The Scent of a Successful Brand

We use our traditional senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell) to help make decisions and navigate the world of consumerism. Most brands focus their relevancy strongest on only two of these – sight and sound. It is through the use of imagery, design, texture, colour and rich sounds that strong emotional ties are built between a brand and its customer. But the strongest sense for evoking an emotional reaction is smell. Let’s take a look at who’s made the best scents of it.

“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 nose more acutely as we have become more sophisticated in many aspects of our lives. Today, we are all culinary experts; we have embraced new cuisines and use many new exotic spices, thanks in part to our noses. We have all become wine, beer and scotch connoisseurs as we swirl our glasses and stick our nose into the vapors. 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.

According to a report published by Kline & Company, a New Jersey-based market research firm, home fragrance retail sales reached nearly $5.6 billion in 2012. But Unity Marketing believes this market is growing so quickly that it may well surpass $10 billion.

According to Aradhna Krishna, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, scent marketing falls into the category of 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 structure of the human brain 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 the closeness of our olfactory bulb, 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, balsam fir tree, and a dirty diaper. Pew!

Scent marketing is made up of two specific categories:

  • Ambient scenting, which 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 mother’s memory in the infant department, soothing scent of lilac in the intimate apparel department and coconut in the swimsuit department. During the holiday shopping season you will find the scents of sugar cookie, chocolate and evergreen to incite the shoppers into a festive mood.

Any business that has the ability to control the customer’s environment in relationship to their brand experience can use ambient and olfactive branding. High-end retail chains, hotels, airlines, stores, banks and, even cruise ships are using 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. But 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 their signature-scent of citrus, tamboti wood and tonka bean, Lululemon with its grassy and rosemary fragrance and the posh Tiffany& Co jewelry store with is cotton-candy scent. I am not sure that was a fit. But maybe it helps with the sticker shock of the $100,000 ring. Love can be such sweet sorrow.


Ed Burke’s 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 the brand experience for their customers. 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 per cent 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 being 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 threshold of awareness.

Brand identity is more critical today than ever before, as more and more 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 behaviors. By targeting the senses, brands establish a stronger and enduring emotional connection with their consumers. As online shopping continues to skyrocket it becomes even more important that every face-to-face brand time with customers become even more memorable.

Many brands fail to make use of their customers’ sense of smell. So harnessing the power of scents is an excellent opportunity for you to differentiate your brand from your competitors. As human memories are closely tied to smell, the longer you build your olfactive brand the more positive memories will be associated to your brand down memory lane.

Start smelling your brand today.

derrick rozdeba

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