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The Science of Scent-Based Marketing

When I was in second grade, I flew to visit my grandmother in Chicago. Walking through the concourse at Philadelphia International Airport, I smelled Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel stand for the first time. The smell of pretzels baking with buttery goodness struck me like a hammer hits a nail.

What’s interesting is that 30 years later, whenever I am in the Philadelphia airport and I pick up that amazing smell, I can fondly remember all the details of that specific trip to Chicago. And that smell and its connection to a positive emotional memory drives me to buy a pretzel. In summary, regardless of its price point or ingredients, my decision to buy a soft pretzel is based on an emotional impulse connected to smell and nostalgia rather than purely objective reasoning. This is the basis of scent-based marketing.

Before we dive into the applications of smell and scent in marketing, it’s beneficial to describe the biology of the olfactory system and the psychology of smell and the brain. It’s may get super sciencey up front but bear with me – I’ll try to keep it brief. 

The biology of the nose

From a biological standpoint, when you inhale through your nose, your olfactory nerves contain the receptors that make smelling possible. What’s different about your sense of smell is that it’s the only one of the five senses that is delivered directly to the limbic system where the emotional control center of your brain lives. The other four senses have to be processed by other parts of the brain first before reaching the limbic region. In theory, that makes smell the strongest of the five senses when delivering stimuli to your brain. Thus, scent and smell are very effective tools when it comes to marketing a brand.  

 The psychological effects of smell

When it comes to the psychological effects of smell, it’s closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of aspect of the brain. Smells (whether good or bad) that evoke particular memories (such as soft pretzels) have a profound effect on mood and opinion. In addition to being the sense that’s most closely linked to memory, smell is also highly emotive.

As explained before, the limbic system is responsible for controlling mood and emotion. It is often regarded as being the primitive part of the brain. These same structures were present within the brain of early man. This helps us to understand why smell plays such an important role in memory, mood, and emotion – and is the basis for the theory that smell, sells.

The application of scent and smell in marketing

Using scent and smell as a marketing tactic is nothing new. Coffee shops, bakeries, and restaurants have been doing this for decades, even centuries. But they are all food-based industries. The tactic really comes as a lucky by-product. What’s new is the scent-based marketing industry. It’s where agencies create a scent for your brand – and business is booming. The scent-marketing industry generated $300 million in revenue in 2015.

If you’re wondering whether or not you’ve been the subject of scent-based marketing, here are two of the pioneer brands embracing the power of your nose.

Singapore Airlines

“Singapore Airlines is in the sensory marketing hall of fame, with its patented scent called Stefan Floridian Waters”, says Robert Longley for ThoughtCoNow a registered trademark of the airline, Stefan Floridian Waters is used in the perfume worn by flight attendants, blended into the hot towels served before takeoff, and diffused throughout the cabins of all Singapore Airlines planes. The application here being aimed at brand loyalty and brand pedigree, since a new consumer would have already made the purchase before the sensory experience.

Lincoln Motorcars

That new car smell. In 2014, Lincoln Motorcars (owned by Ford) underwent a rebranding effort, part of which was the development of a scent to reinforce its brand identity with customers. Its Essence of Lincoln fragrance, created with a leading perfumer, is available on scent cards nationwide and is dispersed through ventilation systems in select showrooms. The fragrance exudes luxury and warmth, including scents like green tea to encourage a sense of upscale well-being, and jasmine to create a relaxing atmosphere. Essence of Lincoln is a subtle yet powerful tool to help consumers make an emotional connection to their dealership and the Lincoln brand.

In conclusion: yes, scent-marketing works

A study run by Nike showed that adding scents to their stores increased intent to purchase by 80%. Four hundred consumers surveyed after shopping in a Nike store reported that a “pleasant ambient scent” improved their evaluation not only of the store and its products, but the likelihood they would shop there again.

The purpose of scent-based marketing is to keep customers in the store, and to create a welcoming environment – and it works; shoppers feel at ease and they browse longer. It helps people feel better in their shopping, and in a lot of cases, causes them to spend more money.

Speaking of engaging an audience in a meaningful way, check out our blog: The Importance of Good Creative Marketing. 

John Wargo

Creative Content Manager

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