To Change the Perception of Your Brand, Start With the Senses

To Change the Perception of Your Brand, Start With the Senses

Published in The Attention Architect, a newsletter on LinkedIn, March 8, 20 22

"Whatever happened to that place?" Julia asks her coworkers as they debate where to go for a special Friday lunch, "I used to love going there, but then it went downhill." 

"I saw a banner on my way home the other day that said it's ‘under new management,’" Bill remarked, "Perhaps we ought to give it another try?" So that's exactly what they did. 

Julia, Bill, and two other colleagues returned to the restaurant that Friday with newfound hope and anticipation that the last people that screwed everything up were gone. But it didn't take long for something to trigger the memory of their last bad experience. Unfortunately, that negative memory overpowered the new management team's painstaking effort to re-win their patronage through a menu upgrade, higher quality ingredients, and an extra level of customer service.

After the check arrived, everyone walked away from the table with a bad taste in their mouth. 

"Are we forever tarnished?" the new manager, Pierre, asked me, sounding defeated and at the end of his rope. "Perhaps this place has a bad omen, and it's time we change the name or move elsewhere! I'm not sure what else we can do to restore customers' faith in us.”

Despite how many of those pre-made "Under New Management" banners the sign companies sell every year, they're never impactful enough to entirely change a customer's memory and perception of a place gone wrong. 

"But if not a banner, then," Pierre asks me desperately, "What does it take to change a customer's mind?"

"An unforgettable experience that is bigger, better, and more memorable than the previous image that currently owns the mental real estate in your customer's mind," I replied.


The common mistake many business owners make is buying into the oft-stated belief that "quality" and "service" are the only two things that matter to customers. But as we all know, quality and service are highly subjective factors that are nearly impossible to reach consensus. Some people like their water glass filled often; others want the waiters to stop interrupting them. Some want the lights or music down low, while others wish to crank the dials up. Some patrons like a lot of butter, salt, and garlic in their meals; others want it plain and simple. 

The thing that matters most to customers is this: their perception of "quality" and "service."

But the process of steering perceptions in the right direction is a frequently misunderstood dimension for most businesses to wrap their head around, much less know how to adjust.

What restaurateurs—as well as retail stores, museum directors, mall owners, office developers, and anyone else with a venue as part of their business model—need is to become more skilled at the art and science of "perception management" and "perception design." 


Start with their senses first! 

Far too many companies try to influence customers by appealing to the customer's intellectual or rational mind. They talk in conscious facts and figures and through cerebral words and messages. But this is not how ideas get deeply embedded into our heads. Nor is it the best way to truly change or shift an entrenched perception. 

As sensory-beings, every idea, concept, or description of an offering we hold in our head first enters our minds through sensory receptors or sensations.

While they are separate processes, our senses and perceptions work in a hand and glove fashion to help us interpret, digest, and make sense of the physical world. 

The primary job of our senses is to evaluate situations and gather relevant information about the physical world. I say relevant because our brains are exceptionally efficient and selective about paying attention to only the most critical aspects of an environment—such as movement, change, and, most importantly, enhancements and impediments to life.

Many things Pierre worked so hard to improve in his restaurant were not recognized or picked up by his customers' senses. 

This lack of recognition is frustrating. But it's not uncommon in my line of work to help businesses gain the right kind of attention and keep it.

While senses make up half the equation, the job of our other half, perceptions, is to organize, index, and catalog these sensations in our minds. But it's important to recognize that our senses are the primary instruments that inform our perceptions. Therefore, if you want to shape or influence a customer's perception, you need to first start with the senses. 


Although businesses consistently overlook and ignore the senses, the way we learn, think, catalog, and communicate things in our world is chock full of sensory language and metaphors. 

For instance, we might say that a person is slick, slimy, hard as a rock, thick-headed, stubborn, dull, or keeps his nose to the grindstone. These sensory-based descriptions help us communicate complex ideas to others while also helping us remember and recall their characteristics, personality, and attitudes for ourselves. 

Take a moment to think about a brand you like or don't like. I bet you think of sensory-based words, qualities, and descriptions about them without hesitation.

During our strategy and design for Whole Foods in the early 2000s, many non-customers described the brand as fluffy, earthy, and hippy. One memorable customer we talked to went as far as to refer to the people that manage and go to Whole Foods as those "bean stringing, bark-eating, Birkenstock-wearing liberals from Berkeley."  

While we disagreed with his harsh perception of the brand culture, his description was so full of visual imagery—some of which had a grain of truth to it—that we involuntarily laughed at his remark. Twenty years later, I still can't get that sticky image out of my head. 


Just about every mature company wishes they could have a second grand opening, an opportunity to correct the errors and sins of that past that every organization makes. But how can we get a re-start?

One of the critical exercises we regularly do with companies and institutions is to help them describe and synthesize their brand into iconic, symbolic sensory terms. Once we determine this proprietary sensory language, we then try to manifest those qualities within the environment to reinforce and "tangiblize" the perceptions we want to highlight and decrease those that don't help. 

Ultimately we want succinct icons and symbols of the brand that the public can visualize and understand in less than 2 seconds.

That's all the time we allow ourselves in our experiential design interventions. 

For instance, in our work for Nabisco, the increasing customer image of the brand's cookie and cracker products was described by parents (and moms particularly) as slick, zoomy, cartoony, and at the worst extreme, "sugar poison for kids." 

Where did this image come from? The media, ads, generational changes, and packaging mostly, all of which, further cemented the negative halo effect into the customers' minds.  

Although Nabisco had taken out a long list of unhealthy ingredients many years prior, they still couldn't get credit for the positive changes and improvements they made to their products. Nor could they eliminate the negative stereotypes that many customers attributed to the brand. The image of Dr. Oz and other media outlets proclaiming, "Don't let your kids eat trans fatty acids!" was more prominent and stickier than the prior positive image customers held about the products. 

As a side note, it's worth mentioning that the zoomy, cartoony fonts and graphics of the established package design played right into the hands of the vocal critics and reinforced these negative images, which is part of the reason traffic counts down the cookie and cracker aisled dropped by half.


During our client and customer interviews, we were surprised to learn that even health-obsessed customers didn't want to see the Nabisco products—such as Oreos and Nilla Wafers—banned for life entirely. Most adult customers had fragments of nostalgic stories about their fond memories of these products, especially Oreo cookies, but they wanted them used in balance.

As my team and I delved deeper into these stories, we wanted to know more about where these customers kept their cookies and crackers, where they ate them, and when they enjoyed them. The answers to those questions helped us realize that the best environment for the cookies and crackers was not inside a zoomy, cartoony world. Instead, the right mind state lay buried and dormant in a more wholesome place that we called "kitchen table wisdom." That rich, robust, and vivid place had sensory artifacts and symbols such as the kitchen table, cookie jars, rolling pins, cupboards, gingham patterned tablecloths, hanging pots and pans, and other loaded psychological cues and triggers.

My team and I then recreated an imaginary realm we called, not surprisingly, "Mom's Kitchen." Over several prototype installations of this new concept, we increased sales double digits in each location. It's worth noting we didn't change the product, pricing, service levels, or packaging (much as I wanted to), just the environment and sensory cues and triggers. 

The sales gain was exceptional, but the Mom's Kitchen concept also increased customer dwell times, product experimentation, engagement in the brand, basket sizes, and traffic counts down the cookie and cracker aisle. Not only did this more emotional "brand realm" lift Nabisco's sales, but the entire cookie and cracker aisle altogether, which was great for their clients—the grocery store—and revitalizing the category. 

It doesn't matter whether you manage the cookie and cracker aisle in a grocery, restaurant, urban district, museum, or college campus; if you want to change the perception of your brand, start with the senses first.


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