Scent infused environments have been shown to increase purchase intent, improve the perception of product quality, increase the length of retail visits and boost the willingness of consumers to pay more for a product.

Yet marketing communications are usually designed to appeal primarily to two senses only – sight and sound. This is reflective of our online lives which, in contrast to real world interactions, are devoid of scent. But should brands be focusing more on the power of scent and its ability to form immediate, powerful and differentiated emotional connections with consumers?


The science behind it

The application of multisensory appeals in marketing has been the focus of significant research. Sensory cues influence consumer decision making processes by creating mental associations that strengthen the recall of brands and products. In fact, smell is our most powerful direct line to memory. A human is able to recognise approximately 10,000 different odours and more impressively, recall smells with 65% accuracy after a year, in contrast to only 50% of visuals after three months (Sense of Smell Institute).

This is supported by research cited by Harvard Business School on pencils treated with tea-tree oil. Respondents were given treated pencils and untreated pencils, and asked two weeks later to recollect specifics about each. The researchers found that:

“Those given unscented pencils experienced a 73% decline in the information they could recall two weeks later, [while] subjects given tea-tree-scented pencils experienced a decline of only 8%.”

One critical element that respondents tended to remember: brand name.

Scents trigger memories – memories influence emotions – emotions set moods. And as humans are by nature irrational beings, and we make decisions based on emotions and mood, the evidence is there that brands should look to scent to influence consumer behaviour.


Concocting the perfect scent

But in order to see the positive effects, brands need to get the scent right. Scents are knowingly selected to represent desired emotional triggers. Incongruent scents have been found to act as cognitive interference, evoking irrelevant information in the consumer’s memory and impeding decision-making. So when it comes to developing a scent for your brand, you need to begin with a solid definition of your brand purpose, tone of voice, personality, values and desired emotional associations with your brand experience. This identity will guide the process of translating your brand statement into a scent.

According to Laurence Minsky writing for the Harvard Business Review, ‘You need the combination of a scent strategist’s skill to interpret a brand through the olfactory lens, and the creativity of a specialized perfumer to create the right composition.’ The feeling of cleanliness and organisational calm can be transmitted, for example, through green citrus.

One example of many that have created a signature scent brand is Hyatt Place hotels. Hyatt Place’s scent brand Seamless is now featured in over 300 hotels across the US and delivers the sensation of ‘welcoming elegance and calm through a blend of fresh blueberries and light florals on a base of warm vanilla and musk.’ The scent has proven to be an integral aspect of the Hyatt Place brand, personifying the brand’s message and mission just as decor, advertising and background music do. And it’s not just relevant to the hospitality industry, Nike found that scent marketing in retail stores ‘increased intent to purchase by 80%.’ In another experiment, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee at a gas station increased coffee sales by 300%.


Cutting (or sniffing) through the noise

Digital marketing experts estimate that we are exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 ads every day. Our online experiences are soaked with visual stimuli and we are cognitively unable to process everything put in front of us. This presents an opportunity to engage with the remaining senses of smell, sound, touch and taste that are likely to have a greater influence on people’s perceptions. According to Gemma Calvert and Dr Abhishek Pathak, of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight, by creating novel sensory triggers that typically connect with consumers at a subconscious level, “marketers can cut through the morass of explicit (typically visual) advertising messages to provoke more effective positive brand associations in the minds of their consumers”.

Since a growing number of consumers seek experiences and emotions that go beyond the mundane, we are seeing more advertisers trying to incorporate sensory cues and exploring ways to enhance in store experiences. Scent is hardwired with emotion, and by tactfully engaging with the senses that are often overlooked by standard advertising campaigns, we can develop more meaningful and deeper brand/consumer connections.

Isabelle James - International Media Executive

Author: Isabelle James - International Media Executive

Isabelle is a French and Spanish graduate and is working for the first time in the media industry. As a member of the international team, Isabelle has been excited by the opportunity to use her language skills in her work and in speaking with her international colleagues.