The Science of Scent Marketing

By Leanna Serras July 12, 2019
image of The Science of Scent Marketing

Have you ever walked through the mall or the airport and noticed the sweet smell of cinnamon rolls? More often than not, you’ll find the scent is coming from a Cinnabon. This isn’t a coincidence; it’s an intentionally crafted scent marketing campaign designed to encourage sales.

The bakery chain bakes fresh cinnamon rolls every 30 minutes to ensure the smell never leaves the air. They house their ovens at the front of the store where scents can travel to the noses of customers more easily. If they notice the scent isn’t strong enough, they warm sheets of cinnamon and brown sugar in the oven.

This is just one of many scent marketing techniques used by companies across the globe to enforce a brand image, improve public perception of product quality and drive sales. In this article, we’ll go over what scent marketing is, what brands are using it, the benefits of the technique, and how you can incorporate it into your marketing campaigns.

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What Is Scent Marketing?

coffee shop illustration

Scent marketing (also known as aroma marketing, olfactory marketing or ambient scent marketing) is the practice of using a pleasant aroma to enhance a company’s brand image, improve customer experience and increase sales. Scent marketing can also increase customer foot traffic and influence how long customers spend in a store.

This type of subtle marketing allows companies to connect with their customers on an emotional level. It’s used across industries including retailers, restaurants, hotel operators, airlines and many more.

Scent marketing is much more than simply wafting the smell of a product from a storefront. There’s a lot that goes into creating an effective scent marketing campaign, from deciding what types of smells to use to choosing where and how to disperse them. For example, many food, beauty product and household cleaner companies print scents onto their packaging labels to encourage sales — and it works.

glasses of milk being poured

How Scent Triggers Emotion

The American Marketing Association reports that an attractive scent can entice customers to stay up to 44 percent longer in a business. Certain scents can induce hunger, increase alertness and encourage purchases — but why?

Smell is the strongest of our senses and is directly linked to the parts of the brain that control memory and emotion. For this reason, scents can influence involuntary reactions and opinions. For example, a Brown University study found that women experienced more heightened brain activity when smelling a perfume they associated with a positive memory than when given any other sensory cue. This indicates that smell could be more powerful in evoking memory and emotion than even sight.

This can have a positive effect, such as when a person is brought back in time by the smell of cookies their grandmother used to make. It can also work in reverse by triggering negative emotions, like a Vietnam veteran who experiences disturbing memories and feelings of guilt at the smell of diesel.

By leveraging the positive emotions triggered by many widely loved scents, companies can communicate to their customers that their product is valuable. This technique can also be used to influence employee behavior, increasing productivity and satisfaction. It can also be used to promote a certain theme or product, drawing attention to it through a related scent.

home decor on side table

Types of Scent Marketing

Scent marketing can be used in many different ways. Companies might use fragrance to sell a product, create a cohesive brand experience or influence employees. According to Vectair, a manufacturer of hygiene and scent products, scent marketing can be split up into four types:

  • Aroma billboard: This is what many people think of when they conjure an image of scent marketing. It’s when a company associates a bold, noticeable scent with their brand. The smell is the same at every location and acts as a sort of “billboard”, saturating the area with a scent. The Cinnabon strategy above is an example of an aroma billboard smell.
  • Thematic: This smell is often relevant to the type of business that is using it. It’s more subtle than an aroma billboard smell and often more generic. For example, spas usually utilize fresh, cool scents in their ambiance to set the mood for their offering.
  • Ambient smells: These are subtle smells sometimes used to cover up a bad smell or fill a void. Public bathrooms in malls or large shopping centers often use ambient smells. These smells are usually light and universally pleasant.
  • Signature smells: Many retail establishments or designer storefronts will use a signature scent at all of their locations. Sometimes it’s a perfume the brand sells or a scent that evokes a certain feeling. In this case, the same scent is always used and will trigger the memory if whiffed elsewhere. Abercrombie and Fitch, with their heavily scented storefronts, is a great example of a company using a signature smell.

Why Retailers Use Scent Marketing

retail items illustration

Retailers use scent marketing to create an experience at their storefronts that customers will remember. They want to connect with their customers on a deeper level than they would be able to with visual stimulation. Here are some of the reasons retailers use scent marketing.

hand using espresso machine

Scent Marketing Boosts Sales

One study found that when major retailers used scent marketing in their stores intent to purchase increased by 80 percent. Additionally, wafting a pleasant smell in the room not only entices customers to buy more, it also encourages them to stick around longer.

Similarly, Starbucks found that customer experience was improved when they eliminated the smell of cooking their egg sandwiches, which conflicted with the smell of their freshly ground their coffee. A gas station started pumping the smell of coffee near the gas pumps and increased sales by 300 percent!

people shopping

Scent Marketing Helps Create a Brand Image

Studies show that people can relate a scent to a memory with 65 percent accuracy within 12 months. That means customers will associate a smell with a brand image and recall it when they smell it later. Scents can help create an experience associated with a brand and subtly influence a customer’s view of a brand.

Scent can also affect customers’ perception of quality. For example, some high-end stores will pump the scent of cardamom and frankincense lightly through their air vents to create a sense of opulence or extravagance. A company that sells beauty products may diffuse a fresh, clean scent to influence customers perception that their products are high-end.

scent diffuser

Drawbacks to scent marketing

Just as scent marketing can craft a positive image for a brand, so can it create a negative one. Every person is different and associates scents with different experiences. Since scent marketing is so subtle, a customer might display an adverse reaction to a brand and not even realize why.

Additionally, scent marketing can be overwhelming to some. If a person has a sensitivity to smells it may be difficult to spend time in a store that uses scent marketing. Lastly, different cultures and ages have different associations with certain smells. What is enticing to some can be too aggressive to others. As long as companies are subtle with their scent marketing they can avoid many of these drawbacks.

Scent can be used to evoke emotion — which makes it such a powerful force in marketing. Retailers can use it to connect with their customers on an unconscious level, building rapport and encouraging repeat business. Think about what you want your brand to evoke to your customers and try it for yourself!

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