Have you ever walked into a hotel or luxury brand store and noticed a distinct pleasant smell? Not overbearing by any means, but undeniably present. As it turns out, these smells are carefully picked out and are a smart marketing technique - ‘ambient scent’. Its use creates a certain atmosphere in the room, and although it does not add any value to the provided goods or services, the fact of its presence enhances the customer experience, and is as such a powerful tool for both customer satisfaction, retention, and the ability to attract new buyers (Morrin, 2010).
Here are some examples:
This marketing technique, although less commonly known, has been implemented in a variety of industries. If you have ever been to a Muji shop, a brand that sells products ranging from stationary to household goods and textiles, you would have noticed that aroma diffusers are scattered all around the shop.
Bloomingdale’s baby department smells like baby powder, whilst the swimsuit department smells like coconut. Ambient scent marketing is also commonly used in hotels (Mariott), luxury shops (Hugo Boss; Abercrombie and Fitch), banks (Credit Suisse), where it is often implemented by distributing the desired scents through the ventilation system (Morrin, 2010; Klara, 2012).
What I found very intriguing is the creation of a niche business sector dedicated to providing ambient scent marketing services, with firms such as ScentAir ( https://www.scentair.com ), Scent Australia ( https://www.scentaustralia.com.au ) finding success. A Scent Marketing Institute also exists, developing scents for different brands to ensure that they stand out to the customer (Davies, Kooijman & Ward, 2003). Evidently, there is demand for making businesses more pleasant to the human nose, meaning that the end result for businesses is an increase in key performance metrics. This raises an interesting question: what are the mechanisms behind the increasing prominence of ambient scent marketing?
Ambient scent is claimed to have the potential of eliciting positive emotions (Michon, Chebat & Turley, 2005), which will then lead to more favourable store and product evaluations and hence cause higher sales revenues (Morrin, 2010; Kotler, 1973).
In fact, there is a biological explanation behind this proposition. Our olfactory system (the sensory system responsible for smelling) is very closely biologically linked to our affective information processing system or limbic system (Soudry, Lemogne, Malinvaud, Consoli & Bonfils, 2011), which means that the fastest route to influencing our mood and product evaluation is through scent. The amygdala is not only responsible for emotional processing but also for processing the emotional context of smells (Zald & Pardo, 1997). In fact, it affects our emotional state so much that people with disorders of olfaction have impaired quality of life and score higher on Beck depression index (Deems et al., 1991). Hence the link between the two is undeniable.
Ward, Davies and Kooijman (2007) demonstrated a connection between emotion and odours experimentally. They introduced a scent of apple pie in a cookers department and laundry detergent in laundry equipment in a department store for one week in the experimental condition and no scent for another in the control condition. They revealed that the use of ambient scent increased one’s mood by making the environment ‘more relaxed’ and ‘homely’. As it turns out mood consequently can have positive effects on our evaluations of products and assortment (Batra and Stayman, 1990), which can increase our purchase intention.
Okay, we have seen that scents can have a positive effect on our shopping experience, making us more inclined to buy things that we probably didn’t need in the first place. But what kind of scent will make you happier to whip out your wallet? Does the store you find yourself in just have to smell ‘nice’, or do some smells work better than others?
While trying to get to the bottom of this question, I came across the work of Madzharov, Block and Morrin (2015), who were evidently just as intrigued as I was. They indeed found that different smells act differently on us, with warmers scents such as vanilla and cinnamon (yummy!), increase our intention to purchase. Some smells, like the aforementioned ones, are associated with warm temperatures, which introduce a bias to our perception of the surrounding environment, making it seem filled with people more than it actually is. This occurs because, as we all know, when there is actually a large number of people in a space it tends to get quite sweaty and hot, with an observable increase in temperature (Michon, Chebat and Turley, 2005). But even if the temperature stays unchanged, warmer smells can trick us into believing that it did (Ijzerman and Semin, 2010).
The mechanism by which this is exploited commercially is quite clever - if a person feels like it is crowded in the room, they feel less control over their social environment. To compensate for this and regain self-perceived power, customers place a higher value on luxury items compared to alternatives that may be more practical, buy them, and feel better about themselves again (Rucker, Galinsky and Dubois, 2012).
In a study investigating this, participants were put in a warmly-scented or cool-scented room and were given two advertisements of a luxury item (a BMW car) with two different taglines: one placed emphasis on prestige and the other on performance.
Those in the warm scented room rated the prestige-focused ad more positively, meaning that the warm smells led to power-compensatory preferences.
A field study in support of the laboratory findings was conducted by the same researchers on an on-campus university store. Students purchased significantly more products from the high-end category in the warm scented condition than in the cool or neutral ones. A questionnaire that they filled in upon purchasing an item showed that the store was perceived as more socially dense in the warm scented condition and purchasing upscale items made shoppers feel more important. This has obvious implications for businesses – if you can consistently push customers towards purchasing more expensive items by introducing a certain smell, then an ambient scent campaign not only makes your employees happy (who wouldn’t want to work somewhere that smells like cinnamon the whole day?), but may have a very real effect on profitability.
This explains why Victoria’s Secret always smells so sweet or Bloomingdale’s spreads a coconut scent in their swimwear department – although you may think that this is a negligible hygiene factor, don’t be fooled - you will end up paying more on average that you would if ambient scent marketing was not used!
Batra, R., & Stayman, D. (1990). The Role of Mood in Advertising Effectiveness. Journal of Consumer Research, 17, 203.
Davies, B.J., Kooijman, D., & Ward, P. (2003). The sweet smell of success: Olfaction in retailing. Journal of Marketing Management, 19, 611-627.
Deems, D., Doty, R., Settle, R., Moore-Gillon, V., Shaman, P., & Mester, A. et al. (1991). Smell and Taste Disorders, A Study of 750 Patients from the University of Pennsylvania Smell and Taste Center. Archives of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, 117, 519-528.
IJzerman, H., & Semin, G. (2010). Temperature perceptions as a ground for social proximity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 867-873.
Klara, R. (2018). Something in the Air. Adweek. Retrieved 4 March 2018, from http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/something-air-138683
Kotler, P. (1973). Atmospherics as a marketing tool. Journal of Retailing, 49, 48–64.
Madzharov, A., Block, L., & Morrin, M. (2015). The Cool Scent of Power: Effects of Ambient Scent on Consumer Preferences and Choice Behavior. Journal of Marketing, 79, 83-96.
Michon, R., Chebat, J.S., & Turley, L.W. (2005). Mall Atmospherics: The Interaction Effects of the Mall Environment on Shopping Behavior. Journal of Business Research, 58, 576-83.
Morrin, M. (2010). Scent Marketing: An Overview. In A. Krishna, Sensory Marketing: Research on the Sensuality of Products (1st ed.). New York: Taylor and Francis Group.
Rucker, D., Galinsky, A., & Dubois, D. (2012). Power and consumer behavior: How power shapes who and what consumers value. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22, 352-368.
Soudry, Y., Lemogne, C., Malinvaud, D., Consoli, S. and Bonfils, P. (2011). Olfactory system and emotion: Common substrates. European Annals of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Diseases, 128, 18-23.
Ward, P., Davies, B., & Kooijman, D. (2007). Olfaction and the retail environment: examining the influence of ambient scent. Service Business, 1, 295-316.
Zald, D., & Pardo, J. (1997). Emotion, olfaction, and the human amygdala: Amygdala activation during aversive olfactory stimulation. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, 94, 4119-4124.