What makes people devote entire careers to a one single field of research? For Klemens Knoeferle, you could say that his path began already at the age of five.

“I do love research, but I wouldn’t like to miss teaching. The two balance each other, because research can sometimes be a bit lonely. It’s a kind of an introvert task, while in teaching, you have to be extravert. You have to communicate, involve everybody and fill the room with energy. Sometimes it’s really nice to go in to the lecture room and change your role by 180 degrees. So I really like both. But of course more time to do research is always welcome (laughs)”

This is how Klemens feels about his job. At least that’s what he answers when asked what he likes the most. Klemens is originally from Ingolstadt in Germany, and has been at BI since 2013. Prior to that, he was doing his PhD in St. Gallen, Switzerland, and a one-year post doc at Oxford. A “real”, tenure-track position was the logical next step. He knew that Norwegian business schools had decent research funding, and didn’t mind the cold climate (he’s not a big fan of heat). So he applied and got the job as an assistant professor.

Head of new research lab

Today, Klemens is an Associate Professor at the Department of Marketing and co-founder of the Center for Multisensory Marketing. He is also in charge of BI’s newest research lab, where we met to talk about what actually goes on there. He explains that BI needed a new lab because the existing lab hit its capacity limits, but also because the existing lab did’nt offer enough flexibility when it comes to the types of studies one can run there.  

“The existing lab is essentially a big computer room. Such a lab is ideal to run studies in which participants fill in questionnaires or do some tasks on a computer. But researchers increasingly need to run more varied and sometimes more sophisticated studies in order to be able to publish in highly-ranked journals. The new lab enables researchers at BI to run many different types of studies. For instance, we can now run studies in which participants interact with one another, such as teamwork and negotiation studies, because the new lab has several sound-proof rooms in different sizes. We can also include more sophisticated and accurate tools in our experiments, such as video cameras, eye tracking, and physiological sensors that measure heartbeat, blood pressure, or electrodermal activity [essentially a measure of how much one sweats on one’s palms, which is a proxy of physiological arousal].”

In general, the new lab is a much more controlled environment. Its individual cubicles are fully separated so that the participants cannot see or hear each other. Many studies require such a setup because participants’ responses can be invalidated even by tiny distractions. This is especially true for studies in multisensory marketing, and more generally in consumer psychology, which are Klemens’ main fields of research. He explains how the two fields are related:

“In consumer psychology, we try to find out how people think, feel, and behave in all sorts of consumption-related situations, and especially why they think, feel, and behave in the ways they do. We might study shopping behaviors, decision-making biases, persuasive effects of advertising, the impact of technology on consumers, and many other phenomena. In sensory marketing, on the other hand, we look at the sensory processes that occur in people’s bodies and brains—the way your vision works, the way your hearing works, and so on—and examine how these processes influence consumer behaviour. So the two fields definitely overlap to some extent.”

"And after that, I kept expanding my topics. I was like, okay, why should I only look at sound. How does sound interface with vision, for instance? With touch, with smell… all the other senses."

Klemens Knoeferle

Associate Professor

From Bach to Business

The story of how Klemens became interested in these fields of research is somewhat complicated, and begins at the time when he was finishing his master degree in musicology:

“So, I was always interested in music and sound—I started playing the violin when I was five years old. Then I played and played and played, at some point up to four hours a day. I first wanted to study music as a diploma in Germany, that is basically what you do if you want to become a professional musician. But then I was like, is that really what I want to do with my life? Mastering these 40 centimeters between my chin and my left hand? Instead of music, I chose to study musicology—which is like history of the arts, with a focus on music. But it wasn’t quite clear what kind of job I could do with that afterwards. Still try to become a musician? A manager of a concert or opera house? A music journalist? None of these options seemed too intriguing, and in any case I was more interested in the links between music and business. So I ended up doing a master thesis in collaboration with Audi with a focus on how they can use sound in their strategic brand management. The technical term for that is “corporate sound”.

Audi ended up using Klemens’ paper as a starting point to develop a brand sound tool that included branded musical instruments and recorded car sounds of every Audi model. This sound library could be used by advertising firms and other suppliers to give the brand a recognizable and characteristic sound in advertising, multimedia apps, showrooms, and trade fairs. Klemens realised that he wanted to continue working at the intersection between music and business, and he went on to do a PhD at the University of St. Gallen on how sound is used in marketing and how it can influence consumers.

“And after that, I kept expanding my topics. I was like, okay, why should I only look at sound. How does sound interface with vision, for instance? With touch, with smell… all the other senses,” he continues.

While the transition from musicology to marketing and psychology may sound smooth and gradual, it came with many challenges. Being trained in the humanities, Klemens had no background whatsoever in statistics and empirical research methods. Switching from a mainly qualitative to a mainly quantitative field—from interpretations and verbal descriptions in musicology to empirical studies and mathematical data analysis in marketing—was a hard learning experience.

“I still remember my first stats class at St. Gallen. For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to start with an advanced course on latent variable modelling. It wasn’t. The whiteboard was huge and full of Greek letters and formulae, and I didn’t understand any of it. I was completely out of my depth. It took quite a while to get up to speed, but after a few years, things started to make sense. My message to all statistics newbies is: Never give up!”

The consumers’ strange behaviour

After shifting his focus from music to marketing, Klemens is now generally working within the broader field of consumer behaviour. In his latest research project, however, music is still a central component.

“My most recent paper is about music in stores. We basically ran a big field experiment that was designed to test whether music can make crowded retail environments more bearable for customers, and more lucrative for retailers.”

After playing different kind of music in the stores and measuring crowding levels for several weeks, the results surprisingly showed that when stores where crowded, fast music increased per-person spending, relative to no music or slow music. The combination of crowded stores and fast music was in fact so successful that it outperformed store conditions with less crowding (and no, slow, or fast music).

See also: Lady Gaga boosts sales when shop is full of customers

In another recent project with Chi Hoang and Luk Warlop (both at BI), the researchers are looking at sharing behaviour in the context of smart products like Alexa, Siri, or autonomous cars.

“What we find in several experiments is that when people perceive that a product they own is ‘smart’, their willingness to share this product with others is reduced. The data suggest that this is not because smart products are perceived as more valuable or fragile, but because their smartness triggers the concern that their ‘character’ might change while exposed to a borrower. So we basically look at two ongoing developments: On the one hand, the ever-increasing smartness of products, and on the other hand the sharing economy. And we show that these two developments don’t go well together.”

Powerful insights

When it comes to business relevance, it seems self-evident that Klemens’ research in the fields of consumer behaviour and sensory marketing can create real value. As he puts it, every business has customers, and understanding how they think and make decisions would appear to be useful.

“As for sensory marketing: Anything you perceive as a consumer, you perceive through your senses. So whenever you experience a store, or a product, or a website, it happens because you use your eyes, ears, nose, and so on. What we are studying would then seem to be the main and only interface we have with the world at large. That seems pretty important to me.”

Klemens also points out that sensory marketing research does not always aim to directly increase sales. In another project he has been working on together with his colleague Carlos Velasco (also at BI), they have looked at how our sense of taste links to our sense of sound.

“What we look at is how different sounds may be used to express different tastes. It turns out we can create music that people would systematically judge to be “sweet”, “sour”, “salty”, or “bitter”. The idea would be that you could also enhance pleasure if you eat a meal and accompany it with some congruent music. That way, you can create a multisensory dining experience.”

It seems that when it comes down to who benefits the most from consumer behaviour research there is no easy answer. Whether it is consumers, marketers, or both, Klemens says that there is always some kind of responsibility in terms of ethical concerns.

“One view I often encounter is that our findings can help marketers to “trick” people into buying more, or to make specific kind of decisions. On the other hand, if normal people know about such findings, such knowledge may also help them counter these influences to some extent […] Most research can be used both to the good and bad of people.”

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