The power of touch in marketing

Piali Dasgupta, Senior Vice-President – Marketing, Columbia Pacific Communities, writes that touch is a potent yet often overlooked factor in marketing and branding. It can be a real game changer, forge meaningful bonds with customers and create brand loyalty

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The power of touch in marketing

Piali Dasgupta

The Cannage stitching on the iconic Lady Dior bag

The hole-y texture of your favourite pair of Crocs

The ruggedness of Timberland hiking boots

The feel of the buttons on your phone

The texture of the wood used for your work desk

One could go on.

While the jury is out on whether “touch” is the most important of the five senses (for a visually impaired person, it perhaps is), the role of the haptic sensation in building memorable brands and iconic products is undeniable.

The sense of touch does play a stronger role in certain categories than certain others. But even in the age of e-commerce, most consumers like to “touch and feel” a product, before buying it. Even with the advancement of VR (Virtual Reality) and 3D, we have not been able to recreate the experience of physical touch in the digital realm.

Consider this. Cheap, high-speed, accessible internet, convenience, a pandemic, heavy discounting and robust marketing push, haven’t been able to push the global penetration of e-commerce beyond 20% even in 2023. And in India, that percentage is roughly 8.5.

There is no bigger proof of the power of touch than the above. This is also why, particularly in a country like India, where, traditionally, “shopping” was always considered a kind of entertainment, and almost an event, for any new-age consumer brand that wishes to grow beyond the 100-crore mark, physical stores will be as important as e-commerce. The power of phygital lies in the fact that while the discovery of the product may happen online, a customer may buy it only after touching, feeling and experiencing it at a retail store.

Of course, for certain categories such as grocery, medicines, household items etc, consumers are willing to forego the pleasure of “touch and feel” for convenience. But when the stakes are high, like they are in high ASP (Average Selling Price) categories such as real estate, automobile, fine jewellery, and luxury goods, consumers still prefer the assurance of touch before buying the item. That should explain why, even with a 2x growth in the past two years, the e-commerce penetration of fine jewellery is only about 2.23% in India.

A large part of providing tactile pleasure to customers and creating a memorable brand identity is packaging. The iconic Coke contour bottle with its trademark-protected curvaceous design, makes holding the bottle and drinking from it a unique experience. In fact, one of the things that helped the cola brand remain a market leader for almost the past two decades, is its packaging.

Many women prefer to buy make-up products from physical stores, after applying the products on their skin or swatching a shade of lipstick on their hands to see how their skin reacts to the product. This is the most common example of sensory marketing, with “touch” as the prime sense. However, the packaging of a beauty product also impacts its popularity. The famed Christian Louboutin bullet lipstick, released in 2015, with its Nefertiti-inspired crown, was designed in a way that women could wear the case as a pendant, feeling its touch all day. The design became such a rage, that the brand eventually had to fight against counterfeits in China.

Tactile experience is particularly crucial for the process of buying high-ticket price, long life-cycle products such as a car or furniture. That’s why a test drive exists for cars, and customers are invited to lie on a bed or a mattress to feel its touch, before buying it.

At Columbia Pacific Communities, the senior living community operators, while we did see a healthy upswing in remote purchases of our senior-friendly apartments particularly from NRI buyers, during the pandemic, 98% of our sale continues to happen through the site visits when a customer gets to touch, feel, experience and get a sense of the unit that he is investing in.

The science behind touch is that our skin sends certain messages to our brain’s neurons through touch. And so, if it’s a pleasant touch, like the gentle touch of another human being, or say, the luxurious touch of velvet, it sends positive messages to our brain.

Think of the satisfaction we get when we pop a bubble wrap. Studies say, popping a bubble wrap relieves as much stress as a massage does. So, it’s possible to create tactile experiences at brand touch points that can potentially release endorphins and dopamine, and make the process of buying either more addictive, more fulfilling, or both. 

It’s only about thinking outside the box, looking beyond digital promotions, and trying to create in-store experiences that are memorable, cutting edge and one-of-a-kind. Soap brand Lush, which originated in the UK in 1995, does this beautifully. It lets customers touch and feel the texture of each soap, with its “naked packaging” strategy, creating a truly differentiated experience in the category.

A brand is as good as the feelings it evokes. And therefore, touch is a potent yet often overlooked factor in marketing and branding, that can be a real game changer, forge meaningful bonds with customers and create brand loyalty. In a world that is increasingly becoming ephemeral and virtual, there is nothing more real and authentic than touch.

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