In the world of marketing, businesses have essentially made use of every sensory avenue they could think of, from sight to sound to touch, to convince customers to buy their product or to create a positive brand image. One of the less travelled avenues that are gathering traffic today is the olfactory kind, and retailers all over the world are trying to find that perfect smell of success to boost their sales. However, the business of scent marketing is much more complex than that, as we will soon find out.
Why does scent work so well?
The fact that scent has been so under-used in the world of marketing is surprising, since the science of smell suggests it is probably more effective than all the other senses it employs. In simple terms, when we get a whiff of something, the smell is transmitted to and interpreted by the olfactory bulb which is part of the limbic system. This part of our brain is also responsible for memory and emotion, which means we link smell with pleasant or unpleasant experiences instantaneously, bringing subconscious levels of strong nostalgia. This is why we associate certain smells from the beach or a resort we stayed in with good times and pleasant vacation memories.
Our other senses such as sight, sound, taste, or touch can also trigger memories and emotion but not as instantaneously. This is due to the fact that they travel to the cognitive receptors of the brain and thus, we can apply some conscious reasoning to these. Since smell works on such a subconscious level, it is more effective in triggering an impulsive reaction from buyers.
This is the reason why more and more businesses are rushing towards scent as a way of branding and marketing their products. A story in Times Magazine reports predictions by a consulting firm based in New York, which states that expenditures on scent marketing spanned between $50m and $80m last year, and this number is anticipated to rise above $500m in the next 10 years.
Types of scent marketing
Scent marketing has different uses for different business, and so can be effectively divided into four distinct types. There is the Aroma Billboard Smell, which makes the boldest scent statement and is the most “there”, that is, the customers are consciously aware of it, such as the trademark smell of freshly brewed coffee at Starbucks. The smell is part of the customer experience and it is what consciously attracts them.
On the other hand, a Thematic Smell complements the décor or purpose of the place, such as vanilla or lavender smells at a beauty spa or a resort. Ambient Smells are more subtle and create an atmosphere, used to cover unpleasant odours or to “fill a void”. Lastly, a Signature Smell is exclusive to a big brand name and is used to create a brand image; customers associate this smell with their favourite brand and what it represents, such as the smells of cardamom and ivory used by the high-end shoe brand Jimmy Choo to emanate wealth and luxury.
The benefits to using scent in marketing
Scents can help boost sales
We’ve already discussed some of the benefits; it can trigger instant emotional reactions from customers. Scent marketing can thus be very effective in boosting sales. A study done by Nike discovered that they could increase the intent to purchase by 80% through the introduction of scent into their stores. Another survey at a petrol station with a mini-mart reported that the aroma of coffee helped boost sales of the beverage by a whopping 300%.
Scents make customers linger
Scents can also help customers linger in a store and look around more. Eric Spangenberg, the dean of the College of Business at Washington State University, was the first to look for scientific evidence of this in 1996 through a lab study in Pullman. He found subjects were more likely to look around and browse through products in the rooms that were scented, and reported more positive opinions and a tendency to wait longer in lines in the fake store than its unscented counterpart.
Scents help create brand image
Scents are helpful in making people remember you, or to create associations in their minds. This is why it can be useful it creating an all rounded brand image, such as the above Jimmy Choo example. Many hotels also use scents to make people associate them with good memories, such as the Westin Hotels’ use of a blend of green tea, geranium and black cedar diffused into their lobbies, according to the New York Times’ Key Magazine. The scent you use will obviously go with the image you want for your brand, whether it is luxury, comfort, quaint and old-fashioned or modern and contemporary.
Scents create a perception of quality
In general scents can also help create a perception of quality. Customers tend to perceive a scented product or space as being of better quality and will be willing to pay more when shopping in a scented store, as discovered by a study done by the Smell & Taste Research Foundation. Many of the subjects in the study reported that they were willing to pay 10$ more for Nike sneakers placed in scented rooms, than those placed in an unscented one.
The downside to using scents for marketing
On the other hand, scenting a space can also go horribly wrong. Using scent is much more tricky and complex than using music or visuals. A Wal-Mart in north Spokane had to be evacuated and one person even ended up in the hospital when an “unidentified odour” wafted out of the bathrooms and gave many shoppers headaches and dry mouth. Smells have the potential of creating unanticipated allergies in certain people, and in lesser degrees can cause people to simply leave a space, something unlikely to happen with, say, a bad song.
Scents can be highly subjective
Businesses must also deal with the subjective nature of smells, according to Spangenberg. This makes using smells highly risky and complex, especially when cultural appropriateness and gender come into play. Plus, scent works great when it is congruent with the business it is promoting, but if not done right, it can actually hurt the business more than when no scent is used. Spangenberg tested different smells to go with certain products. He saw that in a clothing store, floral scents only attracted women and fewer men, while masculine smells of rose maroc attracted more men and lesser women.
The kind of smell you use plays a huge role in the success of your campaign, Spangenberg suggests. His other studies show that people are more likely to respond to what they expect. The smells of holiday spices or chocolate chip cookies work better than ordinary, generic smells during Christmas, for example. In another study he discovered that people are likely to spend 20% more in stores scented with simpler scents that they could instantly process rather than more complex smells.
How businesses can make use of it
With all this information in mind, many businesses have been able to make use of scents to sell their products more effectively. The key however, is to keep it natural, simple and diffuse, as overpowering and complex smells can be distracting and actually have negative effects. Also, as Spangenberg discovered, the scent you use should take into account your product and the gender, age, geography and culture of the target market. This is why many businesses go to scent marketing consultants to develop a scent marketing strategy with a customized and unique scent that would work for their business.
If we take the example of Cinnabon, we all love the smell of freshly baked Cinnabon, and this is always enticing for anyone who loves cinnamon rolls. However, this is no accident, but an entire strategy according to the President of Cinnabon, Kat Cole. The ovens are specifically placed at the front of the store the smell would waft out and spread throughout the malls and airports where the stores are usually located. The ventilations systems and oven covers used are also deliberately of lower quality, to help trap the sweet aromas in. Over here this successful chain utilizes natural odours to draw in their customers and boost sales.
On the other hand, a similar business where food smells are used, artificial smells are created. The M&M World store in Leicester Square, London stores pre-packaged goodies, and so utilized the services of a scent marketing company to create a chocolate aroma diffused around the store.
Other companies may use various artificial smells in line with their brand image and products, as we saw in the Jimmy Choo and Westin Hotels examples, or just as an ambient smell to create a pleasant atmosphere. This is usually done by vaporizing the scent through “nebulisation technology” using high-voltage, low current electricity. The dry vapour is then spread through the ventilation systems. I also know of one company here in Australia that markets scent marketing using a battery powered automatic dispenser utilising a very fine mist. This helps make the smell very subtle, working on a subconscious level and sort of becoming part of the environment instead of being consciously there.