Smell. Isn’t it amazing how a dash of invisible scent molecules is able to transport you right back into a childhood visit to your grandparents? Or how the delicious aroma of freshly baked bread seems to lure you into that little bakery around the corner – despite your strict low-carb diet? And everyone recognizes that typical smell emanating from the box of your brand-new phone or television.
Yes, scent is perhaps the most ancient and automatic way through which humans make sense of the world. Needless to say our noses have captured the attention of psychologists, neuroscientists and marketing researchers for at least three decades now.
But research into scent marketing is no piece of cake, as delightful as that may smell. In order to discover how smells shape our thoughts, emotions and behavior, we need rigorous and carefully constructed scientific research – and lots of it. Luckily, three UK scientists (Rimkute et al., 2016) recently dove into every single study out there that connects smell to marketing. This guides covers all topics out there:
- How smell influences choice
- How smell influences thoughts and emotions during shopping
- How smell influences memory
- Smellizing: how to create smells through words and images
- Smell and awareness: does scent awareness reinforce or diminish its effects?
I believe any retail marketer and brand manager brand worth her salt should get acquainted with these fascinating insights.
Smell can make all the difference in marketing, often in unexpected ways. So let’s take a deep breath and dig in.
1. How Smell Influences Choice: The Power Of Scent Marketing
Many ‘traditional’ marketers still deem scent marketing as a fad, despite all the evidence to the contrary. When it comes to consumer behavior, scents can make a difference of night and day.
Generally speaking, a pleasant smell tickles the brain’s approach system, which in turn starts a wide range of approach behaviors. As a result, enjoyable scents attract more people into a store, make them spend more time in it (while feeling like less!), stimulate to try and buy more different products and make them spend more money, especially through impulse buying. The most dramatic scent effect is perhaps illustrated by a field experiment in a casino, which found that ambient scents made people throw in 45% more of their hard earned dollars into the one armed bandits.
If a couple of scent nozzles is enough to skyrocket a casino’s earnings, then what can it do for your brand?
2. How Smell Influences Thoughts And Emotions During Shopping
A pleasant smell makes people feel better. No surprise there.
Smell has been found to be the most emotionally jolting of all the senses. Enjoyable odors make us feel better, which spills over directly into product evaluation. Of course, odors that are deemed less pleasant have a strong negative impact on people’s emotional state.
This raises the question what makes a smell either pleasant or unpleasant. For a large part, this is determined by its intensity. Neutral smells become more unpleasant as intensity increases. So for fairly neutral retail environments, such as office and hardware stores, it’s best to minimize smell. However, inherently pleasant scents (chocolate, fresh bread) are different: they each show a sweet spot of optimal intensity. As soon as this sweet spot is surpassed, event the most inherently pleasant smell becomes repelling.
Surprisingly, scents don’t only change how people feel, they even give a powerful sway to what they think and how they process information. A pleasant smell appears to turn on a switch in your brain that shifts your focus to the positive aspects of your environment and blinds your from the negative. The entire experience changes. A pleasant smell can transform a regular jeans store into a premium boutique that has superior fabrics, better service, more affordable prices – and hell, even your fellow shoppers appear more attractive. Smell isn’t simply an after touch to spice up your retail environment – it reshapes the entire customer experience.
In addition, scents can facilitate attention and processing of products, further increasing the sales meter. For this to happen, it’s vital for the scent to not only be pleasant, but also congruent with the shopping environment. While the aroma of a freshly baked Italian pizza restaurant may be pleasant, it certainly won’t facilitate deeper processing of a neighboring high-tech shop due to a lack of congruency. If you want to benefit from the attention and processing increasing effects of scents, it’s best to seek your pleasantness close to your product.
3. How Smell Influences Memory: Make Your Brand Unforgettable With Scent Marketing
We all know what it’s like when a scent automatically activates a deeply buried memory of an earlier life episode, location or product. Especially with regard to the latter, there are many techniques scent marketers can employ to capture the consumer mind.
Scent acts as some sort of cerebral glue, associatively tying together all thoughts and experiences pertaining to a brand. A simple everyday example: the joy of a wonderful dinner in a restaurant is more likely to make you revisit again two years later when the venue fans out the same scent on both occasions. The scent allows for previous memories to be retrieved without effort. The same goes for physical products: each positive (or negative) experience with unpacking Apple products adds up to the same string of memories, as each product has the same brand scent. Smart marketers can take this principle one step further by aligning multiple marketing channels with one consistent smell. By enhancing the store, packaging and even your print ads with a unique brand scent, you create a seamless sensory experience in which positive brand associations can easily come to mind.
4. What If Your Marketing Channels Have No Scent?
In the age of the internet, the amount of consumer touch points with your brand allowing for smell decreases. Does this mean that the science of scent marketing is dying a premature death?
It doesn’t seem so. Recent research uncovered that ‘smellizing’, which is simply asking someone to imagine the product’s smell, may be the same for a brain as the experience of actual smells. In the case of delicious food, smellizing beforehand led to physically greater salivation, more desire for food and ultimately greater food consumption.
When all the weapons you have at your disposal are text and images, it’s effective to indirectly try to make people think of the product’s smell. Stimulate people to vividly imagine what it’s like to smell or taste the product. In the case of foods, beverages, perfumes and detergents, it’s only natural to describe how the product smells. But in the case of technology and fashion, although they do have a powerful olfactory component, it would be downright weird to describe the product smell in depth. These product categories beg for clever copywriting and art direction, as well as some psychological dexterity, to make it work. But the indirect ways to do that are numerous. In the case of a TV commercial, a very short close-up of someone’s nose, naturally embedded in the ad’s visual storyline, may be enough to trigger the scent department of the brain.
5. Does Scent Awareness Kill Its Influence On Behavior?
For a long time, scientists were divided on the issue whether people’s awareness of the smell mattered. On the one hand, some studies found that people were only influenced by ambient scent when they didn’t take conscious notice. On the other hand, other studies showed that smell influenced choice and behavior regardless of people noticing it.
After analyzing 30 different studies using various settings and experimental designs – from job applicants wearing perfume, to restaurants trying to attract the outside crowds with spicy food scents – the jury is finally out. It appears that awareness of the smell itself doesn’t have to be a bad thing (nor is it good), but awareness of the underlying persuasive intent is. Because when people feel someone is trying to influence their actions, they rely on harsh defensive mechanisms. So try not to trigger people’s persuasion alarms by hiding your scent nozzles in plain sights, or by using scent tactics that have become well known by the general public. Otherwise, people will mentally close their wallets and march out of the store – and sometimes literally so.