How brands can get under our skin

24th February, 2014 by Anna Simpson

Our sensory experience is fundamental to our physical and mental wellbeing – but too often brands treat it as an after-thought, says Anna Simpson, author of ‘The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire’.

There’s a house on Long Island that can keep you young. At least, that’s what the architects claim – and it’s no small matter in an ageing world. If I asked you what you’d look for in your ideal home, you might reply ‘a space to unwind’, or ‘a little love and laughter’. I’d be surprised if you came back with ‘rejuvenation’: a word used to sell face cream, not housing.

But perhaps we don’t give enough thought to the way in which our minds and bodies are constantly responding to the world around us. What an opportunity for brands! We may not know we want houses that keep us young, but it would make a great selling point in an estate agent’s window.

The Bioscleave House in New York was built by Madeline Gins, an American architect-artist, and her husband – the late Japanese architect Shusaku Arakawa. Undulating textured floors, curiously shaped rooms on split levels, windows where you wouldn’t expect and hard-to-reach light switches keeps residents on their toes, and an absence of closed doors forbids the sense of a private den. Comfort, its designers claim, is a precursor to death.

Vincent Stanley, Vice President of Marketing at the outdoor clothing firm Patagonia, agrees. “I think we’re too comfortable”, he told me, in an interview for my book, The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire. “The opposite of comfort isn’t distress. We all know we feel better if we exercise, if we engage.”

Stanley wants people to associate the brand Patagonia with the stimulus of being in the great outdoors. “When someone walks into our store, I want them to feel a bit of relief from the street. I want them to feel that on the website too.” You log on and find yourself gazing into a crevice with someone hanging off a cliff face. Scroll to the next clip and someone is plunging into a cool mountain pool.   

If you’re in Paris this week or next, there’s a show where you have to cycle vigorously to get a huge neon artwork to light up. It reads: “Actually doing the things I set out to do increases my overall levels of satisfaction.” Keep pedalling, a little harder, and it says “Seek discomfort.” This is ‘The Happy Show’, by Stefan Sagmeister, a companion exhibition to his film about the pursuit of happiness, which he sees more as an endurance sport than a destination.

Brands sometimes treat our sensory experience of the world as an after-thought: scented tissue paper to wrap your purchase, a colour that shouts out from the shelf. These little touches do make a difference, but do they go far enough?

Our aesthetics are incredibly important to us: they represent our mental and emotional engagement with our physical realities, and the desire for this to be a positive experience. One brand that is taking to heart the full sensory journey it can offer is the baby food specialist Ella’s Kitchen. It aims to help little people explore and expand their tastes from their very first meals – not just as each mouthful slips over their tongues, but in the colours, smells and even sounds of good, fresh ingredients. The website offers a range of playful ideas to help parents with the challenge of weaning – from making pasta-shape maracas to introducing new scents on bathroom sponge dipped in vanilla essence or lemon juice.

Another is the award-winning Indian interior design company Wrap. It caters to India’s growing upper class, which combines an appetite for contemporary design with a deep connection to ancient tradition.

“In India, we have old families with a very strong past that brings them from the villages to the urban centres”, founder Gunjan Gupta explains to me. “We believe in bringing their story to the forefront of the design process.”

She describes a renovation project that brought together pietra dura (artisanal stonework) from Agra and gilding from Jaipur, within the framework of vástu sástra – the Hindi science of construction to ensure rhythm and balance in life. At the heart of her design principle is the belief that everyone has their own aesthetic: if you’re able to get to this, she confides, then you can design something with longevity. “This is design for posterity, for future generations. It’s not a trend.”

Kids often get to know someone new by asking about their favourite colour. For brands looking to build relationships beyond the next season, it may not be a bad place to start.

This blog includes edited extracts from Chapter 3 of The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire by Anna Simpson, published this March by Palgrave Macmillan. Anna is the Editor of Forum for the Future's magazine, Green Futures. The book will be launched in London on 18 March. If you would like to come, please sign up here.

Photo credit: Photos.com/Getty Images/Thinkstock

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