I still remember the scent of my first new car. It was a sweet smell of success—a blend of new leather mixed with glues, solvents and plastic smells. I’m sure these chemicals aren’t healthy but very recognizable. The new car smell is so popular that the fragrance industry sells a “new car scent.” Of all the senses we use, the least respected is the olfaction, the ability to smell. Without it, our food would be reduced to sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. A glass of wine wouldn’t have the rich layers of berry fruit, cherry, black pepper, caramel with hints of vanilla, chocolate and tobacco. For those brands that have face-to-face interactions with their customers, the scent of a brand is critical.
We use our five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell) every day to help make decisions and navigate the world of consumerism. Most brands focus their relevancy strongest on only two of these – sight and sound. Strong emotional ties are built between a brand and its customer through imagery, design, texture, colour, and rich sounds. But the strongest sense for evoking an emotional reaction is the smell. Let’s take a look at the scent of a successful brand.
“When we think about any experience, whether it’s personal or commercial, our sense of smell so profoundly plays into how we perceive and make judgments on the experience,” says Ed Burke, director of training and communications for ScentAir, a company that develops scents for other companies.
People are using their noses more acutely as we have become more sophisticated in many aspects of our lives. Today, we are all culinary experts embracing new cuisines and use many new exotic spices thanks to our noses. Connoisseurs of wine, beer and scotch as we swirl our glasses and stick our noses into the vapours. We are refining our sense of smell in many areas of our lives and are more aware of what we like and what we don’t like—so a brand’s smell does matter.
Fortune Business Insights reports that the home fragrance market size could reach $8 billion by 2026. But Unity Marketing believes this market is growing so quickly that it may well surpass $10 billion.
Smells Trigger Memories
According to Aradhna Krishna, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, scent marketing falls into sensory marketing. In her book, Customer Sense: How the 5 Senses Influence Buying Behavior, she defines sensory marketing as “marketing that engages the consumer’s senses and affects their perception, judgment and behaviour.” Krishna says that “no other cue is as potent as a scent-based cue” and explains that the human brain’s structure is responsible for the close link between memory and smell.
Experts have suggested the special impact of odour on our memory could be related to the proximity of our olfactory bulb’s closeness, which helps us process smells, and the amygdala and hippocampus brain regions, which control emotion and memory.
A well-known idea called the “Proustian Phenomenon” proposes that distinctive smells have more power than any other sense to help us recall distant memories.
Everyone has a library of smells that trigger memories like the scent of fresh-cut grass, hot apple pie, vanilla ice-cream, someone’s perfume or after-shave, baked bread, coffee, balsam fir tree, and a dirty diaper. Pew!
Scent marketing is made up of two specific categories:
- Ambient scenting uses pre-existing smells, such as movie-theatre popcorn, to recall consumer memory, and sets the stage.
- Olfactive branding, which creates signature scents based on a brand’s qualitative traits and specific clientele.
Bloomingdale’s uses ambient scenting throughout their stores. They use the soft scent of baby powder to trigger the mother’s memory in the infant department. The soothing scent of lilac in the intimate apparel department and coconut in the swimsuit department. You will find the scents of sugar cookies, chocolate, and evergreen to incite the shoppers during the holiday shopping season.
Any business that has the ability to control the customer’s environment can use ambient and olfactive branding. High-end retail chains, hotels, airlines, stores, banks, and even cruise ships use signature scents to build their brands.
After touring the mall with my nose front and center, the most obvious and somewhat irritating use of distinctive fragrance is Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister as they pump their musky and masculine colognes through their ventilation systems. I need to hold my nose, as I’m not their target audience of 12- 24 age youth who desires a heavy-duty stimulus of smells and loud music to get a reaction.
Other brands like Anthropologie, Aritzia, American Eagle Outfitters, Urban Outfitters and Old Navy all had subtle, unique fragrances that resonated with their environments. Standing out was the fashionable Hugo Boss store with its signature-scent of citrus, tamboti wood and tonka bean. Lululemon with its grassy and rosemary fragrance. The posh Tiffany& Co jewelry store with its festive cotton-candy scent. I am not sure that was a fit. Maybe it helps with the $100,000 sticker shock. Love can be such sweet sorrow.
Ed Burke says the upscale hotel chains have embraced scent branding in a big way, with the Westin Hotels utilizing the scent of White tea and Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco chain using a blend of soft citrus, green tea, black pepper and cloves. Good enough to drink.
Carnival Cruises, Qantas Airlines, home-builder Jayman Homes in Calgary all profess to use unique fragrances specifically chosen and designed to enhance their customers’ brand experience. Jayman’s director of marketing, Careen Chrusch, says, “It doesn’t take away from the visual experience, and helps solidify the positive memories [consumers] have when they think of our brand.”
A study conducted by Chicago’s Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation claimed the amount of money gambled at a Las Vegas casino slot machine increased by 45 percent when the site was odorized with a pleasant aroma.
But is this invisible brand-enhancing ethical?
While marketers say they are just beautifying the consumer experience, critics would argue that consumers are unknowingly manipulated.
The Canadian Marketing Association’s code of ethics states that marketers must not knowingly mislead consumers. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission says it is unethical to transmit information below the consumer’s awareness threshold.
Today, brand identity is more critical than ever before. Businesses and products compete for consumer attention across an ever-increasing variety of channels. Our senses play a vital and complex role in forming our thoughts, impressions and behaviours. By targeting the senses, brands establish a stronger and enduring emotional connection with their consumers. As online shopping continues to skyrocket, it becomes vital that every face-to-face brand time becomes more memorable.
Many brands fail to make use of their customers’ sense of smell. Harnessing the power of scents is an excellent opportunity for you to differentiate your brand from your competitors. Our memories are closely tied to smell. The longer you build your olfactive brand, the more positive memories will be associated with your brand down memory lane.
Stop and smell your brand. Does it smell like a successful brand?