But First, Coffee

Have you ever realized that there are few Starbucks ads on billboards, in a newspaper or on posters in places where you can expect to see advertisements for most other establishments, like McDonald’s?  The Starbucks Corporation and its successful marketing strategies are definitely something that should learn about. In this article, we’re going to try and understand what marketing techniques Starbucks uses to reach out and attract millions of people worldwide.


Starbucks wanted to create an attractive and comfortable space perfect to be the place between work and home. Indeed, the doors of the coffee shop chain are opened not only to offer coffees, but also to create a powerful sensorial experience. In other words, as well as coffee, the Starbucks’ marketing strategy can be experienced with the five senses.

Let’s start with smells. They stimulate certain areas of the brain responsible for creating emotions and memories. The human nose can identify and recall as many as 10,000 scents and as much as 75 percent of our emotions are generated by what we smell. Using scent, then, to enhance a brand is nothing to sniff at. When selling a home, we are encouraged to bake cookies just before an open house or light scented candles to generate positive feelings from prospective buyers. Starbucks certainly understands the olfactory benefit of scent – “an atmosphere really special, the coffee smell, it has a certain something that makes you feel comfortable, relaxed.” The smell of coffee is not accidental, it comes from fresheners placed strategically to ‘invite’ us to fancy a coffee in a very subtle way.

Sound has the power to impact our mood and sway our buying habits. Researchers have found that the pace of background music affects customer perceptions of wait time, spending and turnover in stores and restaurants. In other words, fast music decreases spending in a retail environment, but increases  turnover in restaurants. The Starbucks’ music selection is a key in order to create this atmosphere that invites to relax while you are reading the newspaper, have a chat with your friends or even work with your laptop.

In other words, companies, like Starbucks, that are more concerned with increasing the spend-per-customer ratio, use slower music to create longer dining times, leading to a 29 percent increase in the average bill according to one experiment.

The urge to pick up, touch and test things is huge, and retailers count on that in their display strategies. Our hands are an important link between our brains and the world. In fact, as humans we have more tactile receptors in our little fingers alone than we do on our entire back. These receptors help us explore objects in our surroundings. When we encounter a pleasant touch, the brain releases a hormone called oxytocin, leading to feelings of well-being and calm. In research terms, this sense of touch is referred to as our “haptic sense”. Researchers have found that shoppers who touch a product are more likely to purchase, even as it relates  to impulse buys. They’ve also found, logically, that the ability to touch a product increases our confidence in the item’s quality.

In this case, Starbucks’s merchandising is placed close to the casher area, which allows you to approach to the goods while you are queuing and, of course, to touch them. This opportunity of experiencing the articles is so effective that, even at the risk of being stolen, Starbucks keeps its merchandising ‘close enough to touch’.

We’re glossing over the last two senses with just a few obligatory comments. Sight, of course, is the most common marketing medium. Color, architecture and graphic design theory are all well-studied in the marketing industry and fill countless articles. The very well-known logo of the twin-tailed siren has accomplished its mission to be recognised without the need to include the words ‘Starbucks’ and ‘Coffee’. Also, what definitively catches our eyes are the comfortable sofas that are part of the cosy design of the furniture’s stores and reinforce the concept of a place between home and work.

And taste, while of great importance to edible brands, doesn’t fit well into the multi-sensory branding programs of other products. Yet, have you ever been offered a small piece of brownie just when you have pop into a Starbucks coffee shop?

As we’ve seen, the senses influence our emotions and decision-making. Touch, smell, taste, sound, and the look of a product all play an important role in our perceptions, attitudes and consumption of a product. Understanding those roles provides a valuable advantage in today’s marketplace.

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Sniffing Out Information

Sight, sound, and touch are the senses we are the most aware of. Yet, the more primitive senses of taste and smell are in many ways equally essential to survival. Now, if you spend a few minutes observing dogs meeting in the park or a pet mouse wandering around the living room, you may be reminded of the importance of smell – recognizing food that is palatable, nutritional, and safe.


While olfaction may have evolved as a mechanism for evaluating whether a potential food is edible, it also has come to serve important social and marketing functions. Just think of the endless display of perfumes and colognes that line the first floor of every department store – a coincidence ? I think not. 

Anatomical and lesion studies indicate that the primary olfactory cortex is located in the ventral region of anterior temporal lobe. After compiling the results of imaging studies, it seems that an intimate relationship between smelling and sniffing exists. Indeed, subjects were scanned while they were exposed to either nonodorized, clean air or one of two chemicals, vanillin or decanoix acid. You can all guess that the first smell is of vanilla, but any idea what the latter one is ? Well it’s a chemical that smell like crayons. 

The odor-absent and odor-present conditions alternated every forty seconds and, throughout the entire scanning session, the instruction – “Sniff and respond, is there an odor ?” – was presented every eight seconds. In doing so, the researchers sought to identify the brain areas associated with sniffing or smelling. 

Surprisingly, the results of this study suggest that the primary olfactory cortex might be more part of motor system for olfaction. Yet, upon further study of the primary olfactory cortex in the rat, this phenomena became clear. The studies with the rat have shown that these neurons habituate quickly. Which means that each sniff represents an active sample of the olfactory environment, and that the primary olfactory cortex plays a critical role in determining if a new smell is present. 

The importance of sniffing for olfactory perception is explained by the fact that our ability to smell is continually being modified by changes in the size of the nasal passages. In fact, our nostrils switch back and forth, with one larger that the other for a few hours and then the reverse. Why would our nostril behave this way ? 

Well, one hypothesis is that olfactory perception depends not only on the intensity of the odor but also on the efficiency with which we sample the odor. As a result, the brain is provided with slightly different images of the olfactory environment. Also, asymmetrical representations are the rule in human cognition, perhaps providing a more efficient manner of processing complex information.

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