The Power of Touch

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

This week we are going to talk about physical touch. No, wait. That sounds cringey. I mean, we are going to explore the incredible power that touch has over us as human beings… Hmmm, that didn’t help. Let’s just say physical touch can play a safe, constructive, and legitimate role in your marketing strategy. 

As part of the Sensory Marketing arsenal, physical touch and experiential marketing campaigns can help inform and transport consumers along their purchasing journeys, and it can help you create a strong and immediate rapport with customers – one that keeps your brand in the forefront of their minds for the long haul.   

Psychological studies on the effects of physical touch go back decades and have produced some rather surprising results. For example, did you know that with a simple one-finger touch on the forearm, individuals are frequently able to accurately identify the emotion of the person who touched them? That’s right. In a series of studies across different cultures, researchers created a scenario where pairs of participants would situate themselves on opposite sides of a dividing partition within a lab. One participant would reach through a cutout in the cloth divider and rest their arm on the other side, while their unknown and unseen counterpart was given a randomized list of emotions, then asked to convey those feelings one by one by touching their partner’s forearm with one finger for a single second. Amazingly, it worked. Although they were unable to see who touched them, or anything else might be occurring on the other side of the divider, the “touchees” correctly identified the emotion being conveyed approximately 70% of the time (even more impressive when you consider that the odds of randomly guessing the specific emotion were around 8%). 

Of course, there were interesting twists and turns. It turns out that some emotions are more easily identified than others. Pro-social emotions like love, gratitude, and sympathy were all correctly identified at a much higher rate, while self-focused emotions such as embarrassment, envy, and pride were not. Although, not to be outdone, fear, anger, and disgust were also correctly identified at higher than chance levels. Additionally, one of the researchers from the studies later commented on some of the sex differences found in the data. Specifically, they found that femaleparticipants consistently failed to recognize the emotion of sympathy via touch when the counterpart on the other side of the divider was male, while on the other hand (no pun intended), the male “touchees” were completely unable to identify the emotion of anger when the person delivering the touch was female. While these micro-patterns were present in cross-sex conditions, the overall pattern of successfully communicating pro-social emotions (and some negative ones) via touch were consistent over time and across cultures. 

Now, if all this still seems rather unimpressive, keep in mind that the overall accuracy rates for identifying emotion through touch are similar to emotion studies on facial and vocal recognition. In addition, fMRI research shows that each of these three modalities (touch, visual, and auditory) uniquely contribute to our global perception of the same emotion. In other words, with each additional sense, we can not-only identify an emotion, but deepen our holistic understanding and grasp the nuance of that displayed emotion as well. Which in marketing translates to longer lasting impressions on potential consumers and impact on their purchasing behaviors. 

For example, a classic study on tipping behaviors found that when waitresses casually touched their customers either on their hand or shoulder at some point during the meal, tipping increased by approximately 5%. This happened in spite of the fact that most diners were oblivious that they had been touched at all. A similar series of studies found that the amount of alcohol purchased and consumed by dining guests increased in a similar manner when a single casual touch was part of the customer-server interaction early on in the encounter. 

Other studies show that this “touch” phenomenon extends to retail as well. Upon entering a store, customers who experienced a casual touch on their hand by an “employee” distributing coupons at the door spent significantly more time shopping than customers who received the same coupons without being touched. In addition, customers who were touched spent more on products during their visit. When asked, they rated the store more favorably than the non-touched customers. 

Now as marketers, we know that direct interaction with customers isn’t always possible (or welcomed). And thankfully, direct touch is not the only way to leverage this phenomenon. In fact, it turns out that simply watching someone else handle and touch a product can have the same benefits, including increasing viewers’ intent to purchase. 

In this study (which included fMRI analyses), researchers used a total of 56 items, including both food and objects, to evaluate what occurs in our brains when we observe someone else touch a branded product. In the two conditions (Touch vs. No Touch), participants were shown videos of a person interacting with a purchasable item. In the Touch Condition, participants observed the person briefly picking up and handling the item, while in the No Touch Condition the same person simply gestured towards the item during the brief video. Following the presentations, participants were asked to rate their intention to purchase items they had just seen, as well as rate their subjective preference and demand for the product. According to both self-report and the fMRI neural activity recorded during the video presentations, researchers found that participants were significantly more likely to prefer the touched items, and to report a much higher intent to purchase when they appeared in the Touch conditions vs. the No Touch conditions. This suggests that simply watching someone else touch a product instinctively makes it more attractive to the average consumer.

So, what happens when we create a situation (or advertisement) where we can both see other consumers interacting with a product on shelves and we’re able to interact with it ourselves?Well, do you remember the Squishmallows craze? It may still be trending. Personally, I am running out of space to store any more fluffy objects, but there is something about those ultra-soft and colorful pillows. So much that they appear in my shopping cart with alarming frequency — and a recent study out of the journal Consciousness and Cognition holds clues as to why that is the case. In this study, they examined the interplay of texture, touch, and emotion — finding that specific emotions were tied to the sensation of touching different textures. The feel of marble, concrete, and granite tended to be associated with sadness, while fur, velvet, and silk were associated with happiness (and who wouldn’t want to buy happiness — cough, cough, Squishmallows). 

Another fantastic example of touch in marketing comes from an Intermark Group-Alabama Tourism Department campaign where we imported twenty square feet of Alabama sand into the middle of Manhattan for consumers to experience “the beach” for themselves (curiously, another texture associated with happiness in the study above was small glass beads). The experiential campaign was incredibly successful in part due to the clever inclusion of physical touch, which allowed consumers a much more holistic and motivating understanding of what their next vacation might look (and feel) like. 

One final example of the motivation that occurs from touch is a campaign by the relief organization Misereor. In this campaign, consumers are given the chance to interact with digital posters located in common shopping areas and use their credit card to help impoverished individuals around the world. Known as “The Social Swipe,” this campaign centered around a physical/digital interface that allowed individuals to feel more connected to their otherwise unknown beneficiaries (e.g., slicing a digital loaf of bread with their credit card to help reduce hunger). By promoting the use of physical touch and action, this campaign increases the urge for engagement and results in a greater sense of personal satisfaction afterwards. 

So, hopefully our conversation about touch wasn’t too uncomfortable and perhaps even a little bit timely. With the social chaos that has characterized the last few years and the rapid replacement of in-person connections with digital ones in our modern world, it seems like touch and its potential applications are getting further and further out of reach (okay, that pun was intended). But for the marketers who can bring touch in any of its various forms into their messaging and campaigns, it can provide a powerful way to connect with today’s consumers. 

Happy Marketing!

-Dr. James