To impart a distinctively “Asian” appeal to its brand and support its dynamic, upmarket look and feel, UOB Privilege Reserve at Marina Bay Sands retail mall ‘The Shoppes’ recently embarked on a bold foray into what has come to be known as “sensory branding”. Designed like a First Class Lounge on the upper deck of a Boeing Dream Liner in the year 2030, one could claim that UOB at MBS is the company’s first ever ‘concept project’ in what is usually regarded as a restrained and conservative industry.

The bank branch brought in environmental brand consultant Equal Strategy to help impart a unique set of sensory touch points to the branch environment. Equal Strategy’s CEO Simon Faure-Field decided that an integrated approach, incorporating both fragrance and also music styling, would help create a stylish statement with an understatement of elegance and quiet finesse. Faure-Field, a maestro with both scents and sounds, opted for a scent inspired by the essence of “Bergamot” and a playlist of ambient music presenting a fusion of East and West. According to Faure- Field, “Equal Strategy’s environmental styling transcends customers’ mere financial needs and extends into various facets of their ‘privilege banking lifestyle’”.

For more than a decade now, Simon Faure-Field and his consultancy Equal Strategy have been at the cutting edge of techniques that make our consumer, retail and hospitality environments more attractive to spend time in. His solutions have been adopted by numerous local and regional businesses, notably hotels, banks and retailers seeking to increase customer interaction through experiential marketing, and differentiate themselves from their competitors.

“There is a direct correlation between customers time spent in a store and a store’s sales, so what stores want to do is to increase the time customers spent in their store by creating the right mood and environment,” says Faure-Field. Different genres of music, for example, can create different experiences for customers. Fast tempo ambient music, labelled in the business ‘high arousal’ music will excite and energise a customer and this might be appropriate for electrical retail outlets like Courts, an Equal Strategy Client.

At the other extreme, more soothing and relaxed low-tempo music is used when a brand wants customers to slow down and spend more time relaxing in the environment. Such a strategy would get customers more in the mood for trying out sofas in a furniture store for instance, or impulse shopping in a supermarket! “You choose the right kind of ambience for the particular kind of customer and the type of products or services you are offering,” says Faure-Field. And getting the balance right is not only an art form, it’s also a real science, he says.

Equal Strategy works with top fragrance houses from around the world which very often custom craft a particular client’s ambient aroma from scratch so that the scent remains unique to their brand. The fragrance house is one of the top three perfumeries in the world, having created perfumes for Anna Sui, Gucci, Escada, and Dunhill. Clients who do not go to the lengths of creating a unique ‘signature fragrance’ can also choose from a range of many different off the shelf scents and aromas from Simon Faure-Field’s repertoire. The fragrance is diffused, by a proprietary portable in-situ machine, through the client’s air conditioning system as a dry vapour which has a uniform spread and has definite safety advantages over scent burners with dangerous naked candles.

Another of Equal Strategy’s banking clients, Standard Chartered in Hong Kong, opted for a specially created fragrance to help reposition their new showcase Lan Kwai Fong branch. The branch’s captivating aroma can be described as an envelopment of oriental, citrus, woody and spicy notes, with softly blended white musk. The choice was based upon the bank brand’s heritage originating from Africa and India with branches having a desired upmarket, high quality, warm, customer-focused and comfortable feel.

Equal Strategy’s ambient music selection for Standard Chartered Lan Kwai Fong was chosen to harmonise and compliment the three different public areas, whilst reflecting the brand’s tone and feel. Says Faure-Field, “Music releases a chemical in the brain (dopamine) that has a role in setting good moods and how we feel as individuals. Dopamine is also associated with less tangible stimuli – such as being in love. So basically it’s all about making customers ‘fall in love with your brand!’ and doing so in a very benign yet scientific way through behavioural and sensory psychology.”

Unsurprisingly, with such powerful sensory sorcery able to stimulate customers into having an enduring relationship with a brand, companies are lining up to deploy these stealth methods of creating brand loyalty and the repeat business it brings. Equal Strategy counts as its current clients such iconic brands as Marina Bay Sands hotel, Equarius Hotel at Resorts World Sentosa, Straits Bullion, Banyan Tree Fitness Club, Brozeit, Level 33, CUT steak restaurant and Moon Hotel. Past clients of Faure-Fields have included Courts, Mercedes-Benz, Naumi Hotel and numerous others, including a leading Singapore based bank.

Brands find it increasingly difficult to differentiate and connect with their target market. With 83% of marketing budgets spent on commercial communication that appeals to one sense – our eyes, yet 75% of our decisions are based upon what we smell and there’s a 65% chance of a mood change when exposed to positive music. Bland service centres, uninspiring bank branches, plain vanilla retailer outlets, traditional passive merchandising displays, jazzy colour palettes, bright lights and one-off price promotions just aren’t ringing the cash registers like they used to.

“As humans, we are affected by the appeal of our surroundings, which tend to affect our behaviour,” says Faure-Field, “So, for example, a wine shop was comparing the effect of playing top 40’s music versus classical and jazz, and they actually found that the volume of sales didn’t increase between the two, but they did find that when people listen to classical music they tend to select more expensive wines.”

If we look at the application of fragrance, Nike once conducted a study where they have two identical sets of trainers, one pair was located in a room that had been lightly fragranced, and the other room had not. They would send consumers in to look at each of those two pairs of trainers and when they came out they asked them which trainers they had a preference for. It was found that the consumers actually preferred the trainers from the scented room. They were even prepared to spend 10 to 15 to 20 dollars more as compared to trainers in the un-fragranced room. This is a global trend which all started in the hospitality industry. Seven years ago, Westin, part of the Starwood Group, started diffusing a signature fragrance in all of their hotel lobbies and they coupled that by standardizing the music in all the lobbies too, so whenever you went from a Westin property anywhere in the world you actually have a consistent ‘brand experience’.

So, this is a branding tactic that is already very much in use throughout the world, but how is it being used in Asia? According to Faure-Field, “What we’re finding in Asia is that brands want to express more of their Asian brand elements, as we’ve seen with clients like Standard Chartered in Lan Kwai Fong, or DBS Bank, who went for a ginger flower fragrance with notes of citrus, jasmine, violet and rose with vanilla bottom notes.”

Faure-Field maintains that the installation of sensory branding can be scientifically measured to verify that the system meets the original expectations of the brand steward. Equal Strategy partners with the sensory research department at Nanyang Technology University, who can also be engaged by clients to conduct research into return on investment. Music and scent should ideally synergise beautifully to create a 360 degree sensory environment in which the brand can live, breathe and function as a living, organic entity in its own right. “It’s not just about pumping sound or aromas into spaces,” says Faure-Field, “What we essentially do is give a living spirit to your brand through these techniques!”