The science behind designing better experiential events

As-brand activation marketers, we are in a persuasion business, yet science and psychology do not always enter in the conversation.

Doesn’t this seem a little odd?

If we want to become more effective at influencing and changing consumer behaviors, why don’t we take a deeper look into a concept called behavioral economics?

We need to gain a better understanding of what attention actually is, how it works, so that we help companies cut through the traditional advertising clutter, so to speak.

We are living in a fast paced technology-infused era, in which many fields are showing huge advancements and changes.

This is creating a new complex reality, which means we need a deeper understanding of the unconscious forces that shape how we behave, feel and think.

When you can combine these forces with consumer’s inherent desire and craving of stimulation and engagement to design better event experiences for brands.

JWT Worldwide: 73% of Millennials crave experiences that stimulate their senses.

Many brands forget to incorporate aspects of marketing campaigns that affect human senses. We all too often just think in terms of words and images.

Its almost too obvious to say that we are living in a multisensory world.  Our senses are the cornerstone of our experiences; they are vivid, rich and immediate.

The more the senses are stimulated, the more memorable the experience will be, because they activate more of our brain.

As an example a single scent can stir emotions and bring us back to a forgotten place or memory.

According to a study done by the Sense of Smell Institute, that people only recall about 50% of the visual images they see after three months, but remarkably they can remember more 65% of what they smell even after a year has passed.    

Triggering the senses stimulates a new way of thinking, feeling and behaving. Imagine how much more interesting live events can be for attendees, when brands incorporate a multi-sensory approach.

This article focuses on how harnessing the power of a scientific understanding of all the senses, can create a far more effective and engaging experiences.

Think beyond just the dominance of only sight and sound, when you activate all of the senses you will, lift peoples imaginations, and the impression of your brand.

I see three ways that companies can take advantage of the new sciences of senses to impact the feelings, understanding and actions of their customers and brand influencers     .

  1. Intensify. Engage multiple senses to create more memorable experiences.

  2. Invoke. Stimulate the senses that build emotional relationships.

  3. Embody. Use sensory metaphors to show what your brand stands for.


Have you ever wondered why the fish and chips never tasted as good as when you ate them by the seaside out of paper?

It’s because our taste buds are intrinsically linked to our other senses. It’s not just about what we taste, but also what we see and touch.

Science has demonstrated that experiences become more intensely memorable when multiple senses are triggered.  

Practically speaking, our senses overlap, blend together and combine to create our experience in the world; understanding how the senses can work together represents an opportunity for brands.

A team of scientists from Oxford University, made a study about a “cross-modal” nature of the senses, how contextual perceptions frame our experiences.


Weight and material matter, yogurt eaten with a silver spoon tastes creamier and more expensive, than those consumed with a cheap plastic to go spoon.


The lab found that music can influence taste. As an example, playing background music in wine tasting, the study found that we associate higher notes with sweetness, and lower notes with bitterness.

In the experiment, three groups drank the same wine, but assigned different characteristics based on the tempo and pitch of the background music they heard.


Deserts eaten from white plates were rated 10% sweeter than those served on black plates.

They found that orange colored cups deliver the most intense flavor of hot chocolate, cream cups scored highest for aroma and sweetness.

Cross modal experiential event

An example of how the brands can take the cross modal quality of senses and apply to an event.

We all experience a level of synesthesia, a phenomenon which means that cross-wiring in the brain means that one senses triggers another, so it is possible for people to ‘taste’ scents and ‘see’ sounds.

Sonos fill your home with music

This concept was an inspiration behind an interactive visual sound experience that promoted Sonos wireless systems in both New York, and Los Angeles.

Sonos which is headquartered in LA, bought to life its tagline ‘Fill Your Home with Music’.

Colors and animation, created by the music, were projection-mapped, onto four reinterpreted rooms, creating a multi-sensory exploration that used music driven color fields emanated from speakers which enabled participants to see music and hear colors.

This experiential event used inventive lighting, color washes that were digitized, vibrant design, fabrications and of course the latest in wireless sound technologies for the home or office.


We know intuitively that there is a connection between sensory stimuli and emotional reaction or response, so smart brands are using positive associations that evoke emotions from consumers from their brand.

We all know that emotions are subjective, but there is some practical takeaways and strategies that can be used for environmental design at events.


Philips Lighting developed a prototype lighting system for schools where teachers are given the ability to change and create different ambiences for different classroom activities throughout the school day.

It chose four different lighting settings- Calm, Focus, Energy, and Normal. These were all created using different forms of intensities and wavelengths of light, which would be chosen and aligned with the rhythm of the particular exercise in the classroom.


Scent and smell are considered the only sense that actually has a direct connection to our body’s limbic system, which is the area of the brain the processes emotions.

Studies have found that lemon scents increase concentration in people, while lavender and orange scents have been used to reduce patients’ anxiety in dental offices.

It is not by coincidence that hotels leave lavenders sprays and air fresheners near your bed to help with sleeping.


Studies say that the color blue can enhance creativity.

While the color Red can restrain creatively, it also is most associated with our ability to identify errors.

Experiential event designers are starting to use these new concepts and and experimenting with creating new customer touchpoints with ‘mood spaces’ that attempt to tap into previously ignored human psychological needs.

switch rooms

In Japan, there is upscale Shopping mall called ShinQ,  which has created luxury restrooms called ‘SwitchRooms’, which are designed to help female shoppers be-able to shift their state of mind from business to free time mode.

These special rooms offer soft lighting, have art displays designed to stimulate the senses, immersive atmosphere, 3D surround sound music that psychological tests have proven that to induce a state of relaxation.

In London department store Selfridges offered a place for shoppers to get away from the hustle and bustle of the street and (traditional mall settings).

It is encouraged that people turn off their cell phones, the room is a soft grayish off white color, with tranquil subdued lighting, which creates an ambience and a feeling of a calming meditative state.

When we are living a hyper stimulated world where silence and peace is a scarce resource. Developing calming spaces is an important aspect of the customer journey of shifting perceptions.


Brands are proficient at storytelling through traditional forms of media. Many brands find it difficult to transform this storytelling into actual experiences with their consumers.

It is not easy to convey abstract concepts such as integrity, honesty, progress into something tangible or physical. So advertisers, marketers and journalists for the last 50 years or so have been telling rather than showing what brands and corporations stand for.

Scientists have studied and determined that our sensory stimuli can process and convey abstract meanings and values that way more power than just words. So by crafting metaphors in consumer’s minds, brands can tap into a neglected but powerful subconscious resource.

Studies conducted at the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion laboratory, which they conduct research in the field of cognitive science, which can give experiential marketers insights into how shaping events for sensory design can help raise the values of your company from behind the screen and actually bring your message and story into peoples lives.

These are called “Embodied Metaphors” and are a ‘familiar language of the subconscious mind …which are the building blocks of cognition, perception and thoughts’.

Let’s discuss these concepts and metaphors in more detail.

Morality = verticality

How do humans define and relate to the metaphor of what morality is?  Some may describe the concept as depravity is down and virtue is up or heaven is up and hell is down.

The idea can be further related the some people who think of themselves as good moral people, may look down upon bad people who have no conscience or ethics. What we experience with our bodies can actually influence our actions.

Cambridge conducted a study in a shopping mall, which determined that consumers who were riding up an escalator were more likely to give money to a charity box than those who had just come down one.

Difficulty = harshness. Ease = smoothness.

Preparing or priming consumers withphysical sensations can have an influence on someone’s perception and decisions they make.

Another social experiment was conducted, which the participants viewed a task more difficult if, before undertaking it, they had to play with puzzle pieces that were covered in gritty sandpaper.

Here is an example of how the physical sensation of roughness translates feeling in the mind of disagreeability. So metaphorically think of the saying “ I had a rough day today” vs “everything went smooth today”.

Affection = warmth

Experiments have concluded that if a person is talking with a stranger, but is holding a hot cup of coffee in their hand, they will use nicer or warmer language to describe the interaction of meeting the person compared to those who don’t have a coffee.

They actually calculated the increase to more than 11 percent.  Another one concluded that people at a party that feel socially excluded will think the temperature of the room is lower than those who had been included in conversations.

These perceptions are borne through common emotional metaphor sayings such as, “cold hearted”, “warm hearted” or an “icy stare”.

Weight = importance, seriousness, competence

The concept or sense of the word ‘weight’ is thought of as an embodied metaphor for importance, trustworthiness and seriousness.

This was shown through an experiment that was able to alter people’s perception or judgements of what is important by getting them to answer questions using a heavier clipboard.

The study determined that holding the heavier clipboard increased their judgements on something having a higher monetary value, specifically valuing foreign currencies higher compared to those using a light clipboard.

Cognitive embodiment can also highlight the importance of context, as the term weight can also be thought as a burden, or responsibility.

How to translate values into experiences

translating embodied metaphors into experiences

First, there is the explicit description which covers the conscious, rational, abstracted, forgotten parts of the brain, then there is the implicit understanding which covers the unconscious, emotional, embodied, and remembered.

Here are two examples of brand’s that found a way to translate values into actual event experiences.

1. Identify the values and differentiator   

Microsoft was trying to find a creative way to convey that the Windows 8 operating system is ‘Fast and Fun’.

In Beijing, China for Nike’s annual Free Event, a creative agency Supermature wanted to find a way to showcase and celebrate the freedom of mind, body and self-expression to the consumers.

2. Figure out and identify metaphors that surround it  

In the case of Microsoft, it found a way for translating the metaphor of speed of the ‘OS’ system into something that was actual physical movement, fast slick and fluid.

Nike found a way to use the some of the metaphors of Freedom – which are weightlessness, gentleness, spaciousness, brightness.

Translate these into embodied experiences

Microsoft fast and run

Microsoft’s creative agency constructed a giant slide inside a shopping mall for consumers to ride on and engage with.

It used event photo activation marketing, as well with giving every slider a printed version and showing the faces on a large LED screen which was also shared on social media networks.

For Nike’s free event, it came up with a campaign called ‘Free oneself’, which resulted in a large glass square shaped cube that was filled with white downy feathers.

People threw the feathers in the air and played with them while they were inside it.

Free one self


Experiential event marketing is changing and getting more creative, we are in technological time where brands and consumers can make lasting connections with multi-sensory event marketing.

There are psychological and subconscious reasons that consumers make their purchase decisions.

Immersive events can be more effective than running a costly 30 second television ad which only tries to tell people about the benefits or features, compared to letting people interact and experience it themselves, which can give them their own ‘a-ha’ event with your products and brand.

10 very cool examples of experiential marketing