Atmospherics and the Digital Consumer
Updated: May 20, 2019
The product and the place
Marketers and strategists need to understand the relationship between the consumer and consumption environment because our job is is rooted in capturing the [selective] attention of the consumer. Considering that our short-term memory is limited to around seven chunks, with each roughly equaling to a word or familiar unit of information, we’re going upstream. How does the consumer process the brand message, feel about themselves and the product, and act after experiencing a brand “first hand” via atmospheric stimuli? Technology and digital media went through a bit of a learning curve in this space - especially in the last 20 years or so.
We experience the world through their subjective cognition and senses, and our minds automatically label things when provoked. These labels don’t become ‘decisions’ without a ‘go’ or ‘no go’ message from an affective function of the brain (god bless Kahneman, too). Many scholars studied the conduit between affective processes and consumer experiences, and it was Kotler who proposed the atmospherics concept in the 70s. It’s the discipline that studies the “place” of a product as the most significant feature of it: in particular the atmosphere being even more significant than the product itself. The atmosphere or the place does, kind of, become the primary product - more than just means to an end.
Even when our wettest sci-fi tech dreams come true one day, the dynamic of the above premise won’t shift but they will expand, because we’re puny humans! We owe a lot to store atmospherics (Above: The Causal Chain Connecting Atmosphere and Purchase Probability (Kotler, 1973) for how we embrace [multi]sensory marketing today; the kind of marketing that engages the consumers’ senses and/to affect their behaviours, perception and judgment.
Seeing is believing
There are primary elements affecting the atmosphere in a setting, such as colours, light, smell and temperature of placement. Earlier consumer psychology studies established our basic concept of choice and colour’s connection, which will not only change how the place is viewed, also skew how products are experienced, and chosen.
Today we know that atmospheric cues are not interdependent, and/but they can interact with each other (and so they should). There’s the ensemble effect that was proposed by Bell et al., highlighting the necessity for coherence of the cues that shape consumer perception and active choice.
The food industry was an easy and predictable win here, to take as a case study... There are complex variables at play for an engaging experience at a restaurant. We see that the consumer experience becomes very complex in this context. Ambient smell as well as the scent of the food served is known to enhance experiences around products that don’t smell of anything - such as ice cream, or even fashion retail as it’s widely used (ever noticed the smell at H&M stores?). Ambient smell has evident impact on consumer experience and recall. Olfactory cues are proven to be the most effective, they are accentuated when aromas/scent is combined with visual or semantic stimuli.
You can see that the world is a consumer psychologist’s oyster with the gender, cultural, demographic, age - even situational mood differences at play [at any given point - hard work!]. Some studies only scratch the surface but provide interesting food for thought e.g. evidence that presence of gender-congruent ambient scent ('rose maroc' for men, 'vanilla' for women) made respective shoppers spend more time, purchase more and spend more money in those stores.
Park that - there’s associations at play on an individual level, beyond gender, of course. Sexuality comes into the scene. Scholars like Shiv and Berger revealed in their research that visual sexual cues impact product preferences in the food industry in particular. Yeah, the Magnum ads. Exposure of sexually arousing images tended to trigger an increase in food product preference. This is beyond advertising and visual cues though, it’s very well fitted to branding strategy too - if you’re into your healthy treats, you will know frozen yoghurt brands like Snog, Lick, Frisky etc. – all these names deliberately target specific tactile and sexual sensations, and they work. Snog frozen yoghurt stores in the UK have an intense vanilla/cookie ambient scent, bright magenta walls and loud, clubby music… It’s not a coincidence.
From world-wide-web to experience
Digital media is stripped brands off of what they can achieve through atmospherics because the ‘experience’ paradigm shifted… After the noughties and a bit of a lull with an overemphasis on graphic design alone, brands are trying to be more hands-on with technology, racing and falling over each other to do the thing that wows consumer experience. The type of music played in a servicescape makes a difference for sure, and whether it’s foreground vs. background music, the high/low tempo and loud volume of music - even silence in urban landscape architecture. Music is proven by research to fluctuate dwell time. No surprise - if you know your target very well, especially. Academia also proved, however, that incongruent types of music may adversely affect the consumer decisions due to the absence of the ensemble effect.
Do our senses have limits?
While there is sufficient evidence that a matching ensemble effect will create more salient experiences and purchase, there are counter arguments discussing sensory overload and overstimulation by environmental cues in servicescapes. For example, the ideal for a positive consumer reaction (remember the amount of stimuli we can process) is two atmospheric cues - any more than two triggered negative perception or confusion. If not well-thought, the amount and intensity of the stimuli may actually dent satisfaction and perception. Brands should not confuse sensory arousal with sensory overload… It’s unproductive practice as too many stimuli discounts the message. No eyes bigger than tummy, please.
“Catch me if you can.”
We are in a different place in the 21st century. Technology is facilitating, and challenging consumer-brand interactions. But we are in the comfort of our ‘mobile’ selves with our devices at our disposal. So ‘place’ in conventional marketing interpretation is now obsolete: it's moving. This shouldn’t mean that brands are out of the firing line - in fact, it's never been more intense. So much to unpack and decode about consumers’ whereabouts and states of mind... You and I - we’re not static.
Personality traits’ and cultural differences’ links have not been extensively studied in the context of atmospherics and [multi]sensory marketing. Longitudinal studies are also lacking, to analyse situational factors that can alter the reception and processing of cues or brand messages. There is/can be a lag between product encounter and changing emotional states irrespective of the non-place - and research in isolation can only take us so far. The answer? Maintain the consumer curiosity. It’s fascinating.