Interest in multisensory experiences, that is, experiences that involve multiple senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell) carefully considered and designed to evoke specific impressions, has been growing steadily in recent years.
I have been investigating how these multisensory experiences influence everything from how people eat food, to how companies can be smarter about product packaging, to how beer brands can be differentiated from one another. I have also taught business students the role our senses play in experience design, by developing ways to bring concepts from multisensory perception, marketing, and human-computer interaction together.
In this article, I want to share five key steps of an assignments I gave to my students, and which I use with firms, that helps them to prototype multisensory experiences in virtual reality for brands.
This task can be used by educators to illustrate the importance of mixed reality (involving offline and digital) multisensory experiences in branding, and by firms to develop multisensory experience prototypes for their customers.
Four steps for multisensory VR experiences
1) Select a brand and establish some of its key core characteristics
The first step consists of selecting the brand for which the experience will be designed and establishing its positioning and overall proposition. By describing the minimum viable brand (MVB), a tool designed for start-ups to define some key elements for their chosen brand, you can describe your chosen brand. To do this, you have to answer the following questions:
What does the brand stand for (essence)? What does the brand believe in (values)? What is the target market? What distinguishes the brand from others? What does the brand offer (primary experience)? What does the brand say and show (logos, packaging and other touch points)?
2) Identify the customer journey associated with the brand
This refers to the journey that the customers follow when interacting with the brand, which broadly speaking consists of pre-purchase, during purchase, and post-purchase. There are certain behaviours associated with each step such as searching for information with pre-purchase, choosing during purchase, and usage or service request during post-purchase.
Considering these behaviours, the idea is that you identify the key touchpoints (such as websites, apps, ads, packages) of your chosen brand associated with each stage. Now, you can reflect on the question: Do these touchpoints support the behaviours associated with each step of the customer journey of the brand? Do these touchpoints and their sensory elements convey the elements of the MVB?
3) Multisensory analysis / audit
Here, we use a modified version of the «sensory snapshot» technique to analyse how each of the major senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) are engaged in the key brand touchpoints associated with each stage of the customer journey. For example, if the brand’s website or app are key for the pre-purchase stage, we can analyse how they engage the senses.
The goal of this step is to analyse both how intensely the senses are stimulated (intensity sensory snapshot) and whether the sensory content is pleasant or not. Using this tool, you can analyse the «sensory profile» of a brand by marking from 0 (centre) to 5 (outer part of the visualisation below). In addition, you can describe how well the sensory elements of such touchpoints reflect your MVB.
4) Need identification and multisensory experience concept
Based on the information you have gathered in the three first steps, now you are ready to identify and specify a need for the brand and develop a multisensory VR experience concept that tackles it.
Examples of need identification include differentiating through a sense that is not considered, enhancing the experience in a particular stage of the customer journey, reinforcing brand knowledge, reducing sensory overload, communicating the existence of a new product and its sensory characters or increasing awareness.
When developing the VR concept, I always encourage people to capitalise on key concepts of multisensory experiences, which, among others, include spatiotemporal congruence, semantic congruence, crossmodal correspondences, sensory dominance, and sensory overload.
Broadly speaking, they refer to whether the different sensory cues used in the VR experience are aligned in terms of space and time (synchronised), meaning (convey the MVB), if they are compatible between them (balance between them), and whether one sense dominates the experience more than others.
Important tip: You do not want to risk overloading the user/consumer with sensory information!
5) Developing a multisensory VR experience prototype
In this task, I usually provide the participants with materials: Google cardboard-like VR headsets, 360 cameras (to record VR scenarios), smell kits (with scent samples), scissors, glue, post-its, markers, and different kinds of paper in various sizes (for textures and visuals).
In addition, the participants use their own smartphones to present the VR scenarios in the cardboard headset. Sidenote: Some students also bring their own materials such as fans for wind or aroma diffusing, hairdryer for wind and temperature, and noise cancelling headphones. Creativity is vital in this phase!
The VR scenarios can either be recorded with the 360-degree cameras or a 360-degree camera app for a smartphone (e.g. Cardboard Camera by Google), or selected from pre-existing scenarios from apps such as YouTube VR, Within VR, VeeR, or similar.
Once the prototype is developed, I usually ask the participants to test it with their target consumer group. Does it work? Does it deliver the intended impression? This gives them the opportunity to learn what works and what does not work, and to adjust their prototypes (perhaps use a different aroma, sound, or just remove a specific element of the experience).
After the prototype development
After testing the experience, I create the space for a «project fair» where there are different experience stations at various times, so that all participants can go on and try the different experiences. Here, we reflect on whether the concepts of multisensory experiences, in light of each of the prototypes.
After two doing this a few times, I have been positively surprised by the outcomes. Students have created experiences such as: 1) Enhancing the experience of perfumes by presenting them in different virtual atmospheres (say, a floral perfume in a flower field), 2) Optimizing tourism imagery for airlines by promoting destinations in VR environments together with their aromas, 3) Promoting alcohol free beer experiences in virtual reality remote gatherings, 4) Strengthening the brand associations of brands through multisensory VR storytelling, and 5) Bringing the multisensory experience of a new car to busy people, wherever they are, in VR.
All in all, this is a task that allows people to think about brands, their customers’ journeys, the multisensory profile of their touchpoints in the journey, and the role of multisensory experiences in creating strong brands.
Bitner, M. J., Ostrom, A. L. and Morgan, F. N. (2008). Service blueprinting: A practical technique for service innovation. California Management Review, 50(3), 66-94.
Lemon, K. N., & Verhoef, P. C. (2016). Understanding customer experience throughout the customer journey. Journal of Marketing, 80(6), 69-96.
Velasco, C. & Spence, C. (2019). The multisensory analysis of product packaging framework. In Velasco, C., & Spence, C. (Eds.) (2019). Multisensory packaging: Designing new product experiences. Cham: Palgrave MacMillan.