For a long time audio-visual advertising media were considered to be the most important marketing tools. Even though messages that you only hear and see are much more quickly forgotten than those that you can feel. Surveys from the world of neuroscience and cognition psychology not only lead to a rethinking of the image of the visually oriented human being, they also deliver important stimuli for product design and the creation of campaigns – as well as providing powerful arguments for the impact of haptic advertising.

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We start to feel, long before we can see or hear anything. Already in the eighth week of pregnancy the embryo that is only 2.5 cm in size, starts to haptically explore its habitat, for instance by touching the umbilical cord or itself. “The sense of touch precedes all of the other senses. The embryo doesn’t start to be able to hear until much later, and it can only see after it has been born,” explained the psychologist, Dr. Martin Grunwald, founder and director of the haptic research laboratory at the Paul-Flechsig Institute for Brain Research at the Leipzig University. “Small children always have the urge to touch everything and even put it in their mouth. That is because the lips and the tongue have extremely highly-developed touch sensors. We can differentiate between objects much better by touching things rather than just looking at them. The ability to process tactile stimuli and explore the environment haptically is a characteristic all living creatures possess. Even single cell organisms have a sense of touch.“

And even beyond the toddler stage, the special importance of tactile attributes continues: Throughout our entire lives, we try to understand things by touching, feeling and holding them. Of all the five senses, the sense of touch is the only one that is indispensable. “The sense of touch is the basis of our self-awareness and worldy wisdom,“ Grunwald stated. “It sensually conveys the distinction between us and those things that exist outside of our bodies. It not only allows us to perceive our environment, but at the same time also ourselves. It creates the relationship between us and the world we live in.“

For Grunwald, whose laboratory is unique in Europe and who has been a popular partner of a range of industry companies for many years, it is therefore clear that the touch of sense plays a central role among the senses: “The frequently repeated claim that people take in around 80% of all information visually, can be refuted by the fact that blind people are not at all more restricted cognitively speaking than people who can see. People can be born without being able to see or hear and still manage to exist, but they are without exception born with the ability to touch, and this remains to be the case throughout their lives – even if it might be slightly restricted as a result of illnesses such as diabetes.“

Underestimated haptics

In spite of the important role that the sense of touch plays in the perception of things, it is nevertheless still often underestimated and neglected when it comes down to marketing. Oral-visual aspects are still considered to be of the utmost importance: The emphasis lies on claims, slogans and wording on the one hand and visual aesthetics on the other. Addressing the other senses is often considered to be secondary – which is a mistake as the brain researcher and psychologist Prof. Dr. Markus Kiefer, Director of the Section for Cognitive Electrophysiology at the Psychiatric Clinic at Ulm University explained: “Our memory is not a computer that saves information in bits and bytes. The way we think is steered by our sensual experiences: As the English philosopher David Hume put it, what is in our minds, was previously in our senses. Language is initially nothing other than a collection of empty shells of characters without significance, which we only link with meaningful contents through the experiences of our senses with notions. And when we think about a term, as a rule we reactivate unconsciously every sensual experience that we made in connection with that given term. Knowledge is the simulation of previous experiences. This is why a communication that addresses the senses – i.e. which picks up on previous sensual experiences or enables new ones – is more successful than a communication that is limited down to the oral channel.“

Whereas visual and acoustic perceptions fade very quickly, tactile qualities create an important reinforcement of the stimulus – and this is where promotional products come into play: “Due to its graphic representation and sensual immediacy, haptic advertising corresponds very well with the structure of our way of thinking. Haptics is an extraordinarily important communication channel,“ explained Kiefer, whose central research themes include the consolidation of thinking in perception and action. “A personified message has better chances of being perceived and of being recalled than a purely oral message.“

Bernd Weber, Professor for Neuro-Economics at the Medical Faculty of Bonn University, confirmed this: “Haptic concreteness and immediacy has a stronger impact than something that we first have to imagine and that is only going to be accessible to us in the future. Our experiences becomes more graphic if we not only see and hear and object, but also feel it. We can perceive such information much more intensely.“

Grunwald is also convinced: “The impact of haptic advertising is extremely high. Tactile stimuli go much deeper than visual or auditory stimuli and they are recalled for much longer. Haptic advertising achieves a much higher degree of attention than other forms of advertising, because they corresponds to the human structure. It is much more effective physiologically speaking, to literally place items in people’s hands than to let them browse through a page.“

Especially when it comes down to abstract, complicated messages or those that require explanation or when one is communicating brand core values. “The implementation of promotional products is particularly important in fields such as the insurance or finance sectors in order to compensate for the lacking sensual experienceability of the products offered,“ commented Grunwald. On the other, industries that actually deal with very “sensual” material, such as the tourism industry for instance, profit from haptic aids – Grunwald: “Travel agents predominantly work with brochures, instead of intensifying people’s interest in other countries and cultures using haptic impressions, for example with promotional products made out of materials typical for certain cultural circles. There is still an enormous development potential in the field of haptic advertising.“

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Make it feel good

Regardless of which purpose a promotional product is designed for – one thing always applies: The product has to be carefully chosen and designed. Weber: “An important aspect of the promotional product is its product benefit. When we frequently use such an item in our everyday life, our memory has the opportunity to keep on storing the advertising message together with new associations. The frequency of a contact is a vital criterion for the sustainable impact of advertising.“

“Promotional products have to be semantically relevant,” pointed out Dr. Christian Scheier, Neuropsychologist and founder of the marketing consulting company, decode. “Openness is for example a popular self-characterisation of companies, however it is much more subtle and effective to convey this statement with a fold-out postcard rather than simply stating the fact. Because the recipient folds out the message himself and can consider it from several perspectives, he not only experiences openness, but is actually also actively involved in this act, which accelerates and intensifies the learning process.

A further example is the weight of the paper used for mailings: Heavy, i.e. high-quality paper evokes the perception of quality, which is in turn transferred over to the contents. Such reaction samples can be clearly demonstrated by response rates.“

Beyond the content and thematic-related association to the advertiser and his brand as well as the item being appropriate for the occasion it is being implemented for, the product also has to have the right haptic feel. Because this sends out subtle key stimuli to the recipient. Based on our experiences and haptic impression we often make assumptions regarding the characteristics of a product – Kiefer: “In a certain context we associate heaviness with quality, light-weighted items with cheapness. Observing such connotations is extremely important. The message that is to be communicated also has to be efficiently conveyed in a haptic manner. For instance things that are soft and warm trigger off the association of safety and trust, a slimy matter is perceived as being very unpleasant. What we perceive in the present is influenced by previous perceptions. Aesthetic experiences convey positive emotions – as do haptic impressions, when something ‘feels good’.”
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Many consumer brands let this knowledge flow into the design of their products: “Before a product is used, it is touched,“ stated Grunwald. “When the shape of the Coca-Cola bottle was changed, their turnover declined rapidly. The Rocher balls by Ferrero have angular-shaped packaging with many small edges, which haptically gets the user ready for the contents – a chocolate ball with small pieces of nuts sticking out. With its light, conical, very compact form, the text marker by Schwan Stabilo is perfectly aligned for its usage: A pen that one uses to highlight things with and rarely for writing letters, requires a different haptic structure than a ballpoint pen.“

Scheier, author of several books on neuromarketing, cited further examples: “The receptacle of a men’s shower gel by adidas resembles a bottle of motor oil – the vitalising effect of the shower is intensified by the association of starting up an engine. Through this type of unconsciously conveyed analogy to completely different and yet related positive experiences, the specific recompense character can be intensified. Wrigley’s offers chewing-gum in a type of pillbox, which supports the promise that the product as a good dental care effect.“ Knowledge that can be lucratively implemented during the development phase of promotional products.

Intimacy and possession

The more accurately a promotional product is tailor- made to meet the field of application, occasion and target group, the higher the product benefit, its functionality and quality, the longer the recipient will keep the item. And precisely this long-term presence is what allows haptic advertising to unfold its impact at many levels. On the one hand, people recall messages on promotional products much better than with any other medium: “Conceptualisation isn’t based on a unique occurrence,” said Kiefer. “We interact frequently with a promotional product and as a result of such repetitions we recall the advertising message more easily. This potential effect is reinforced by a connection between the promotional product and the brand or the product of the advertising company.“ Moreover, if we use an object often a feeling of trust develops and an additional relationship to this object evolves: “Surveys show that we like objects that we trust more than others,” explained Kiefer. “Memory is the formation of associations, so one can assume that the likeability of an item can also be transferred over to the advertising company .“

Furthermore, promotional products evoke what scientists call ownership effects: Unconsciously we believe that every item we own offers us an advantage. This is why we find it more difficult to giving up items we have held in the hand than those that we have only seen. “We know from behaviour surveys that we place a higher value on things that we own than they are actually worth,“ remarked Weber. “Daniel Kahnemann, who received the Nobel Prize for Economics, is one of the people who researched this so-called ownership effect. The experiment he carried out with two groups of students became famous. He gave each member of a group a cup that was to be sold to a member of the other group. The minimum price demanded by the cup owners was clearly higher than the price the buyer was prepared to pay. This surprising result was substantiated by numerous other surveys. As soon as something belongs to us, it gains in value for us – and we are then not as willing to give it away again. Deeply rooted loss aversions are what make us hang on to our belongings.“

A cognition that also applies the other way round as well: It is proven that buyers estimate the value of an onpack much higher than it actually is – and that the desire that the onpack generates, cannot be explained by its value alone, which is often only a few cents.
However, products that reach the target group by surprise and unexpectedly – like mailing boosters for example – appeal to our ownership instincts: “The contents of letters can be recalled much more readily, if they are accompanied by a small gift – but only if the recipient is surprised by it,“ said Weber. “It is the unexpected advantage of such a gift that triggers off reward relevant structures in the brain. Because in the course of our evolution learning, i.e. the particular observance of new useful information essential for our survival.“

This reference to evolution is perhaps the most useful and pragmatic line of thought that advertisers can put to use from the field of cognition and neuroscience: Namely, the cognition that we are all archaically structured. In spite of the high-technology era we live in, in spite of multi-channel strategies, neuromarketing and multisensory theories – ultimately the following recognition is true: Our brain and thus also our perception, our way of thinking, our feelings – and our affinity to haptic attributes – haven’t changed in ten thousands of years.