Scent Marketing: Does it Work? Who Nose…
More and more stores today are employing olfactory manipulation tactics that are in place to make us spend more money. Called “scent-marketing”, many businesses release aromas into the circulating air in order to trigger an emotional response which they hope will entice their customers to buy their products. Car companies, hotels, and technology stores are just some of the businesses currently employing olfactory manipulation. One of the most familiar uses of scent marketing occurs in the automobile sector. Most car-drivers have experienced that “new-car smell” when they climb into a new car. General Motors recently revealed that they began processing a scent into the leather seats of its Cadillac division that amplifies this new-car smell (1). Samsung also recently began using scent marketing. In their upper west side Manhattan store, Samsung uses hidden devices in the sealing which pump out a honeydew-like smell. The fragrance, they claim, will seduce their customers in choosing their products over those of their competitorsi. Westin Hotels and Resorts recently began scenting their lobbies with a fragrance they call “White Tea”. Nadeen Ayala, senior public relations director for Westin, describes that in using the scent, they are trying to “create an emotional connection with their guests”(2). These are just some of the companies that admit to using these olfactory tactics. These companies claim that their sales have increased since using scents which has led to more companies using and scents and also has turned scent marketing into its own business entity. This mainstreaming of scent marketing has led to a common belief that there is a concrete connection between scent and consumer behavior. Is there, though, a connection between scent and consumer behavior?
When we smell something, air flows in through the nose and is directed to the olfactory epithelium. A certain olfactory receptor binds to different odor molecules with different affinities which then activates a second messenger system. This then leads to an increase in the permeability for certain ions in the cell membrane. The increase in permeability causes an influx of certain positive ions, depolarizing the cell and causing the generation of an action potential down the axons of the receptors. The action potential travels to the olfactory bulb, and then to the limbic system where further processing occurs(3). Recognition of the odor occurs here in the limbic system of the brain. The signal from the initial odor is interpreted and compared to past experiences with the odor and the substance from which the odor was emitted(4). The limbic system, where this recognition and interpretation of an odor occurs, is also associated with mood, memory, and emotion. Consequently, many believe that there is a strong correlation between scent and mood, memory, and emotion. It is the consumer’s mood, memory, and emotion that businesses wish to tap into when they place hidden scent-emitting devices in the ceilings of their stores.
Because there is believed to be such a strong correlation between smell and memory, some businesses use particular scents in the hope that it will elicit a certain positive memory and, in turn, induce a sense of well-being among their customers while they shop. This sense of well-being, whether it is manifested as a good mood or a more relaxed state, is what businesses hope will lead to greater spending. When in a good mood, a customer may stay in the store for a longer time or end up choosing a particular product over that of a competitor. In any case, if the usage of a certain scent leads to greater profits for a certain company or business, whether or not it is due to induced positive emotions, more and more companies will continue to use scent marketing.
In addition to creating a greater sense of well-being among customers, some businesses employ an olfactory manipulation tactic called scent branding. When and individual smells a new odor or fragrance, he or she links it to an event, person, thing, or moment: the brain builds an association between smell and memory (4). Thus, companies try to use certain scents to create a positive association between the smell and the particular good for their customers. In doing this, companies desire to add an extra dimension that will differentiate their product or store from others(5). While some companies use logos to represent their products, others will be using scents.
Although the use of scent marketing may sound like a terrific business innovation because some of the apparent results some businesses have had in using it, it does come with certain problems. One major problem of using scent marketing is that it is a form of manipulation. Scent marketing is purposely employed to go unnoticed by the conscious mind, or I-function. Scents are used to affect the subconscious which will subsequently affect one’s actions or attitude. Some may feel that marketing in this manner is unethical because businesses are purposely trying to affect the subconscious minds of their customers without their permission. Another significant problem with scent marketing is a certain assumption that a particular scent being used will induce a positive memory. One person’s memory that is associated with a certain smell most certainly differs from another person’s memory associated with a certain smell. Like other animals, human behavior does not rely on particular inputs, but rather is quite unpredictable in nature. Although the majority of persons may link a positive memory with a certain smell, one person might link the smell to a bad experience. Lastly, some people may be hypersensitive to a chemical ingredient of a fabricated scent, or may possess some other scent-induced problem. To release chemical scents into the circulating air surrounding these particular people simply demonstrates carelessness.
In understanding the connection between scent and particular consumer behavior, one must again understand that human behavior is quite unpredictable, and that there is no absolute behavior that stems from odor chemicals binding to olfactory receptors in one’s nose. When companies and business employ olfactory manipulation tactics, they, in a sense, are trying to tip the balance in their favor, hoping that their customers have a positive association with the particular scent that they are using. Many customers may, in fact, have a positive association with the scent and, as a result, will feel a greater sense of well-being than they felt previously. Consequently, these individuals may open their wallets to a greater extent while in these scented stores, cars, markets, or malls. On the other hand, most people will have no association with a circulating scent. For all we know, the positive results reported by certain businesses about the benefit of scent marketing may by entirely due to some other factor. So, next time you are out shopping at the mall, don’t always trust your nose!