Five Sensory Strategies

May 1st, 2012

In Experiential Marketing, author Bernd Schmitt articulates a typology to replace the “features and benefits” approach to advertising, which has dominated marketing theory for generations. His typology is applicable not only to the design of marketing for digital culture, but also to the design of worship for digital culture. Of course, worship is meant to be a much more ultimate experience than viewing a TV ad, and its purpose is to create disciples not consumers (which are very different objectives!). Yet the church would be remiss to ignore the opportunity to redeem the effectiveness of experiential persuasion for a higher purpose.

Schmitt defines five experiential components, or what he calls “strategic experiential modules (SEMs).” These SEMs are sense, feel, think, act, and relate. If you want your message to be heard, whether it’s selling a product or a service, or communicating the gospel, you would do well to learn and practice these forms of experience.


Sense strategies engage the five human senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. The objective of sensory strategies, according to Schmitt, is to “provide aesthetic pleasure, excitement, beauty and satisfaction through sensory stimulation.” Sensory experiences have high impression value. They often include fast pace and movement pieces, and are designed to motivate us and to demonstrate superior value. A classic sense example is the thrill of Mountain Dew ads. I particularly like the one where the biker chases down the cheetah that had swallowed his can of Dew.


If you didn’t get it, the ad wasn’t designed for you, which begs the question that different sensory experiences appeal to different groups. In my experience, church attempts at sense often unintentionally target an older audience.

The best sense experiences are integrated — that is, they appeal to more than one sense at the same time. They also have what Schmitt calls “cognitive consistency” because they follow a stylistic and thematic order, so that our brains process similarities between the various stimuli. Otherwise, a bombardment on our senses quickly disintegrates into clutter (which aptly describes some attempts at “contemporary” worship). Of course, the “Information Age” is founded on sensory overload. We have new drugs created now especially for children who become over-stimulated. So part of sense is salience; that is, high contrast to its received surroundings.

The first Christmas TV spot I ever created as a media minister was salient, with no voiceover or score for an audio track, but only sound effects. The purpose was to catch TV audience attention. In an age of over stimulation, sense may mean silence, especially the kind of sudden silence where you can hear the air rush in your ears.

Consider parallels between the sense SEM and the worship traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, which attempt to capture the mystery of God through the use of such sensory artifacts as incense, cathedrals, and the Eucharist. The phrase “multisensory” worship captures this mystery by focusing on high sensory experience, which is one way to interact with digital culture. This parallel, between ancient and future sensory experiences may help to explain reports that large numbers of boomers and Gen X young adults returned to Roman Catholic churches in the 1990s.

When analyzing worship according to sensory stimulation, sensory experiences must be judged as a whole and not individually. Nicholas Negroponte describes an early HDTV experiment that had two focus groups watch the same movie on the same television set, one with a high-quality surround sound stereo system and the other with a low-quality mono sound system. All other factors being equal, the former group perceived they were watching a higher resolution television. Changing the sound changed the perceived visual experience. The study proved that people judge their experiences as a sensory whole and not by individual elements of sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell.


Feel strategies appeal to our feelings and are designed to affect, to create specific emotional responses. My favorite examples are Hallmark ads and Mormon ads. Schmitt points out that proper use of feel in advertising targets the emotional state of someone during “consumption.” While that word may cause negative affect in you the reader, the lesson is worth learning. It is in the act of feeling things, not thinking about them, that we have our strongest emotional states. Feel strategies relate to emotions as we are experiencing them.

Recall the controversy around a Super Bowl ad in 2000 that showed the paralyzed Christopher Reeve standing up and walking. The ad was extremely affective, causing some people to react against its unfulfilled promises and other to find hope in its optimism. Feel has great ability for both hope and cynicism. It must be approached carefully in worship. Worship is more than the elicitation of a specific spiritual emotion or mood. Much of contemporary worship does damage to a congregation’s perception of the worship act and one’s relationship to God by focusing on emotional highs.

On the other hand, emotions are a natural part of a worship experience. They will occur whether we intend them to or not. Sometimes, in fact, emotions may lead a congregation away from the intended direction. Complex psychology informs each of our affective experiences. For example, as the son of an officer who served in Vietnam, I have a complex reaction to the presence of an American flag during worship. My feelings about the mixture of Christianity and patriotism, about church and state, may be very different from the person beside me, or even from the intentions of the worship planner.

How does a digital age worship planner deal with feel? The answer comes through openness to affective response in our simple telling of the Gospel through story form. We Protestants are comfortable with worship through the mind, and perhaps not so comfortable with worship through body and spirit. Yet feeling is highly important to this culture, and we must learn to engage it in worship, risks and all.


Think strategies appeal to our intellect. They are cognitive experiences, which provide opportunities to address major issues, both personal and societal. They have components of surprise, intrigue, and provocation. One example of a think ad is Microsoft’s “Where do you want go today?” tagline.

How does think fit into the digital age? Doesn’t it lend itself to modern, abstract critical analysis such as we recall in the liberal Protestant tradition? According to Schmitt, think is not analytical reasoning, which can destroy experiences (paralysis by analysis), but a divergent thinking that is more free form and creative in nature. It is like brainstorming. It invites people to deviate into entirely new realms of thought around a particular subject.

Think tactics may work best in two aspects of a traditional worship structure: the call to worship and the sermon. A call to worship or sermon opener may act as an attention-getter, engaging the congregation to evaluate their lives or the world. By creating a state of openness, they are able to freely brainstorm how a relationship with Jesus and a community of believers might change their lives. It's amazing that some people still say that new and visual expressions "dumb down" worship. These critics have yet to understand the power of intrigue as a creative form of thinking.


Act strategies attempt to respond to desire by invoking changes in our behavior and lifestyle. Schmitt points out that the classic act campaign is Nike’s “Just Do It,” which transformed viewers' perceptions of exercise. Act, of course, is the goal of most sermons: to invite changed lives, accept Christ, serve in some capacity, cease sin, develop a positive self-perception in Christ, and so forth. Effective action in worship invites the congregation to experience the lifestyle change of being a follower of Christ. Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, which is often quoted in sermons about cheap grace, is a classic example of guiding believers to act.


Relate strategies draw from the other four modules but expand beyond individual experience, creating social systems based on relationships with other people or cultures. Relate strategies draw upon our innate search for belonging and meaning. In this case, parallels are obvious within Christianity, which is essentially a relational religion. When we are called to follow Christ, we are called to engage those around us with love. Worship can accomplish that through simple acts of “passing the peace” or greeting your neighbor, or through more complex presentations of missions or acts of mercy.

How do these five sensory modules relate to your worship and preaching?



This article is an updated excerpt from the author's Digital Storytellers, co-authored with Jason Moore in 2002.

About the Author

Len Wilson

Len Wilson is Creative Director at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA. Len is a leader in the worship field read more…
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