The Psychology of Touch: Mixing up Your Brand Strategy with Print

Zoom Meetings. Digital Conferences. Slack notifications. Netflix. Virtual Happy Hours. Online Shopping. Everyone and everything has gone into digital hibernation over the last 9 months and let’s face it: We’re all tired of looking at our screens. People miss authentic human interactions and anything that breaks from this “new norm.”

Engaging sensory experiences have become even more meaningful during this time of uncertainty. Think about how refreshing it is to take a walk outside. Or open a piece of mail. Not an email or another utility bill. I mean actual snail mail perhaps from a friend or maybe a magazine. Personally, I have never been more excited to receive a catalog than when this year’s Amazon Holiday Wishbook showed up at my front door. More and more brands are returning to traditional print experiences to supplement their digital marketing efforts. Let’s take a look at the science behind this and debunk the digital age’s claim that print is dead.

Your Brain on Print

Digital overload is real. Even before these “unprecedented times” a Direct Marketing Association (DMA) study found that direct mail averages a 4.4% response rate compared to email’s 0.12% response rate. Why is this? It has everything to do with your brain. When you hold printed material in your hands, you are engaging your sense of touch (also known as haptics) which activates a whole new area of your brain. Research shows that more than half the brain is devoted to processing sensory experiences and much of that focuses on touch. The more senses you engage, the more memorable the experience becomes.

“In humans touch represents a powerful form of non-verbal communication. Our sense of touch plays a fundamental role in daily life, from learning about objects to communicating with other people.”

– Dr. David Eagleman

Brands like Amazon understand that digital is a vital tool – but they also can’t ignore the research that haptics can make a huge impact. Studies show that people who are lightly touched by a server in a restaurant leave bigger tips. Doctors who touch their patients are seen as more caring and their patients get well faster. NBA teams who interact physically during games (high fives or chest bumps) consistently win more often. If touch unconsciously shapes our perceptions of everyday situations, the question is: what can it do for your brand?

Sappi, a global paper company, researched that very question. In fact they wrote a whole book about it called “A Communicator’s Guide to the Neuroscience of Touch.” Working in collaboration with renowned neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, Sappi found that the simple act of touching an object like a catalog, brochure, or mailer can trigger a phenomenon known as The Endowment Effect. This effect is a basic human behavior wherein our ownership of an object makes us believe that the object is worth a higher price than its actual market value. We develop an emotional bias toward that object because our brains have been actively engaged by it. Therefore, the perceived value of a brand and its product/services can be swayed based on the deliverables a brand puts in the hands of its audience.

The Proof is in the Pandemic

Joe Wagner, Manager in Business Development for HBP, Inc based in Virginia, has been working with brands like John Hopkins, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and The Children’s National Hospital Foundation for years. He has seen first-hand the benefits of direct mail campaigns when combined with other digital marketing efforts. National Geographic has reported to Wagner that they get the best seminar attendance rate due to their direct mail outreach. The Smithsonian also sees a greater ROI for their educational programs when people are able to feel their mailer’s “soft touch” texture in their hands.

During the initial COVID-19 shutdown, Wagner saw major print projects halted. Companies of every shape and size tightened their budgets and converted to digital-only methods for the first few months. It soon became clear: Brands were becoming disconnected from their base audiences. Fundraising efforts were at an all time low and continuing to do nothing would cause more problems in the future. Wagner quickly began to see his clients like The Children’s National Hospital Foundation return, ramping up their printing efforts to ensure their name remained recognizable in the community.

Making an Impact on a Budget

As the economic fallout of the pandemic continues to rage on, everyone needs to be strategic about where they spend their money. For a lot of brands, a print campaign may seem out of reach; But print doesn’t mean you have to blow the budget. Armed with the right design team and savvy print manager, brands can reach new audiences while re-engaging their existing membership.

Contrary to popular belief, research shows that younger, tech-driven generations engage with printed materials just as much, if not more, than older generations. Print is seen as a novelty to the point that 36% of people under the age of 30 look forward to checking their mailboxes every day.

Utilizing a heavier stock, incorporating a unique fold, or applying a printed texture are only a few methods that can make a brand stand out in a world of digital clutter. In addition to these haptic enhancements, some companies have even gone a step further by engaging their audiences’ sense of smell with scented inks. The more interesting the print method, the more the audience will engage with it. Some even save the piece and show it to others.

So before you send out your next e-blast, take a moment to consider what the power of print might be able to do for your brand.

Cecile Jordan's headshot

Cecile Jordan

As Art Director, Cecile articulates a client’s goals into a visual experience that is both on-brand and creatively influential. Armed with years of industry insights, Cecile continuously strives to inspire her team members to create solutions that bridge research, strategy, marketing, and design.

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