Does what you smell determine what you buy?

The fanciest shoe stores need to smell more than fresh. Many Jimmy Choo stores contract with a scent marketing company to put customers at ease. See more human senses pictures.
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The next time you go shopping or visit a hotel, pull yourself away from the auditory and visual barrage of ambient music and advertisements and take a good whiff of the air around you. You might notice a faint scent -- maybe the stimulating smell of jasmine at a boutique or relaxing lavender at a hotel. The smell will be barely perceptible: something you wouldn't have noticed if you hadn't been paying close attention. But businesses are hoping these almost subliminal scents will draw you into a serene state -- prompting you to relax, buy more and, ideally, remember their brands.

Scent marketing is the latest frontier in an advertising landscape that has nearly exhausted the possibilities of auditory and visual marketing. The retailers, hotels and restaurants that contract with scent companies hope that distinctive, carefully considered smells will help amplify consumer spending, attract customers and create memorable brands. Some businesses even consider scents an integral part of their overall image, along with music, logos and décor.


The author Marcel Proust was an unwitting forerunner of scent marketers. His work connected smell to memory.
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Smell intrigues both marketers and scientists because it has the unusual ability to call up powerful memories instantaneously. Smell is perceived by olfactory receptor cells, neurons with knob-shaped tips called dendrites that bind to molecular odorants. When an odorant stimulates a receptor, the cell sends an electrical impulse to the olfactory bulb, where odorant patterns are interpreted as different smells. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, smell is closely connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, structures that influence our behavior, mood and memory.

When you first perceive a scent, you connect it to an event, person or thing. When you smell the scent again, it often triggers memory in the form of a conditioned response. Sometimes this happens on a conscious level: The smell of the ocean might remind you of a particular vacation. But smell can also activate the subconscious and influence your mood. Instead of reminding you of specific details from the vacation, the ocean scent might make you feel content or happy.

Scent companies like ScentAir term this phenomenon the Proustian Effect, after the French author Marcel Proust. His novel "Remembrance of Things Past" was the first to explicitly link smell and memory. He wrote of the emotional power of smell in the form of madeleine cakes and their ability to call up images of childhood.

But because people associate different smells with different memories, scent marketing is an imprecise science: There's no guarantee that a scent has universal appeal. In the next section, we'll learn how companies use smells to attract business.


Scent Marketing Tactics

The California Milk Processor Board's attempt at scent marketing in San Francisco bus shelters failed after city officials received complaints.
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Scent marketing is actually an old trick. Real-estate agents have long popped a pie into the oven or set a sheet of fresh cookies on the counter immediately before showing a house. Like a cozy home staging, the scent of fresh baked goods gives potential buyers a sense of well-being and lets them imagine an idealized existence in the house.

Scent companies expand on this rudimentary premise, making the smells more complex and delivering them to a wider audience. Of course, the scents don't come from baked goods or even heat or oils. Instead, liquid scent is vaporized by high-voltage, low-current electricity and dispersed through a building's ventilation system. This allows for the precise distribution of minute concentrations of scent: not enough to irritate a customer but just enough to trigger a mood.


Businesses employ scent marketing for different reasons. The company ScentAir breaks its scents down into four types. The aroma billboard smell is the boldest scent statement. It's the closest link to the real-estate agent's pie in the oven -- a scent that is unabashedly present like chocolate or coffee. A thematic smell is meant to complement a décor. A French restaurant with a Provencal style might choose a lavender scent to enhance the mood. Ambient smell freshens an unpleasant odor or fills a void. And a signature smell is an individual scent developed and used exclusively by one company like Bloomingdale's, Omni Hotels or Jimmy Choo Shoes.

But even when a scent company can determine a business's scent needs, marketing through smell is still a game of chance. Because smell's ability to trigger moods is based on memory, a scent's power will differ from person to person. Some smell inclinations are cultural (like the American penchant for vanilla) while others are personal.

Scent marketing fails most dramatically when it strays too far from the specific product being sold. In 2006, California's Milk Processor Board launched a series of "Got Milk?" billboards in San Francisco's bus shelters. The ads were typical except for their scent -- the sweet smell of chocolate chip cookies. While the Milk Processor Board hoped the smell would make people crave milk, city officials considered the ads a nuisance and ordered them to be taken down. The public was concerned the smells could trigger allergic reactions. Unlike the realtor's cookies in a model home, the scent had no business in a bus shelter.

To learn more about marketing and smell, look through the links on the next page.


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More Great Links

  • Gordon, Rachel. "Freshly baked ads are toast." San Francisco Chronicle. December 5, 2006.
  • Herz, Rachel S. "Do scents affect people's moods or work performance?" Scientific American. November 11, 2002.
  • "Scents and sensitivity." The Economist. December 6, 2007.
  • Smith, Erika D. "Retailers Sniff Greater Profits in the Air, Seek Out Scent Mavens." Indianapolis Star. March 10, 2006.
  • Vlahos, James. "Scent and Sensibility." The New York Times. September 9, 2007.,%20Territories%20and%20Possessions/Nevada&_r=1