Surekha Ragavan
Aug 2, 2021

Scent marketing: The sweet smell of (brand) success

With more brands applying multi-sensory strategies, marketers are leveraging our sense of smell to tap into memories and aspirations. But there’s much more to scent branding than simply perfuming a physical space.

The familiar smell of a hotel room is very much intentional and part of a complex marketing strategy. (Shutterstock)
The familiar smell of a hotel room is very much intentional and part of a complex marketing strategy. (Shutterstock)

In the quest to hone their multi-sensory marketing, some of the biggest brands in the world are increasingly prioritising signature scents that aim to embed specific associations in consumers’ minds and evoke emotional connections.

Marriott’s St. Regis hotel line, for instance, has a signature scent inspired by high-profile American socialite Caroline Astor and her legendary gatherings hosted at the dawn of New York’s Gilded Age. The scent emulates the woods of her ballroom and notes of her favourite flower—American Beauty roses—which were paraded at her parties during those evenings.

The present-day common person may have little idea what a Gilded Age party smells like, but the whiff of a St. Regis lobby is likely to remind you of luxury and extravagance. Paired with visual design, textures and music, smell is a subconscious factor that encapsulates the luxury hotel experience. When you get home from a nice stay, do you ever find yourself wanting to emulate that hotel scent, paired with that feeling of hotel bedsheets? Well, that’s exactly what a hotel like St. Regis wants you to do.

“Scent is a critical element that is being added to our guest experience in selected brands,” Jennie Toh, vice president of brand in APAC for Marriott International, told Campaign Asia-Pacific. “With the sense of smell being so intimately linked to memory and emotion, by developing and deploying a signature scent unique to each brand, we are helping create not only a better first impression, but a positive reinforcement of their experience.”

Toh added that scent can also create a stronger brand presence and a familiar, consistent guest experience around the world. So whether you’re stepping into a shiny brass lobby of a St.Regis Tokyo or Copenhagen, the familiar smell of a product or experience can lead to stronger brand love.

“Adding the right scent to a guest experience is one of the most untapped, powerful ways to welcome our guests," she said. "When a guest enters the lobby and is immediately welcomed with a positive first impression, they will, in turn, have a more positive memory of their stay.”

What’s in a smell?

According to research by scent marketing company ScentAir, a positive scent environment can elevate one’s mood by 40%, and 75% of our emotions are prompted by scent. The link between our olfactory system and our limbic system is direct, which means that humans strongly associate smells with memory and emotion. And this, in turn, encourages up to a 65% rate of accurate information recall, according to Chloe Hui, VP and general manager, APAC, at ScentAir, whose clients include Crown Casino, The Executive Center, Melbourne Airport, Air New Zealand, Tag Heuer and Under Armour.

Retail stores often incorporate scent into their in-store appeal, and can indirectly lead to increased brand love.


Despite evidence suggesting that scent should be a no-brainer in multi-sensory marketing, Hui said that awareness and education around scent marketing in APAC is not at a level it should be. This is partly due to brands looking for cheaper alternatives and settling with fragrances made with faux ingredients that could compromise consumer safety.

So how does a brand develop a signature scent? For Hui and her team, they firstly identify components of a brand including aesthetics, key customers and brand purpose. From there, a scent is tailored according to those key components, and based off ScentAir’s library of about 2,500 fragrance profiles. These scents are segregated into categories such as ‘relaxing and soothing’ or ‘luxurious and sophisticated’. Once in a while, a client might say they want a scent outside of these common categories, and ScentAir might work with them to develop something more exclusive.

However, because smell is so closely linked to specificity of experience, culture and universality must also be considered. For instance, people who are more exposed to kimchi could be more positively affected by the smell of it, while others who are unfamiliar with it might be not be as enamoured by its pungency.

This is something that scent marketing companies have to account for, as scents too can be ‘localised’. ScentAir stocks scent libraries which are curated based on generalised cultural preferences. Its Japanese library, for instance, has scents with clean and light notes, but its Macau library stocks more robust scents to appease casino-going crowds.

The smell of restraint

Like most aspects of marketing, scent marketing doesn’t and cannot operate in isolation. Olivia Jezler, founder of scent branding company Future of Smell, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that many brands don’t realise that scent is part of a holistic marketing structure.

“Research and anecdotal evidence show that when all the sensory elements of texture, weight, colour, sound and scent work together, each balanced in unison with one another, our experience is heightened as is our consumer experience of a product, environment or service,” she said. “In a retail setting, the added element or products being sold and the target market also comes into play as additional factors to design for.”

Smell cannot operate in isolation, and must work in tandem with our other senses to create a unified story.


On top of that, scent works together with all other sensory stimuli of the product or environment to tell one unified story.

Jezler said: “If the product sounds like the ocean and smells like pine trees, our brain cannot compute this as a unified experience. It is confusing for us and the scent deters us from evaluating the product as a good product. When all elements work together to tell the same story we will evaluate the product as being of better quality and we will be willing to pay a higher price for it.”

When brands are developing their scent branding, it’s important to take into account the four C’s, as practiced by Jezler’s firm:

  • Customer: The scent should be designed for the customer. They should like it.
  • Concentration: Less is more. At too high a concentration, scent can have a negative effect.
  • Congruity: Scent has to work together with our other senses. The scent should correlate to as many environmental design elements of the space, like lighting, surfaces, colours, shapes, textures and sounds. The perception of a scent can change based on other sensory stimuli.
  • Course: Scent, air and the course a customer takes through an environment have to work together.

The first two factors outline the two primary yet related characteristics of scent: pleasantness and concentration. It is critical to keep in mind that generally, as the intensity of a scent increases, its pleasantness decreases. This means that the same scent in low concentrations may be perceived as pleasant yet when it is increased, reactions to it become more negative, according to Richard Doty, director of the Smell and Taste Center at University of Pennsylvania.

Interestingly, we are evolutionarily programmed to sense olfactory cues at extremely low, nearly undetectable levels. So in the case of scent marketing, less is definitely more.

THE SCIENCE OF SMELL

Olivia Jezler, founder of Future of Smell, said that smell is the only sense where the stimuli—the scent—has a direct connection to our brain. Molecules travel up the naval passageway and directly bind to the olfactory receptors and are transmitted to our amygdala, where we are constantly monitoring scenarios for safety. 

Think about how the smell of a dish can trigger fond memories of your grandmother, for example. Psychiatrist Leela Magavi said in reference to new research by Northwestern University: "Smell and emotion intertwine and can be saved in the brain’s software for years. Scents that soothed children can continue to alleviate stress and anxiety for the entirety of adulthood. Scents that triggered anger and sadness can continue to result in negative emotions for years to come.”

On the other hand, without the addition of a designed smell, Jezler said people may most notice the smells of plastic or construction materials. And these chemical scents may negatively influence the way they perceive a product in that environment.

The absence of smell can also be disturbing. For instance, when New York Times food critic Tejal Rao lost her sense of smell after contracting Covid, even the most delicious foods appeared ‘unpleasant’ and ‘unappealing’ to her.

 

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