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Scent branding: The final marketing frontier

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By catching a whiff of an enchanting perfume, the smell of freshly cut grass, newly baked bread, even the odour of engine fumes, and many of us are whisked off to nostalgic places in our memories. Smells trigger immediate emotional responses and marketing departments the world over have exploited this everywhere from supermarkets to car showrooms to help us part with cash.

“The length of time a consumer stays in a store is directly proportional to the average unit sale per customer,” said Elizabeth Musmanno, president of The Fragrance Foundation. “Smell can entice consumers to stay longer, shop longer and purchase more.”

Her assertion is backed up by a 1990 study conducted using Nike shoes by neurologist and psychiatrist Alan Hirsch. He placed identical pairs of sneakers in two similar rooms, but one was scented with a floral aroma while the other was left unscented. The research found that, in the scented environment, 84 per cent of consumers felt more desire to buy the same pair of shoes.

Shuvam Chatterjee of the Regent Education and Research Foundation, recently unveiled how the Indian tourism and hospitality industry has emerged as one of the key industries driving the growth of the service sector. Moreover, while international tourism has increased, there is a huge, and growing domestic market, with some 30 million internal travellers each year. Obviously, hotels play an important role in this industry.

Earlier researchers have claimed that people remember 35 per cent of what they smell, compared with only five per cent of what they see, two per cent of what they hear and one per cent of what they touch. So, “scent makes a brand identity more unique, strengthens customer loyalty and adds to the perception of quality, an element that is essential to every brand in today’s competitive market,” Chatterjee wrote. 

Intriguingly, the top ten “happy” smells are as follows: freshly baked bread, clean bed sheets, freshly mown grass, fresh flowers, freshly ground coffee, fresh air after rainfall, vanilla, chocolate, fish and chips, and bacon frying.

Chatterjee also surveyed guests at the ITC Sonar Luxury Hotels in Kolkata, and found that more than 41 per cent of guests agreed that scent is a key factor in the enjoyment of their hotel stay. 

Disagree with his research? One who claims to be unfamiliar with olfactory branding might be surprised to discover that he or she has unconsciously experienced it. Take Play-Doh for example.

Martin Lindstorm once conducted a study testing a group of young individual’s olfactory abilities. He tried to analyse a child’s capability of identifying the smell of Play-Doh. This product’s fragrance was not only easily identified by young individuals, but sent them back to their early years as kindergarten and primary school students as well. Thus as alien as the term olfactory branding may seem, specific examples show that we are unconsciously exposed to this method.

According to Samantha Goldworm, co-founder of “olfactory branding” firm 12.29, successful retail scents take geography and culture into account. “While working as a researcher at Avon, I was able to study every market in the world, so that I was able to understand olfactive preference,” she said. “Scent preferences are based on food, baby products, sun tan lotion and the consumer products you grow up with and your environment.

“In China for example, they like things that are very unintrusive, very soft, very transparent – and because there’s so much pollution outside, they need something that smells fresh; but not fresh in an American way, which would be clean, and not fresh in a British way, which would almost be like commercial laundry detergent. The Chinese need something fresh, which is almost like fresh air.”

She stressed, that overly strong scents can backfire. In 2010, Abercrombie & Fitch’s in-store scent was being delivered at levels that drew protest from a group named Teens Turning Green. The habit of using too much scent can occur when store employees become desensitised to the smell of their environment and, as a result, increase the amount of fragrance diffused in the store. 

Julien Pruvost, director of Cire Trudon, said: “It’s easy to go over the top without noticing, because you will get used to any scent, so staff members lose their recognition capacity, so it’s probably too strong after a while.”

According to Goldworm, a successful in-store scent should be subtle. “In a retail environment, the scent can’t be very strong at all. It almost has to be unnoticeable when you enter the space. You should just remember how nice of a time you had last time you were there,” she said.

The retailers that are most successful in the olfactory area have developed scents that are subtle, unique and brand appropriate, claimed Musmanno. “It’s the companies who are thinking about stimulating every sense that are growing most quickly – and scent is, really, the final frontier.”

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