ASMR: Flash in the marketing pan, or something more?

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), or the experience of tingling sensations in the crown of the head, is rapidly growing in popularity and increasingly appearing in marketing campaigns. We look at why and the opportunity for brands

ASMR. What? I hear you ask. Good question. Unless you are a millennial or a Gen Z, it’s unlikely you would have heard of the latest YouTube fad to go mainstream and be grabbed with both hands by marketers.

And yet, if you watched the 2019 superbowl ads, and pondered the reasoning behind Zoe Kravitz whispering into different microphones while tapping a beer bottle, then you have, in fact, been exposed to ASMR.

ASMR: What is it?

According to the 2018 study, More than a feeling: Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterized by reliable changes in affect and physiology, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) describes the experience of tingling sensations in the crown of the head, in response to a range of audio-visual triggers such as whispering, chewing, or tapping. 

There is a veritable plethora of ASMR videos on YouTube - more than 50 million in fact - covering everything from building furniture and caressing fabric right up to whispering, cutting hair, eating fried chicken and, of all things, soap cutting. Fans claim these videos aid relaxation, sleep, calm and mindfulness, among other benefits.

According to the above study, and others, there's some substantiated proof for this. ASMR can reduce heart rate, increase skin conductance, as well as elicit a tingling sensation in some viewers who are ‘hard wired’ to give such a response.

Given the proliferation of ASMR videos and its cult following, it is unsurprising marketers have jumped on the bandwagon and view it as a way to connect with vital audiences in a way perhaps beyond a typical emotional connection. Only time will tell if ASMR will find its way into mainstream marketing on a more-long term basis, but for now, expect to see it increasingly appearing in ads.

Psychology behind ASMR

ASMR is, in fact, rooted in psychological theory. Managing director and founder of Suits&Sneakers, a marketing creative services company, Anne Miles, told CMO she finds this latest marketing craze exciting.

“There is a strong psychological basis behind this. We love full sensory experiences and many of us are driven to change by kinaesthetic experiences [actions, textures and feelings], auditory [sound] experiences, and some use a combination of some or all of these representational systems,” she said.

“The other thing we’re tapping into here is the formula for addiction. According to Tony Robbins, we only need to satisfy three of our six core human needs - certainty, variety, significance, love and connection, growth, and contribution - and we’re hooked, whether it’s a positive addiction or a negative one."

AMSR and the community around it is tapping into a lot of these needs. For example, such content fosters a sense of connection/community, as people share their passion for it and connect as like minds; variety, by getting out of the everyday and trying different techniques; and significance/importance, by getting on YouTube and social media, Miles said.

"AMSR also taps into certainty - these activities are always there and predictable no matter what life throws at you, growth by learning new things, and contribution, by sharing with others and helping others," Miles said. "This is ticking all of these boxes and therefore highly addictive. We could also say that some of it could stem back to the soothing experience of being in utero too.”

Professor at Shenandoah University, Winchester USA, Craig Richard PhD, recently published the first brain scan study of individuals experiencing ASMR.  He said brain areas activated during ASMR are similar to those activated during bonding and grooming behaviours, like parents caring for infants or your best friend playing with your hair.

“It is known these brain regions release endorphins which cause pleasure, dopamine which causes desire, and oxytocin which stimulates relaxation and comfort. So it is likely people enjoy experiencing ASMR because their brains are releasing this enjoyable and relaxing cocktail of neurochemicals,” he explained.

Executive director of Centre for Amplified Intelligence and professor of Media Innovation, University of Adelaide, Karen Nelson-Field PhD, said while ASMR is not new, it might be the new ‘emotion’ when it comes to marketing.

“It is no different to the concept of high arousal in emotional coding. Visual stimuli can make a physiological change to your body. ASMR is the same premise, except less emotional and more sensory,” she said. 

ASMR campaigns

Among more recent examples of marketing campaigns tapping the power of ASMR is Michelob’s superbowl commercial in 2019 featuring Zoe Zravitz whispering into dual microphones, and tapping a bottle.

Likewise, IKEA last year developed a series of ASMR videos, each more than 20 minutes in length, designed around a dorm room. Called Oddly IKEA, these videos have chalked up more than two million views.

Others jumping on the ASMR bandwagon include Coke, Pepsi, Skittles, Strongbow, KFC, Doritos and Snickers.

For ASMR to be successful, it must fulfil a number of criteria, Richard said. “The key scenario for ASMR involves two individuals, one is providing positive personal attention to the other. This often occurs between parents and children, best friends, romantic partners, clinicians and their patients, teachers and their students, and hairdressers and their clients,” he explained.

“The person receiving the attention should feel safe and cared for. The person giving the attention should be kind, soft spoken, and focused on helping the other person in some way. The specific ASMR stimuli within that scenario may include gentle hand movements, eye contact, whispering, mouth sounds, tapping sounds, crinkling sounds, and light touch.”

The environment should be relaxing, and no music should be playing. ASMR can also be achieved alone, with triggers such as:

  • Concentrating on any general aspect or specific part of yourself
  • Using a scalp massager or slightly touching your scalp with your fingers
  • Brushing or playing with your hair
  • Stroking or rubbing your eyebrows
  • Watching videos of ASMR triggers.

Why it has found its way into marketing

With marketers always looking the ‘next big thing’ to create a connection and grab the attention of audiences, it's no surprise such an emotive phenomenon is increasingly coming into marketing activities.  

Hannah Krijnen, senior consultant for insights company GalKal, which recently merged with Fiftyfive5, and Reinier Bruijnooge, head of qualitative resreach at GalKal, both saw ASMR as a way for brands to evolve how they design more immersive experiences, even through traditional channels.

"This is terms of eliciting visceral, sensory responses - among those for whom it elicits the ‘brain orgasm’ - as well as being able to tap into cultural movements or narratives,” they said. “There’s also evidence ASMR is more likely to be experienced by specific personality types, so it also opens up the interesting possibility of targeting people through how they experience your message, rather than through straight demographics.

"At its best, ASMR is a testament of an ‘exchange’ between brands and consumers – it has cultural currency, taps into an emerging, and it appears growing, subculture and allows brands to bring their product benefits to life in more engaging and sensory ways. It also feels like an emergent way for brands to tap into the ‘mindful’ trend through helping people create ‘mental space’, in the process making their world more liveable and rewarding by encouraging them to slow down and pay attention, experience the moment and switch off.”

Agency lead of Touch Creative, Lewis Shields, saw the trend provoking a joyful feeling in consumers and noted it's one of the fastest-growing social trends in the last two years.

“Everyone from Zippo to IKEA has tried to tap into this massive audience," he said. "As marketers, we are looking for new ways to connect with audiences. We always talk about an emotional connection with an audience, this is a physical reaction from an audience, which is really powerful and creates a real connection with brand. This is why we are seeing so many companies creating ASMR content,” he said.

And like anything in mainstream culture, it kicked off with a cult-like following, social media and creative director at Switched On, Yash Murthy, said.

“ASMR started with the whispering, and achieved millions of followers. It got more varied with the growth in popularity, to cover a range of granular sounds such as eating, sipping, chewing, slime, soap cutting," he pointed out. “It is a little unsettling in some cases, yet oddly compelling, and there is an incredulity around it. There is a suggestive nature to a lot of the videos as well - you know something is going mainstream when it ends up on porn sites.

“Of course, the Superbowl ad is the peak manifestation of this, this is ASMR having its moment." 

Like any subculture, Murthy saw marketers finding a way to corrupt it. "If you get someone to engage with your brand for 25 seconds, let alone 25 minutes, then that’s exceptional. To grab and hold consumer attention is difficult. Brands are doing it for talkability of it, to stand out, and to show they get culture. It also appeals to a Gen Z and Millennial audience, which is a sought after demographic, so it’s a no brainer," he said. 

“Not many videos can claim they elicited a physical response. So you might stick around for longer just to find out what is going on. Brands that have a sound can play ASMR well, like KFC – the crackle of chicken frying or being eaten is relevant to them, particularly because people eat with sight, taste and sound. Brands should be careful, however, not do it just for the sake of it.”

Up next: The brand opportunity, plus what's in store with ASMR

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Brand opportunity

As Miles pointed out, the more senses that a brand can capture the more likely people are to feel that the brand understands the individual at a deeper level.

“I actually believe we have the potential to begin marketing to our representation system types as well as personality types to dig into new ways to segment that we haven’t yet done,” she said. “ASMR could be explored for deeper sonic branding opportunities, or used in sound mixes within our video and radio content, but also for a deepening into new experiential ideas specifically around it.

“We really do a subtle version of this right now with the signature sounds of the can opening, drinks pouring, and for automotive brands the specific sounds of each car’s engine is a real brand trigger. Even the IKEA ball room is a sensory experience that is intrinsically linked to the brand. This is a really exciting opportunity I think, and taking experiential marketing to a new level.”

Shields is equally convinced of the the trend's longer-term impact. “It’s hard to think such a niche genre can have longevity and sustain itself for quite a while. Yet is has grown exponentially over the last two years, and we’ll definitely see it across mainstream brands over the next couple of years, into more TV spots and in cross marketing as marketing continues to find a way to blur the lines between digital and human responses.”

As Mindshare head of innovation, Jack Smyth, pointed out, brands always used audio cuts tied into the brand experience. Schweppes is one such example.

"An audio brand is as important as visual brand. This is the latest exploration of how different senses interact. As we move forward, things like visual search will bring a renaissance in product design, and we’ll be going back to prominent branding,” he claimed. 

The future

Whether ASMR has the legs for longevity remains to be seen, but Miles is up for exploring the concept further.

“It will probably go really big for a bit, and may slow down after that but some of the executions will stick around for good I think,” she said. Nelson-Field agreed, saying as long as ASMR gives marketers an edge, it will remain.

“The fact is, we can’t make all of our ads funny, and consumers get sensitised to attempts at cut through, and concepts like ASMR are also very subjective. How soon it might annoy people, I don’t know, but it will be interesting to see how widely reaching it will be. Emotions are universal, but this could have limited effect because not all stimuli will affect all people in the same way,” she said.

“The threshold always changes, because once it’s expected it’s not unexpected anymore. This trend reminds me a bit of rich code media overlaid on a program. Initially, it was attention grabbing.

“I think marketers need to remember, people don’t really care about ads, and they don’t pay much attention to them. Even the best platform, which is TV, studies show in an average second you pay 58 per cent attention, and that’s the best case and that’s not ideal. We don’t care about the ads, we care about the programming.”

Krijnen and Bruijnooge said ASMR’s ongoing relevance as a tool to covertly influence people still remains to be proven.

"In terms of the ongoing relevance and impact, it feels like there is an enduring conversation around mindfulness and the desire to reject the pressures and pace of a tech driven world. ASMR represents a powerful way to tap into that narrative while it remains relevant and compelling to so many – however its ongoing relevance remains to be seen," they said.

Of course, not everyone responds to ASMR, or to every type of video, and the bigger picture should include marketers asking what they can do for the consumer.

“Marketers need to ask what can video to do a person rather than just inform them. There needs to be a real connection, whether its allowing someone to sit for hours on a train or listen to clicking ice in a glass," Shields said. "People are not just watching a TV anymore, so we must invest in content that delivers more to the person.”

commercials will continue to incorporate the principles of ASMR to provide viewers with a calm and soothing experience, rather than an intense and overwhelming pitch that can add to daily stress

Shenandoah University Professor, Craig Richard PhD

Smyth added ASMR is not a natural fit for all brands, and should not be attempted by those without a fit because you might risk alienating your audience. “It’s not a playground for all brands. You do need to have a product or a strategic fit with that ASMR community," he warned. 

“It also takes advantage of the most interesting advances in audio technology. For instance, 3D audio and a number of advances are starting to introduce an impact for all consumers, regardless of ASMR. Audio content that is more immersive and holds attention, of course a marketer will pay a premium for that.

“ASMR is encouraging brands to think uses of audio. The growth of streaming serves allows people to have more immersive experiences, and this is a natural evolution. However, the ASMR will become more discerning, so don’t jump on the bandwagon. If there’s not a natural product fit, your efforts may not go down well and there could be a backlash.”

Richard told CMO there are many signs indicating ASMR is not a fad or a temporary trend, but a new relaxation technique like yoga, deep breathing and massage therapy. “I think commercials will continue to incorporate the principles of ASMR to provide viewers with a calm and soothing experience, rather than an intense and overwhelming pitch that can add to daily stress,” he predicted. 

But for Murthy, ASMR runs the risk of being gimmicky, and could be a flash in the pan. “Behind the scenes it is growing at a rapid rate and brands will continue to look for opportunities to integrate it because there are opportunities," he concluded. 

“The message is, people are looking at different ways to create experiences and a connection, to earn them conversation, get people talking, offer inspiration and there is creativity to be found in things considered niche.” 

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