, it may not trigger charitable donations because, she says, ‘sometimes the experience is so immersive, subjects focus more on themselves rather than giving!’

Instead, VR advertisements work best for charity when ‘they show you, or people you know, sating hunger and thirst – when you feel that joy, you want others to share it too’.

Personalisation will be prominent in brands’ future media mix

Before brands incorporate sensory marketing into their media mix, they may face some challenges. The first wave of affordable haptics and spatial audio may be ungainly and expensive – and therefore off-putting. A campaign that wants to truly resonate will need strong content. 

Personalisation is also likely to play a prominent role in brands’ future media mix. Today, algorithms may throw up content and advertising based on preferences, but Rhonda raises the terrifying prospect of adverts that ‘feature artificially generated humans who look just like you, based on the thousands of pictures of you on the internet’.

If that isn’t Orwellian enough, hotels’ marketing teams are already snooping on social media to learn more about customers, such as Marriott’s M Live (‘a global marketing real-time command centre’) which delivers a cake to a guest’s room if a Tweet shows they’re celebrating a birthday at one of its hotels.

Personalisation could synthesise with customisation and sensory marketing in the metaverse, the yet-to-be-realised virtual world that users access via AR and VR technology. Mark Zuckerberg recently claimed that in five years Facebook would be a ‘metaverse company’, naming it as the ‘successor to the mobile internet… where instead of viewing content, you are in it’. A few weeks later, he announced that the Facebook Inc group would be renamed Meta.

If the metaverse is as successful as Zuckerberg predicts, there could be sizeable opportunities for brands to reach new audiences, perhaps by targeting users who dress their avatars in ‘skins’ (aka virtual clothing, a market currently estimated to be worth $40bn [£28bn] a year). 

While the metaverse, haptic technology and spatial audio might seem fantastical or even gimmicky fads, it’s worth remembering that sensory marketing is one of the oldest advertising techniques in the world – just think of an ancient marketplace, where shoppers smell freshly baked bread, knead a slab of meat to feel its quality or hear the sales patter of a vendor. It’s a dash of atavism that could propel the success of sensory marketing in the next 25 years.

As Rhonda says, ‘Because the science behind sensory marketing mimics the real world and is so grounded in human behaviour, it won’t be a short-term thing.’

Recommended podcast: Dr Rhonda Hadi discusses the new age of sensory marketing