The rise of aroma marketing

Is your nose falling prey to stealth advertising?
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01 .Introduction

Aroma Marketing

We investigate the use of scent as a marketing tool, and talk to the companies leading the trend.

The world of marketing incorporates everything from glossy posters and elaborate window displays to thumping music, all of which are designed to arouse our senses. And when it comes to food, taste tests are a tried-and-true method for converting browsers to buyers. 

But what about our sense of smell? Continually seeking new ways to transform consumer wants into needs, marketers are exploring a new avenue: scent.

Although not a recent phenomenon – Coco Chanel is believed, back in 1921, to have ordered the salesladies at her Parisian boutique to spritz stores with her now-famous No. 5 fragrance to lure customers through the doors – scent marketing has only lately taken off as an industry.

With consumers able to easily shop online with a few simple clicks – we can now browse virtual supermarket aisles, reserve hotel rooms and even order a new outfit on a Friday morning and have it delivered in time for the weekend – brands are scrambling for ideas to bring consumer spending back to the physical realm. 

Scent marketing, according to its advocates, is emerging as one of the more effective methods.

Lead by the nose

Alex Cosic is the national sales manager for international scent marketing company, Air Aroma. He says the dramatic move towards online shopping means only one thing for brands: the renewed need for a competitive edge. 

“We’re coming into an era where the actual customer experience of being in a hotel or retail store is becoming more and more important,” he tells CHOICE.

Many of us can recall a store, hotel or entertainment space we find visually appealing, quirky or memorable. And, although the same products are often available online, as consumers we may be drawn back to these carefully orchestrated environments that, according to Cosic, are planned down to a certain music choice, view and, increasingly, scent. 

Enlisted by Qantas in 2010 to design the green tea-based fragrance used in its business lounges, Cosic has no doubt scent marketing will be vital to the future growth of brands that are in the business of selling.

Smell is one of our most powerful senses, according to Cosic – whose background in the wine industry taught him the value of aroma. “It’s linked to the fact that people tend to spend more time in the space if the area is comfortable, and from this it is likely that turnover will increase. If you have a great experience in a store, you’ll go back there all the time.”

How does it work?

  • Scent can be delivered via dry-air technology that releases fragrance without sprays, aerosols or heated oils, or via miniscule particles dispersed with cold air diffusers through the building’s air conditioning system.
  • The oil, created by professional perfumers, is not heated to ensure consistent diffusion.
  • The cost to scent a mid-sized hotel that diffuses for 18 hours each day is about $200-$300 per month.

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Aroma Marketing

Junji Hamano, a creative perfumer referred to as “a nose”, studied fragrance science in France and completed his practical training in the French perfume capital Grasse. Now working in Singapore for global fragrance company Ambi Pur, Hamano says that although each sense is unique, our nose has more than one characteristic that sets it apart from others.

Physically, our sense of smell differs on a very basic level because it can’t easily be switched off – you can close your eyes or block your ears, but it is very difficult to stop breathing in the air around you. 

On a neurological level, the sense of smell – also known as the olfactory system – shares a pathway in the brain that is closely associated with the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions, memories and moods. Smell affects the limbic system before it reaches the part of the brain responsible for noticing and identifying the scent. It’s the only one of our senses that does this.

Humans take an average of 20,000 breaths every day. To a scent marketer, each one presents a potential opportunity to forge a connection between a consumer and a product or environment.

Scents and sensibility

Steven Semoff, acting co-president of the Scent Marketing Institute (SMI) and technical director at US-based Belmay Fragrances, says that while the industry is still in its infancy, it is growing. Founder of the SMI, the late Harald Vogt, told the LA Times in 2006 he expected the market could grow into a $1bn business by 2014.

And grow it has. The Annual Scent World Expo, held in Miami in December last year, saw more than 200 delegates from 19 different countries come together to discuss the potential of the nose – specifically, how best to enhance brand recognition using scent.

“If you look at the way brands promote, it is all about sight and sound,” says Semoff. “So many neglect the second-most important sense – smell – which is directly hardwired into the right side of the brain and allows you to develop an emotional connection to the brand.” 

In a casino, he says, marketers might opt for an “invigorating” scent to keep people alert, while in a hotel, smells that are “calming, soothing and comforting” are preferred.

Researchers from Gloucestershire University in the UK say smell is a very powerful element of unwritten communication, and capable, along with other carefully chosen ambient cues, of creating a strong sense of place.

Semoff believes getting scent right is all about understanding the demographics of a brand’s target audience. You may even have noticed variations of scent in your own shopping patterns – for example, the smell inside a mainstream clothing retailer is vastly different to that inside a luxury car dealership.

Scent palettes range from the fresh – think linen and lavender – to the earthy notes of cedar wood and sagebrush, and the more obscure aromas of burning rubber and even “dinosaur dung”. 

Semoff, who was once asked to create the smell of Shrek for a product exhibition aimed at children, says there is no off-the-shelf aroma suitable across the board.

Brand and scent marketers are very particular when it comes to choosing a scent that will connect with their target market. Hotels, for example, opt for sophisticated scents to enhance our perception of their brand.

US clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, which pumps its signature citrus and musk fragrance, Fierce, through its stores at a comparable intensity to its music, has transformed its scent branding strategy directly into sales. Fierce is now the bestselling men’s fragrance in-store and a popular choice in the US.

The long-established strategy of sellers baking cookies in their home before an open house inspection is an attempt to connect potential buyers to fond memories of home cooking. Similar smells that lure us towards the bakery in shopping centres can now be pumped out even when nothing is actually baking.

Brand and scent marketers are very particular when it comes to choosing a scent that will connect with their target market. Hotels, for example, opt for sophisticated scents to enhance our perception of their brand.

Drew Schlesinger is the general manager of hotels at Sydney’s Star Casino. Having presided over the opening of a string of luxury international hotels, Schlesinger believes ambient scent plays an important role in the consumer decision-making process. White tea was chosen for the lobby at the Star’s newest hotel, the Darling, for its perceived associations with sophistication and relaxation, with citrus notes for the pool and eucalyptus for the spa. (Interestingly, fresh air is the pleasant odour diffused through the Star’s gambling rooms, rather than a specialised fragrance.)

Arriving at these exact formulations wasn’t easy for Schlesinger. He says he sampled about 15 slightly different scents before deciding what to use for the Darling. “The aim is to not only create a pleasant odour, but also to make an association with the property or the hotel,” he says. And it is this association Schlesinger believes draws the punters back, time and time again. Over at the Starwood hotels (Sheraton, Westin, St Regis), enriching guest experience and enhancing the brand are key aims of their scent marketing.

Terry Jacobson, business development director at Australian company ScentAir, says that given the oversaturation of audio and visual marketing, more and more modern stores are designed to maximise the impact of scent and create a multisensory experience. “At most major department stores, the perfumes and cosmetics department is always at the entrance or ground level to meet you on arrival,” he says. “So too for most supermarkets – the bakery is positioned close to the entrance to greet shoppers with a welcoming aroma of baked goods.”

Do some scents work better than others at getting Australians to reach for their wallets? Jacobson says the scent of sunscreen – or Coconut Beach as it is known in the Scent Air catalogue – is popular because of cultural sentiment. Tea-based oils – green, white and even Japanese flavours – and the sweet smell of fresh figs are also big hits with brands at the moment, according to Cosic.

Is there anything wrong with scent marketing?

While Australian consumers are generally savvy and able to recognise much of the marketing spin that surrounds us, this sort of subconscious manipulation goes beyond the generic definition of advertising. So, just how ethical is it for brands to infiltrate not only what we hear when we enter their space, but also what we breathe? 

“We’re not putting a drug into the air, just making the environment more pleasant,” argues Semoff. “The amount is so small – from a concentration standpoint, it is only one part per million of fragrance present in the air.”

Cosic says that, like the colour theme of a store or the font displayed on its signage, scent is an important aspect of branding – and itlooks like it’s here to stay.

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