Does Your Marketing Smell?

futurelab default header

by: Roger Dooley

What does your marketing program smell like? If you have difficulty answering that question, you need to get up to speed on the powerful impact that’s possible by activating your customers’ olfactory nerves. (Web-only marketers won’t have to worry about this yet, but retail marketers and even those who use print media, direct mail, and the like can read on.)

We started thinking about this topic while perusing Emotional Branding by Marc Gobe. This book was published in 2001 – before neuromarketing had become a buzzword – but has plenty of insight into brand strategies that tap into the subconscious. When it comes to smells, Gobe thinks every brand should have one. He points out the success of firms who incorporate scent into their branding approach to build a deeper emotional bond with the consumer. Thomas Pink, a London-based shirt seller, scents its stores with “line-dried linen.” Even individual spaces, like sections of a department store or individual displays, may get a scent boost.

Gerald Zaltman, in How Customers Think, notes that, “Olfactory and other sensory cues are hardwired into the brain’s limbic system, the seat of emotion, and stimulate vivid recollections.” Once a scent is embedded in an individual’s brain, even visual cues can cause it to be resurrected and even “experienced,” according to Zaltman: “A TV commercial showing a person savoring the aroma of freshly brewed coffee can trigger these same olfactory sensations in viewers.” Zaltman sees scents as serving in several ways. The can be “memory markers” that help a person recall familiar brands more than unfamiliar ones. They can also change the way we process information; a lemon aroma, for example, can make us more alert. Zaltman speculates that scents of that type could be helpful when introducing a new product.

The Proust Effect. The relationship between sensory stimulation and memory was immortalized by the French novelist Marcel Proust, who described a memoir-long flood of memories being triggered by the sensation of a madeleine dunked in tea. At another point, a bathroom smell brings back another set of recollections. Martin Lindstrom, author of Brand Sense, is an enthusiastic advocate of incorporating the sense of smell into as many aspects of a firm’s marketing as possible. He notes that a study showed that 80% of men and 90% of women reported having vivid, emotion-triggering memories evoked by odor.

In our book review, we described Rolls Royce’s attempt to duplicate the unique aroma of a 1965 Silver Cloud and how they install this smell on the undersides of the car’s seats. Lindstrom ranked firms for excellence in sensory branding, and the top-ranked firm was Singapore Airlines. This relatively small airline has consistently led customer preference surveys, and Lindstrom thinks that is due in part to their consistent sensory branding efforts. They actually had a custom fragrance developed and use it in areas of customer contact. When customers encounter the slightly exotic fragrance, it should evoke memories of past (good) experiences involving the airline.

Scents can affect perception in other ways, too. Lindstrom describes an experiment in which two pairs of identical Nike shoes were evaluated by consumers, one in a room with a floral scent and one with no scent. Fully 84% of the subjects evaluated the sneakers in the scented room as superior.

Bad Smells. All sensory experiences aren’t positive. Lindstrom recounts the results of a sensory survey of U.S. McDonalds customers that found that a third of them thought that the restaurants smelled like stale oil. 42% of British McDonalds customers thought the same, and both groups indicated that this smell diminished their enjoyment of the food. The survey found that other customers liked the smell, and that it made their mouths water. Nevertheless, in the smell category, Burger King consistently outperformed McDonalds. It’s interesting that while usually bad smells are situational and fleeting – scorched coffee, burned food, a rest room that needs attention – in the case of McDonalds, the consistency of the stale oil smell had reached the point of becoming a brand association.

Olfactory Marketing

There are several ways marketers can use the sense of smell to reach customers. The first, and perhaps most significant, is branding. The keys to olfactory branding are consistency and uniqueness. No doubt one reason for Singapore Airline’s sensory branding success is that they developed a unique scent, and then used it consistently for many years. Regular flyers learned what the airline smelled like; more importantly, they unconsciously associated this scent with the rest of the Singapore Airlines experience – lovely attendants, impeccable service, and so on. A brand’s scent need not come out of a spray can – Barnes & Noble has a fairly consistent scent that included crisp new books and Starbucks coffee brewing.

Olfactory product marketing is a bit more straightforward but is still important. In today’s supermarkets, is there any doubt that more rotisserie chickens are sold because of the enticing aroma of roasting chicken that wafts around that area of the store? In that same environment, though, there may be many other aroma marketing techniques in use, either intentionally or not. The coffee section may have a grinder that lets the coffee bean aroma out as it crushes the beans. The cheese department may place samples out where the can tempt both the palate and the nose. Non-food items can benefit from aromas, too – think linen scents in a bedding store, leather scents in clothing and furniture environments, etc.

In any retail setting, controlling the olfactory environment is important. People will associate smells with the store and products. Do you want to be known for stale oil or something else unpleasant? Don’t forget the Nike shoe study in which a pleasant smell entirely unrelated to the product (floral scents and running shoes seem quite disconnected) dramatically increased consumer preference.

Olfactory Dangers. In scents, a little goes a long way. We’ve probably all had the experience of sitting near an olfactorily-challenged septuagenarian who applied a more shots of perfume than were necessary, and it’s not a pleasant experience. Similarly, a fresh-smelling hotel room is a plus; one that seems to have been doused with gallons of air freshener is not only unpleasant, but it begs the question, “What are they covering up?” Some individuals are quite sensitive to fragrances, and may find strong scents very disturbing. In Got Smell? Ads Target Customer Noses, we reported on the abortive effort to sell milk by placing cookie-scented ads in bus shelters. The ads lasted only a day before city authorities forced their removal. The official reason was the objection of the “environmental illness community.”

Scents should be subtle and appropriate to their environment. The smell of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies would be wonderful in a bakery or coffee shop; in an outdoor bus shelter, the same aroma is rather suspect. Consumers’ brains will process that same information differently. In the bakery, that smell is processed as “real,” while in the bus shelter it’s pegged as “artificial.” Another location-dependent example would be “musty books” – the smell of old paper, dust, and foxed pages would be quite awful for Barnes & Noble or Borders, but might be just the thing to get book collectors and academics salivating at an antiquarian book store.


Think smell. Check out your products and selling environments, both by direct observation and customer queries. Chances are you have one or more “default” smells, even if you are doing nothing – determine if your default smell is something to build on or something to eliminate. Consider a branding strategy that includes aroma – that may not be appropriate for every situation, but think outside the box. Follow through into both the product and customer contact environment – what do these smell like now, and can they be improved in appeal and/or consistency? Finally, never overdo any kind of scent-based marketing – the customer backlash will outweigh any benefits.

Original post: