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The Scent of Success: What Does Your Brand Smell Like?

October 12, 2015 By Editor



When companies focus on brand development, many spend millions carefully crafting their visual identity, scrutinizing everything from their logo and website design to the color of their store walls and company boardroom furniture. But what about the scent of a brand? Emotions evoked by aromas can be just as decisive as visual cues when it comes to making a purchase: the scent of popcorn in a theater sends us straight to the concession stand; the scent of freshly baked cookies during an open house help us imagine owning the home; and the scent of a sunscreen reminds us of our favorite beach vacation.

Associating a specific aroma with your brand’s values can boost sales, strengthen brand loyalty and even improve employee productivity. Major companies like Lush Cosmetics, Cinnabon and Panera Bread all regulate smells in their stores in hopes customers will spend more. As the battle for customers’ noses intensifies, is the smell of success (literally) in the cards for your company?

How Stores Use Aromas to Boost Sales

“Olfactory marketing” may be a new marketing buzzword, but the basic premise – using smells to subliminally influence customer behavior – is a long-standing practice. Disney pioneered the use of olfactory marketing in its theme parks, filling its parks with the aroma of popcorn to stimulate visitors’ appetites.

Fast food retailers at a mall food court, for example, have long benefited from appetizing food aromas to draw in customers. Now, these stores have made perfecting the perfect scent a science. Last year the Wall Street Journal reported that Cinnabon intentionally places ovens in the front of the store so scents will linger longer. Cinnamon rolls are baked every 30 minutes; in between baking, store operators heat sheets of brown sugar and cinnamon in the oven to maintain the aroma.

Some businesses have taken drastic measures to protect their stores’ scents. Panera Bread announced plans to reassign its baking staff from night to day shifts in order to maintain the smell of freshly baked goods throughout the day and taste warm pastry samples. Starbucks even stopped selling its famous breakfast sandwiches for six months because CEO Howard Schultz hated how the smell of a sandwiches’ burning cheese could engulf a store’s coffee scent. The sandwiches only reappeared after ingredient changes and cooking protocols solved the burning cheese problem.

“Aroma is one of the many things Starbucks continues to take into consideration in order to offer the best possible customer experience in each of our stores,” said Starbucks in a statement to the Wall Street Journal.

Olfactory Marketing 101: The Science Behind Scents and Sales

But what about companies that don’t sell food – can these businesses still use scent to build their brand? Absolutely, says Roberto Alvarez del Blanco, a professor of marketing at the Instituto de Empresa (IE) business school in Spain. Alvarez del Blanco is one of the pioneers in the field of neuro-economics. Combining elements of neuroscience, economics and psychology, neuro-economics is the study of how individuals make choices. This new research field looks at how individuals categorize risks and rewards and make choice based on sensory input, such as colors, light and aromas.

“Some aromas are specific [to one product], and others are universal,” Alvarez del Blanco tells Wharton’s online business journal Knowledge@Wharton. “You have to realize that the olfactory sense is the most primitive of all our senses. In human beings, a thousand genes are dedicated to it.

In 2010, marketers spent as estimated $220 million on aroma marketing research, perfecting the scent consumers associated with a brand’s stores and products. That “new car smell” we love so much? Alvarez del Blanco says it’s “the product of many hour spent by a team of material specialists.”

While corporate scent development is still in its infancy, Alvarez del Blanco and other marketing experts believe it’s the next major brand building frontier. Companies with aromas that complement their brands sell more products than companies that have not developed their own aromas, according to Knoweldge@Wharton.

Interested in investing in olfactory marketing for brand building? Keep the following in mind.

  1. Match the scent to a brand’s core values.Start by identifying which scents match your brand’s values. For example, the fragrance of the sea breeze is associated with freedom. The scent of freshly baked apple pie evokes nostalgia.
  2. Integrate into your marketing mix. How do you want to position your brand? Scent should naturally bolster this positioning by evoking a strong emotional response in your target audience. Consider where this scent will be used. At a trade show, scents could encourage customers to spend more time at the booth examining products. If you're marketing luxury goods, for example, the subtle scent of rose can prime customers for a luxurious, high-end experience.
  3. Understanding your audience. While many scents are universal, keep in mind that every scent evokes a slightly different emotional response that's dependent on what memories an individual has surrounding that scent. Know your audience and invest in market research to ensure your brand's scent is evoking the correct desired emotional response in your customers. Never assume!
  4. Be subtle and strategic.Whether you're using a corporate scent in an office, store or trade show booth, the key is subtle usage. Be careful not to overpower your customers with too much scent, which could drive them away or even trigger an allergic reaction. If you're at a trade show, include a green plant in your display to clean toxins from the air and reduce visitor and exhibitor fatigue while naturally enhancing the appeal of your corporate signature scent.

Bottom line: What your customers decide to purchase is a combination of past experience, your brand and your product. “You associate the aroma with the moment when you acquire a product or service, not with the brand in itself,” Gerard Costa, marketing professor at the Esade business school, tells Knowledge@Wharton. That's wise advice to keep in mind when developing your corporate brand's scent.





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