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Smell that? Scent marketing is your brand’s invisible secret weapon

106703206
In: Web Design, Website Development

How many times have you been walking down the street, or through a mall, or from one end of an airport to another, and impulsively bought a pastry? We’d wager a guess you didn’t buy it because you were hungry—you bought it because it smelled good.

That’s scent marketing in action.

Illustration by OrangeCrush

Scent marketing, put simply, is using scents to attract people to a brand or product. It connects with buyers in ways visual, audio and other kinds of marketing simply can’t: through their noses.

What is scent marketing?

Scent marketing is the use of scents to attract buyers and drive them to make purchases. Like all other kinds of marketing, it aims to create an emotional connection with potential buyers.

Scent marketing isn’t quite the same thing as scent branding. Branding fits into marketing as a specific strategy—namely, the strategy of developing a clear, cohesive brand identity and making that brand identity an intrinsic part of every interaction with your brand. Marketing is broader—it’s all the things you do to make people aware of your brand, drive them to engage with your brand and, ultimately, buy things from your brand.

When it comes to scents, scent branding often involves the development of a signature scent and making that scent the olfactory version of a logo. For an ecommerce brand, spraying all packing material with a signature scent so it’s the first thing the buyer experiences when they unbox their order is an example of scent branding.

Scent branding also involves determining which scents a brand should use to connect with their target clientele and communicate their brand values and offers—much like a brand chooses a color palette based on what will most effectively connect with their buyers and express the brand’s personality. For example, it would be weird if McDonald’s smelled like vanilla, right? At McDonald’s, you expect salty, savory foods served up quickly and conveniently.

A vanilla scent hanging above the plastic tables and counters would feel out of place, but that same scent—a scent that’s been demonstrated to reduce anxiety and evoke a sense of calmness—might be the perfect tone-setter for a spa or an environment that can use some de-stressing, like the motor vehicle department waiting room. Some brands do both, crafting a signature scent and using ambient scents in their locations to make the branded experience more immersive. Others don’t have a signature scent, but use one or more specific, non-branded scents in their spaces to similarly create that immersive environment.

black and white box, multiple images showing the product in and out of boxes and the packaging itself
In the era of ecommerce, unboxing has become as much of a product’s feature as the product’s actual features. Packaging design by maxponto

Scent marketing, on the other hand, can (and does) include scent branding, but also incorporates branded scents into things like aroma billboards, signature scents, thematic scenting and ambient scent marketing.

An aroma billboard is a bold, un-ignorable scent that’s like a billboard for your nose. Cinnabon is famous for using aroma billboard marketing. They do it by positioning their ovens toward the front of their stores to entice potential customers.

Signature scents are proprietary scents that brands use in their spaces and products to extend the brand identity to the olfactory level. Think of Burger King’s char-broiled burger smell that permeates every Burger King restaurant across the globe. Signature scents can be used as aroma billboards, as ambient scents and as a key part of branding specific products. Often, perfume and other health and beauty products employ signature scents.

image of black grill grates with flames poking throgh
Burger King’s signature scent is so recognizable that they reference it in print and audio ads. Image via Burger King Maldives

Thematic scenting is the strategy of giving physical spaces and areas within spaces a notable scent. Singapore Airlines did this with their signature scent, Stefan Floridian Waters. This is the smell that greets you any time you’re on a Singapore Airlines plane; It’s sprayed onto the hot towels flight attendants give to passengers to counteract the stale scent of plane cabin.

Singapore airlines
Via National Geographic

Ambient scent marketing is similar to thematic scenting in that it’s the strategic use of pleasant scents in commercial areas. The difference is that while thematic scenting is the use of a deliberate, bold scent related to a brand, ambient scenting is the subtler use of scents in the environment to alter how buyers feel. This could be the faint scent of honey and lemon to signify freshness in an organic food store or the scent of vanilla to increase students’ moods in a tutoring center.

To successfully pull this off, research the different emotions and vibes specific scents trigger when they’re inhaled. Just like different colors evoke different emotions, different scents have specific impacts. For example, a lemon scent can be energizing, making it a great choice for a gym. Cinnamon, dill, and allspice are among the scents that can evoke a sense of material success, making them perfect scent choices for investing firms, banks and coaches’ offices.

You aren’t limited to using just one kind of scent marketing. You might develop a signature scent and use it as an aroma billboard, or you might put that signature scent to work as thematic scenting. Think about your overall marketing and branding goals when determining the most effective way to use the power of scent to connect with people.

How does scent marketing work?

Companies do scent marketing both artificially and naturally. Brands that rely on their products’ strong scents, like coffee and food brands, don’t need to artificially create attractive smells—simply roasting beans and cooking food creates the scent they need to draw buyers in and make them want their products.

Other ways to do natural scent marketing are to burn candles and diffuse essential oils in retail environments. Muji is one well-known brand that uses aromatherapy diffusers to maintain a pleasant-smelling environment in their stores.

Muji diffusers on display in a Muji store
Image via Boston Magazine
Abercrombie Fierce cologne
This is why you can smell Abercrombie from across the mall. Image via Abercrombie

For some brands, artificial scents are the most effective way to create an environment that connects with customers. Stores that use signature fragrances, like Abercrombie & Fitch, often spray this scent or even pump it through their ventilation systems.

To shoppers, these scents create brand recognition. Sometimes, this recognition is instant—how many times have you been walking through a shopping mall and smelled Abercrombie before you saw it?

Building a pleasing smell into your brand doesn’t just facilitate brand recognition; it creates positive associations between buyers and the brand. Recognizability creates brand awareness, and pleasant associations create brand loyalty.

Why is scent marketing effective?

Our sense of smell is our oldest sense. It evolved from the rudimentary senses our microscopic evolutionary ancestors used to react to chemicals in their environments.

It’s also our most powerful sense. And if you’ve heard that smell is linked with memory, here’s why: the olfactory cortex, the processing structure of the olfactory system, sits in the brain’s frontal lobe. This is the same area of the brain that controls emotions and memory.

illustration of the olfactory system
Image via BioCycle

That is why scent marketing is so powerful. And over the decades, numerous brands and researchers have produced stats to back this up:

  • After three months, humans can recall images with about 50 percent accuracy. But a year after being exposed to a smell, they can recall the scent with 65 percent accuracy
  • Scent marketing can increase a retail store’s sales by 11 percent and increase customer satisfaction by 20 percent
  • Harvard Business Review found that emotionally connected buyers are 52 percent more valuable to a brand than buyers who are merely “satisfied”
  • Humans are 100 times more likely to remember a scent than a sound, image or touch
  • 75 percent of our daily emotions are driven by scent
  • Nike found that buyers are 84 percent more likely to make purchases in a scented environment than in a non-scented environment
  • Not only that, but Nike’s research found that buyers in scented environments are willing to pay 10 to 20 percent more for products than they are in non-scented environments

With these stats, powerful almost sounds like an understatement.

photo of a Jimmy John’s featuring the “FREE SMELLS” sign
Image via Trip Advisor

Scent marketing is immersion marketing, which means that it plays a role in building an environment that markets a brand’s product or service to prospective buyers. Working scent marketing into your business environment can be a way to market to customers without overwhelming them with images and sounds. Think about it—if you’re sitting in a restaurant, which of these sounds the most pleasant?

  • Hearing a short jingle about the restaurant’s delicious dinner rolls over the sound system every few minutes
  • Seeing photos of the dinner roles on each menu and placemat
  • Smelling the scent of dinner rolls every time a server passes by with a basket of them

Scent marketing examples in action

We’ve mentioned a few brands that are well-known for using scent marketing, like Cinnabon and Burger King. Here are a few more quick examples of how well-known brands harness the power of smell:

Starbucks

You can smell this image:

interior shot of a Starbucks
Image via Starbucks

Starbucks takes a two-pronged approach to scent marketing. Not only do the scents of freshly ground beans and hot coffee drinks permeate from behind the counter throughout the shop; they actually add a coffee smell to their store HVAC systems to make the smell even stronger. This is partially to make it impossible for everybody in close proximity to ignore the Starbucks and partially to mask the smell of their non-coffee products, like egg sandwiches.

Rolls Royce

You know what a new car smells like. It has that “new car” smell…that distinct smell that you only experience in a new car, and the only vocabulary you have to describe it is “new car smell.” And if you’ve ever been in a new car, you can smell this picture too:

interior of a Rolls Royce
Image via MotorBiscuit

Rolls Royce capitalizes on that smell by refreshing it every time a customer brings their car in for service. It’s almost like resetting your car every time you get it serviced.

Disney

Visiting a Disney park can be magically overwhelming because at every turn, the environment is optimized to activate just about every one of your senses. For the olfactory component of this sensory attack, Disney uses a proprietary patented device known as a Smellitizer.

photo of a pink and white candy shop window
See the decorative circles in the paneling beneath each window? Those are smellitizers. Image via All Ears

A few key examples of this are:

  • The scent of popcorn near the parks’ front gates
  • Vanilla smell along Main Street USA to make guests feel hungry and buy food

Disney also uses scents to tell their attractions’ stories, like:

  • The smell of old wood and salt air in Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Musty old house smell in the Haunted Mansion

Scents immerse us in specific places (and in some cases, times). You can capitalize on this by using scents that have a strong emotional impact on your audience, even scents that transport them somewhere other than your store. Magic Candle Company, a retail brand that only operates online, connects with buyers through scents that bring them back to memorable vacations:

six promotional images, each for a specific candle scent
Image via Magic Candle Company

What kinds of brands can (and should) use scent marketing?

Can any brand benefit from using scent marketing?

Almost.

If your product has a familiar, comforting smell, definitely make that scent part of your marketing strategy. Think about how Cinnabon does it—their cinnamon rolls smell amazing, so of course that smell is a huge marketing draw. Starbucks, too—close your eyes and imagine you’re in a Starbucks right now. What are you experiencing? More specifically, what do you smell?

For baked goods and coffee brands, scent marketing is a no-brainer. In fact, scent marketing is generally a great way to go for most food and beverage brands—particularly brands that offer up sweets and baked goods.

candy shop logo and sprinkles against a pink background
Logo design by InQueen

But for certain kinds of food brands, scent marketing isn’t the way to go…or at least, the scent of your food isn’t the way to go. Think about how a great seafood restaurant smells. Not like fish, right? If it’s a sushi place, the most prominent smell might be rice vinegar. Or if it’s another kind of seafood restaurant, you might want to smell warm, buttery biscuits or the cool salt air from the waterfront patio. You don’t want to smell anything “fishy” at all.

If you offer something else that doesn’t have a smell, like software or medication, scent marketing might not be the right call for your brand, either. But don’t assume that scent marketing has to be the specific scent of your product in order to be effective. In a doctor’s office, for example, the scent of lavender in the waiting room might soothe patients and make them feel more relaxed before heading in for their appointments.

recycled packaging mulling spices cup
Sometimes, building a positive scent association means keeping one specific scent product stocked at all times. Product label design by Julia S.

Similarly, you can leverage buyers’ positive associations with certain scents to make your products more attractive. Bloomingdales, a US-based department store, embraces this strategy by using scents throughout the store:

  • The smell of coconuts in the swimwear section
  • Powder scents in the baby clothes section
  • Lilac scents in the lingerie section

To determine whether your brand can benefit from scent marketing, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do people perceive the scent of my product? Is it a scent they wouldn’t mind smelling for a prolonged period or clinging to their clothing?
    • If the answer to the second question is “yes,” go ahead and lean into overt scent marketing. If it’s “no,” that doesn’t mean scent marketing is necessarily off the table…but that your product’s scent isn’t the one to use. Imagine a steakhouse. Steak on the grill smells great. Steak on your shirt, hours after the meal? Not so much. But maybe the subtle scent of cedar or warm, spicy aromas that remind diners of a fine whiskey are the perfect way to build positive brand associations
  • What kinds of cultural associations does my brand tap into? Again, think outside the box—maybe you’re a photography studio that specializes in family portraits. The scent of fresh chocolate chip cookies throughout your studio can make it smell like home (and encourage families to come back year after year, making their photo session a tradition)
  • Where do people interact with your brand? Consider all the touch points:
    • Retail store
    • Your website
    • Unboxing
    • Online and in-person events
    • Online and offline ads

To the final point, you can’t use scent marketing via your website, social media or online ads and events (yet—who knows what future technology will bring?) But if there’s any in-person contact with your brand, like unboxing your product or interacting with your team at a promotional event, there’s an opportunity for you to make scent marketing part of your strategy.

Get a design that doesn’t stink

99designs doesn’t offer scent design services, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help you develop a brand identity that easily incorporates a signature scent. Your brand identity is your brand’s comprehensive, holistic look and feel. It’s everything you use to communicate, from your logo to your color palette to your copy voice, and how those assets work together to shape how the world perceives you and your offer. That’s something we can help you with.

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