by Marguerite de Villiers. We as marketers need to take consumers’ senses into consideration if we hope to communicate effectively. But how are products that require particular senses marketed? When the channel is limited to sight and sound, as so many are, how do we represent the absent senses?

Humans are multisensorial beings. Some might argue that our sense are severely limited in many ways, but none would disagree that it is through our senses (and there are more than the five of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell which are usually taught to us in school) that we experience, interpret and express our world — it is how we interact with others and invest meanings in our actions.

Absent presence in multisensorial marketing is the technique of representing absent senses in the campaigns we develop. The challenge we are faced with is to use the senses in creative ways; to change the way we communicate and interpret meaning; and to transform the consumer experience.

Here are three very good examples of how some smart marketers have met the challenge.

Making sense of the senses

Our senses connect our external and internal worlds; they mediate our understanding and moderate our experiences. We decode meaning through our network of connections. These interpretations are influenced by our pre-existing knowledge, memories, preferences, assumptions, and experiences.

The role of the marketer and advertiser is to assist the consumer in making meaningful connections and associations. For example, Hennessy’s Odyssey XO short film takes the viewer on a journey through the product’s different flavour notes (called chapters here). Taste is communicated in a complex and layered audio-visual way to immerse the consumer in a multisensorial world.

Sensing the unseen

An absent presence is when the original object is absent, but something else is present in its place. When a product that requires taste or scent or touch is absent, we can reconstruct the experience of it through sight and sound. The marketer’s role is to mould the consumer’s interpretation and experience of what is being represented in creative ways.

Consider the Checkers’ Champion Boerewors campaign as an example. It sells the sizzle — both through the sound of boerewors on the braai, and in the repetition of the word ‘sizzle’ in a song. This activates specific taste and scent associations, drawing on the consumer’s existing knowledge and experience of a braai.

Transcending the senses

Marketing establishes a connection or communication between the external (a brand, a product, a service) and the internal (the consumer; their needs, desires, and sensory perception). It is no longer enough for us to market or advertise in one way — we need to make use of different senses to promote an absent product.

Consumers are increasingly looking for more holistic, innovative, and immersive experiences. Cue the Netflix Switch — it dims the lights, silences calls, orders takeaways, and turns on your shows. It is a bigger experience than just viewing; it incorporates the sense of touch. It transforms the concept of ‘Netflix and chill’ into a reality.


Marguerite de VilliersMarguerite de Villiers is an anthropologist at strategic marketing consultancy, Added Value.

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One reply on “Analysis: Multisensorial marketing — defining the absent presence”

  1. Sensory perception occurs in two layers in advertising:

    1) The primary layer in which the heuristic, intertextual and symantic associations between the product and the consumer – to which you refer – are made.
    2) The secondary layer which supplements the primary layer e.g. background music, setting, characters, narration etc.

    Many marketing campaigns have successfully exploited the primary layer e.g. Axe deoderant, Air Waves chewing gum, various fast food and beverage brands. Although in many cases (particularly today) the secondary layer is tragically neglected.

    Take jingles and background music, for instance. Industry professionals have confessed to spending all of 10 minutes deciding on the background music, usually settling on library tracks or composed jingles. The result is the same: generic, pop-esque, low-brow music with no heuristic association other than the fact that it sounds like any current iTunes chart topper (also mind-numbingly generic, but for another conversation).

    Only on the rare occasion does the marketer invoke a sense of nostalgia or intertextual association via the incorporation of “old” music e.g. blues, funk, jazz, country, folk, ethnic or orchestral.

    Another example of neglected secondary perception is the voice-over narration. Radio adverts, in particular – whose only sensory medium is sound – waste their dialogical components with sketches intended to portray a sardonic application of their respective products. In most cases I, personally, find these sketches or conversations to be un-funny, irritating and, in some instances, offensive.

    A more considered approach to these secondary perceptive layers – with their own potential symantic, intertextual and heuristic associations – may allow for a broader sphere of sensory influence, given the limited sensory potential of the advertising medium.

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