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Scent Branding: Smell of Success?

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Recently, at the gym, I was pedaling away on the Arc Trainer when a cute 80-year-old lady came up and sat down on the recumbent bike next to me. She seemed innocent enough, until she turned out be an environmental affront! As I involuntarily placed my towel over my nose and mouth, I realized she had coated her coif with an overt amount of noxious hairspray. Her cheap perfume combined with the hairspray fumes, rising to assault my nose (and taste buds) and causing my lungs to constrict.

Now, this little old lady held herself with pride. She liked her hairdo and she liked her perfume: It occurred to me that this was a part of her little old lady brand! I dare say, she probably used those very things to snag herself a little old man somewhere along the way...

But for the gasping sweat hogs in the gym... the little old lady brand scent wasn't a good thing. I actually moved to another machine—next to a man who unfortunately smelled like curry (but we won't go there). Not a good gym day.

Lest I digress, I found this all ironic, because I had just started a piece on Scent Branding.

Scent Branding is a discipline of sensory or experiential marketing. It has been promoted by Gerald Zaltman and many others, including the Scent Marketing Institute, and has become a $14 billion global market for retailers and marketers looking to enhance brand experience.


Some may think "scent marketing" and identify with a company like Yankee Candle, which understands the power of scent—but today's technology goes beyond melted wax, potpourri, and fragrant oils. Consumers can now purchase small scent-dispensing machines from the grocery store. Check out Febreeze's Scentstories, which uses fragrance discs to disperse scents like "Mountain Trail" and "Tropical Island" in the home. But, most significantly, scent technology today reaches far beyond the home.

While you may not realize it, you have probably been exposed to scent technology sometime within the last 60 days. Scent branding is being broadly deployed in major retail and boutique stores, airlines, museums, and other marketing venues across the globe, and in a neighborhood near you. This is not a new field, and the science of smell has been leveraged in product development for years.

So why all the commotion (articles in Forbes, USA Today, Washington Times, Ad Age) over Scent Marketing now? It's simple: The sense of smell is one of the strongest and most powerful triggers of emotional memory.

With rapid recall, each one of us can conjure up the smell of Christmas, a newborn baby, fresh cut grass—or the smell of "home." The mere recall of a fragrance can bring to mind a myriad associative memories. And fragrance makes a lingering impression: Studies suggest that people recall smell with up to 64% accuracy after one year. Now, that's powerful associative power!

Used in the right way, scent branding can enhance customer (or personal) experience in a pleasurable manner. The use of scent branding in consumer purchasing environments has been shown to be influential in driving consumer purchasing as well.

Scent Air, www.scentair.com a market-leading scent technologist, has used scent technology effectively in a myriad environments since the year 2000. The company today maintains an impressive client list, including major retailers, upscale hotel chains, airlines, retail chains, boutiques, museums—even beer companies.

Want an example of Scent Air at work? Walk in to a new Sony Style retail store and you may catch a whiff of the custom Sony fragrance engineered to compliment the store experience. It's a combination of mandarin orange, vanilla and cedar. In addition, you may experience Scent Air's ScentWave technology at work in Bloomingdale's, where customers detect the distinct smell of baby powder in the store's baby department, or a hint of suntan lotion in the swimsuit area. The company recently deployed ScentWave technology to project "waffle cone" smell adjacent to a an ice cream parlor in the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando, which was instrumental in driving a 50% sales increase.

Beyond large-scale retail deployment, the company also has systems that support 15-foot scent projection for POP deployment, as well. The firm ran chocolate scent tests at a vending machine in Santa Barbara, driving chocolate sales up 60% (with overall sales up 15%). Think about this next time you go grab a candy bar. The same chocolate scent was used to "flavor" the premiere of the film "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" last year.

So there's power in scent branding, but is it ALWAYS good?

Even for this aromatherapy fan, the acrid scent of Aqua Net and Jean Nate serve to remind me scent marketing can go bad for a variety of reasons.

For example, even though I like fragrance:

  • I often resent Cinnabon for projecting the haunting cinnamon bun smell, which beckons me to depart from my diet at the airport or in the mall food court.

  • I want to karate-chop the "perfume nazis" at major department stores who assault me with "complimentary spritzes" of the latest fragrance.

  • My head reels in Sephora, where overpowering smells distract or disorient me—even giving me headaches that prompt my departure.

And I'm not the only one that can get irritated: Consider this scent branding case study gone wrong (from Ad Age):

Cookies. Yum! Most of us like the smell of fresh baked cookies, right? That's what the Milk Board thought when it launched "Got Milk" ads in five bus shelters in San Francisco. The ads were accompanied by strategically placed "scent strips" that smelled like home-baked cookie heaven. The thought was that perhaps the association would motivate individuals to enjoy a glass of milk with their next cookie.

Now this would seem like a public service to some of us. I know, for me, the smell of cookies beats the smell of garbage, car exhaust, or as Ad Age puts it, urine or vomit (which is often what bus shelters smell like). Evidently this was not the case!

Although it was a small-scale deployment, the cookie-scented ads spawned aggressive protest from groups representing individuals with environmental allergies, asthma, chemical sensitivities, diabetes, obesity, and even those who represented the homeless (shame on the Milk Board for making them hungry).

Ridiculous? Perhaps.

While the news isn't likely to thwart the growth of this multibillion-dollar industry—or the Milk Board's future use of scent branding, it serves to remind all of us that the power to use scents to enhance customer experience is both a gift and a responsibility.

As we recall my little old lady example, here are some things to consider when leveraging scent branding in the experiential environment:

  • We can't depend on smell alone to create the brand association. Scent branding uses smell to attach a user to an experience with an environment or event. Therefore, the environment's layout, design, structure, customer service, products, music, lighting, flow are extremely important.

  • Things that smell "good" to some may not be good for all. As anyone in product development will tell you, testing is required to ensure that scent marketing is helping, not hurting, your efforts to reach the target demographic.

  • Adjusting the scent "volume" is essential. Overpowering your customers with smells that seem overwhelming may be a real turnoff. Some venues call for overt scenting (e.g., cookie store) but most (e.g., hotel room, boutique) require a more subtle approach. The use of too many fragrances can be a turnoff. Just try smelling different perfumes for 15 minutes and you'll catch the drift. Combinations should be tested and adjusted carefully.

  • Scent context is important. The smell of men's cologne spilling into the women's dress department may be confusing. The smell of a Christmas holiday in, say, a galvanized, sterile environment may be confusing.

  • The power to smell and respond to odors differs based on age group. For example, The Boston Globe reported that kids are up to 350 percent more responsive to the five senses than adults, and especially to smell. The elderly population will not be as keen or carry the ability to notice certain smells.

  • Individuals may take offense at highly obvious scent dispersion. My example of Cinnabon stands—people tend to resist and resent overt manipulation.

  • Successful scents can carry over into other areas of brand extension. Popular fragrances can be sold to eager consumers for home use, in the form of room sprays and other scented merchandise (candles, potpourri, sachets).

  • Perhaps most important: the chemicals used in scent dispersion systems can create problems for people with health or medical problems. These include chemical sensitivities, allergies or asthma. I'm not aware of any lawsuits right now, but stay tuned.

Just some things to think about as we add common sense to our choice to add scents to drive dollars and cents and brand affinity via enhanced customer experience.


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Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (www.livepath.net).

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  • by karsten Thu Apr 7, 2011 via web

    Hi Leigh
    Actually I don't think you have such a thing as allergies to scent. However you do find a condition MCS which is terrible and unfortunately much more general that scent

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