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Sensory Coherence vs. Sensory “Mismatch”


Should one choose to convey a holistic message or elicit surprise?

Marketers need to evolve from the traditional thinking that sensory marketing tactics are only successful when they evoke surprise among consumers. Instead, we’ve found in our research that the market success of our clients’ brands/products are boosted when they achieve coherence across the different touchpoints (pack design, concept, and product).
There are 4 degrees of coherence shown in the chart above. Note the second scenario, where high appeal for both the pack design/concept AND product does not lead to market success, as the sensorial messages across the touchpoints may be different/lack coherence. This is most often the case when Marketing and R&D are working independently: one is creating an appealing pack design/concept while the other is developing an appealing product. Despite high hedonic scores for the pack design/concept as well as the product during research, consumer disappointment and low market success may be the result of a lack of focus on coherence during the development process.

This is not to discount the value of sensory “mismatch,” in specific cases (as found by Sunder et al. (2016)). Brands that are viewed to have an exciting brand personality are expected to surprise consumers, so sensory “mismatch” may actually increase desirability. For those that are perceived to have a sincere brand personality, sensory “mismatch” would be viewed negatively. Sunder et al. (2016) argues: “These findings support the distinct possibility that consumers intuitively associate sincere brands with more consistent and dependable actions, and exciting brands with more unpredictable and inconsistent actions.” In other words, using a sensory “mismatch” tactic may actually be “coherent” with consumers’ expectations of what an exciting brand stands for!
However, in this case it is important to note that coherence (between what consumers expect vs. the actual interaction/experience with the product) is still necessary for attributes that are “core” to the product category (i.e., product’s shape, material, or core functionality), while some lack of coherence in “peripheral” attributes are what is accepted/desired for exciting brands (i.e., adding a feature that merely complements core functionality, adding a novel accessory, or altering packaging). This further supports our positioning that overall, sensory coherence is key to success.
Sensory coherence and sensory “mismatch” tactics can also play a major role in marketing strategy. Old-fashioned brands who are planning a dramatic shift in their brand image and communication could “silently” prepare consumers via a slightly new sensorial message pointing in the direction of the new brand image (in order not to lose loyal consumers prior to the execution of the full relaunch).  
In summary: One does not need to choose between using sensory coherence vs. sensory “mismatch” tactics. The key is to search for the kind of “coherence” which is best for a particular brand, one which is in line with the brand’s existing personality and desired strategy.  
Sundar, A; Noesworthy T (2016). Too Exciting to Fail, Too Sincere to Succeed: The Effects of Brand Personality on Sensory Disconfirmation. Journal of Consumer Research. doi: