Blog: Embodied brand experiences - the new frontier

Lewis Robbins, senior associate strategist at Jack Morton Worldwide discusses the importance of physical experiences, and how they are deeply bound up with how we think, feel and behave.

The physical experience of an event is important, says Robbins
The physical experience of an event is important, says Robbins

Picture the scene... you’re at a party and someone walks up to you, whitened teeth gleaming and extends a hand. 

"Hi. My name’s Clive. And my three personality pillars are honesty, integrity, and respect."

What would you make of Clive? Does he seem like a stand-up guy? Or an unhinged sociopath? Yet weirdly, this is how many brands try to connect with people. By telling us what their values are, instead of making them implicit through how they behave - just one symptom of the gap between marketing and real life. 

Effective brand experiences close this gap by empathising with people and understanding their needs by creating unique and memorable experiences, and by facilitating a discussion, rather than a one-way broadcast. This much we know - and it’s why brand experience is so critical to successful marketing today. 

But amongst all of this, there’s one element that’s often overlooked. And it’s the reason why brand experience is better placed than any other medium today when it comes to communicating values on an intuitive level. It’s a simple, yet fundamental truth: we don’t just think with our brains, we think with our bodies.

To explain, let’s return to our friend Clive. He’s still standing there, hand outstretched, beginning to feel a little awkward. Let’s give him a second chance. Stretch out your own hand in turn, and imagine what Clive’s handshake is like. Perhaps it’s like a 'wet fish', or bone-crunchingly firm...or even surprisingly normal. Whichever it is, this contact carries meaning at an unconscious level. From his handshake, you might make a judgement about his character - whether he’s weak, overbearing, or might actually be OK. 

In short, our physical experiences in the world are deeply bound up with how we think, feel and behave. This may seem obvious - but it actually runs counter to thousands of years of Western philosophy (which has traditionally divided the mind and body), and is a driving idea in a relatively new area of cognitive science, called 'embodied cognition’. 

This emphasis on the body represents a new frontier for marketing and brand experience is particularly well–positioned to make use of its findings. 

Our everyday lives are filled with examples of ‘embodied metaphors’ - physical experiences that act as a vehicle for meaning. They are blindingly obvious, yet often hidden in plain sight. For example an experiment showed that people holding a warm cup of coffee are more likely to use ‘warm' language to describe another person’s character. Physical warmth primes emotional warmth - a connection that usually begins when we are very small, when we are held by our parents and ‘bind' their bodily warmth to feelings of comfort, love and security. 

Another experiment showed that being primed with rough surfaces can make people perceive ensuing tasks to be more adversarial or difficult (think of 'I had a rough day’ vs. everything going 'smoothly'). And if you present people with a CV on a weighted clipboard, they’ll perceive that person as being more competent (they’ll literally give more ‘weight’ to it).

The closer you look, the more these embodied metaphors appear. In many ways, meaning begins with the body. As Guy Claxton puts it in his excellent book ‘Intelligence in the Flesh’, 'the sensory motor part of the brain provided the original platform for the development of more abstract cognition and comprehension, and continues to do so throughout life…we make sense of the world, even when it is rather abstract, by getting ready to act on it or interact with it'. For brands, this means that if we want to express something emotionally, a good place to start is to think about how an experience ‘feels’ physically.  

Many ‘traditional' mediums are undergoing an immersive, multisensory re-invention that places greater emphasis on an embodied experience. Pioneering work by Punchdrunk has helped make the theatre physical. And exhibitions like Soundscapes (at the National Gallery) and the Tate Sensorium aim to heighten our experience of art through birdsong, ultrasonic projection, ash-flavoured chocolate and more. Beyond that, there are beautiful, eloquent examples of architecture that become spatial metaphors for emotion and meaning. The Jewish Museum in Berlin is one such example, with its uneven floors, void spaces, a heavy door opening into a dark, cold tower with concrete walls, illuminated at its peak by a thin slither of daylight.

All of this adds up to a powerful opportunity for us to communicate with people on a deeper level. But first we have to overcome the perception that multisensory marketing is too daunting, too complex. In the multisensory events survey recently reported in Event, many said they feel unsure how to approach creating sensory-led events or feel restricted by budget and time. But often the devil is in the detail - the smallest of touches (sometimes quite literally) can make the biggest difference, as it’s in these intimate textures and details that the 'sense’ of a brand can be rooted and conveyed. From the very big, to the very small, we can 'map' a brand’s abstract values to physical materials and concrete experiences.  

This kind of approach to marketing - bringing people to their senses, creating something they can feel, something they want - is key to closing that gap between marketing (itself a strange and outdated term) and real life. 

What a great time to be in it.

Comment below to let us know what you think.

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