Let Them Smell What You’re All About

by | Jan 23, 2013 | Business, Experience, Marketing

Are profits and productivity hiding right under your nose? Here’s how to take advantage of scent marketing.

Regardless of your work environment, it’s usually obvious that its appearance (lighting, paint colors, etc.) and sound (background music, noise, etc.) can have significant effects on your staff’s productivity and morale, as well as your customers’ comfort and willingness to buy.

It may be less obvious to business owners, however, that they should also be putting serious thought toward how that environment smells.

It’s easy to forget about smell, of course, because so much of it happens at a subconscious level. When it comes to evoking emotions and memories, though, smell is the king of the senses. (If you’ve ever had a scent trigger a flood of memories about your childhood, or an old friend, or somewhere you used to live, you’ve witnessed this effect firsthand.)

The power of smell to trigger an experience is related to the olfactory nerve’s location near the amygdala (the area of the brain associated with emotional experiences) and the hippocampus (associated with memory). It’s almost like smell has a shortcut to those parts of your brain that your other senses don’t.

How important is smell to your business? Consider these examples:

  • A Net Cost supermarket in Brooklyn, N.Y., installed ScentAir machines on the walls to infuse the store with aromas of foods that would entice customers, such as grapefruit in the produce section, or chocolate in the candy aisle. The stores merchandise coordinator reported that sales went up at least 7% since they were installed.
  • In one study, two identical pairs of shoes were placed in two identical rooms (one scented with a floral fragrance, the other not). By an 84% margin, customers preferred the shoes in the scented room, and estimated their value to be on average $10.33 higher than the identical shoes in the unscented room.
  • In the mid-90s, Dr. Alan R. Hirsch conducted an experiment with scented and unscented slot machine areas in a Las Vegas casino, and found that the amount gambled in the scented area increased by more than 45%.
  • A convenience store that started pumping the smell of coffee near the gas pumps saw coffee purchases increase 300%.
  • Various studies have found that pleasant ambient odors have a variety of positive effects on people’s behavior. One study found that shoppers were more willing to help strangers outside of a bakery than a clothing store. Another found people were more willing to help when in the presence of appealing scents like roasting coffee or baking cookies.
  • Researchers from Northumbria University found that subjects performing various information processing tasks did so faster and more accurately when their cubicle was diffused with of rosemary essential oil.
  • Volunteers in one study performed puzzle-solving tasks 17% faster after exposure to floral fragrances.
  • According to another study, people can remember a scent and its related memory with 65% accuracy after 12 months, while visual recall was only 50% accurate after just four months.
  • 63% of MRI patients who inhaled a vanilla aroma reported reduced anxiety before a procedure, compared to just 4% of patients who didn’t, according to one study.

Sounds like something you should probably look into, doesn’t it?

Major companies have long understood the power of scent marketing. Cruise lines and hotels, for example, use branded scents in their rooms and then include those same scents in their follow up mailings to evoke fond vacation memories. They’ve done the research, and they go through these efforts because they’ve found a direct correlation between scent marketing and increased sales.

And the remarkable thing is that it seems to work almost regardless of the scent (as long as it’s something pleasant and appropriate), and it seems to have positive effects almost across the board: people are happier, more productive, more accurate, more prone to buy, more likely to remember, etc.

Keep It Simple

It can be tempting to concoct a complicated fragrance blend to evoke all the various aspects of your brand (“Ergamot, peach blossom, guaiac wood gardenia, vanilla, sandalwood, orange flower…”), but it actually turns out that simple scents work best.

Researchers from Washington State University and the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland found that customers spent on average 20% more in the presence of a simple scent (such as orange) than in the presence of either a complicated scent (such as orange-basil with green tea) or no scent at all. In a separate experiment, WSU researchers found that students could solve word problems faster when exposed to a simple scent than with a more complicated scent.

The researchers believe that the simpler scents (such as citrus or pine) contribute to “processing fluency,” allowing the brain to more easily process and understand the scent. As a side benefit, simple scents are far more cost effective than custom-designed signature scents, which can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce.

Some popular choices among small retailers include tea, grass, fig, lemon, and citrus. For office environments, effective choices for increasing productivity and alertness include lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, rosemary, geranium, grapefruit, and tea tree. And in high-stress situations, fragrances such as lavender, orange, vanilla, or green tea can be used to relax participants and reduce tension.

Consider Your Context

No matter what the research says about any particular scent, you should remember that smell is very subjective, and depends heavily on both the customer and the context. Food smells can be very appealing, for example, but they would seem disturbing in a clothing store.

A home-improvement chain in Germany discovered that customers began rating their salespeople as more knowledgeable after they started pumping the scent of fresh-cut grass into their stores. However, if you’re running a surf gear shop, you shouldn’t assume that fresh-cut grass will have the same effect on your own customers. You’d have better luck with an ocean-themed scent that makes the store feel more authentic, and reminds people of their own favorite surfing experiences.

Don’t Overdo It…But Don’t Underdo It Either

Even the most pleasant smells can be overwhelming in high quantities, and a “wall of fragrance” upon entering an environment can turn people off (and ensure they don’t come back). In most cases, you don’t want your customers to consciously notice the smell; it should be peripheral, something that contributes to the overall experience without being distracting.

However, you also don’t want to be too subtle with it either. Multiple studies on the effect of scents on perception and behavior found that the effects actually increased with the concentration of the fragrance (up to a point, of course).

It may help to think about scent as being similar to background music. Loud music can be frustrating, but if the volume’s too low the effect is lost entirely. Your best bet is to aim for a middle ground that’s neither hiding the scent nor assaulting people with it.

Scent Marketing Isn’t Just For the Elite

Scent marketing can feel like it’s out of reach for everyday business owners, but there’s actually nothing stopping you from starting a “strategic olfactory initiative” in your own business.

For example, Scentsy, an Inc. 5000 company, sells a wide variety of scented flameless candles with decorative ceramic warmers, as well as a variety of related products that allow you to get started in scent marketing at relatively low cost and with almost no effort.

So what scent do you think would be appropriate for your brand? Let us know in the comments.

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