How important is scent marketing in an online environment?


Bernadette Kamleitner, institute head and professor at the Institute for Marketing and Consumer Research

How important is scent marketing in an online environment?

In a purely digital environment, i.e. online, vision rules. Images are the primary medium online, followed by sound. At the moment, researchers are looking into various ways of composing scents digitally and emitting them via end devices, or even triggering scents by stimulating the corresponding areas in the brain. However, this research is only in its earliest stages. The only example I know of that has been actually implemented is in Asia, a cell phone accessory with scent cartridges that made it possible to receive scent messages.

Digital scent marketing in public areas

Digital scent advertising is already in use in public areas around the world. For example, some advertisers use digital billboards that automatically emit a scent when approached. In practice, however, scent marketing is still primarily analog, and there are good reasons for this. In many ways, the sense of smell behaves differently than the sense of sight, for example. We have no problem identifying many visual elements – e.g. different people, products, or scenes – individually or combining them into an overall picture. If, on the other hand, we are surrounded by several scents at the same time, they become intermingled. It becomes difficult to tell them apart and to assign them correctly. If several sources are producing scents at the same time, scent marketing can become a nuisance in public spaces. Another peculiarity of the sense of smell is that while we can look away from an image, we cannot “smell away” from scents, although we do quickly become accustomed to them. As long as we are breathing, it is essentially impossible to avoid scents.

Scent marketing in retail stores, hotels, and vehicles

Scent marketing is usually practiced in locations where the advertiser can control the environment and its scents, for example in retail stores, hotels, and vehicles.

Multisensory brand personality

Some packagings emit a subtle fragrance, which you only notice if you really take a close sniff (e.g. Apple products). There is a good reason for this. Our brain also processes very faint odors that most people only notice when they direct their attention to them. The scent is automatically associated with the product, which can reinforce the distinctiveness and importance of the product or brand. When a particular brand is consistently accompanied by a specific scent, it helps that brand sharpen its profile and create a multisensory brand personality. However, the fact that tastes differ, even when it comes to fragrances, presents a practical challenge.

Scents must match the product and the brand

Another challenge is creating congruence, or harmony. Numerous studies have shown that scent marketing boosts sales, especially when the scent matches the product and brand and can be easily associated with it. How we interpret and react to different scents is based largely on our own experiences.

Olfactory center linked to emotional center in the brain

It is important to remember that our olfactory center is linked to the emotional center in the brain. Scents can trigger immediate emotional reactions. If we smell a scent that we have already encountered in the past, this can trigger feelings and memories quite spontaneously.

The power of scents

That is the primary power of scent. It also explains why scents are used in certain therapy settings, why people use fragrances in their homes according to their moods, and why we wear perfumes. In addition to individual, personal associations, each scent is made up of a combination of different notes and has specific characteristics that harmonize with specific emotional states. Reactions to scents are different from person to person, although there are similarities, and it is these similarities that scent marketing and therapy work with.

Example: cinnamon

In our part of the world, the smell of cinnamon, for example, goes very well with Christmas. Through our experiences, we have learned to associate this scent with this season. Some people smell cinnamon and hear Christmas carols, others feel transported back to baking cookies in grandma’s kitchen, and others still suddenly feel like drinking mulled wine. In winter, this experience feels right; in summer, on the other hand, the smell of cinnamon is less coherent in many situations. Individual preferences and the fact that, in order to work as expected, a fragrance must always fit into the overall situation, explain why online fragrance marketing may not always be the wisest choice. People who shop online are often in completely different situations. While one person’s apartment may smell of lilies while classical music is playing in the background, another customer might be listening to heavy metal and smelling the pot of chili cooking in the kitchen. This diversity of situations makes it impossible to find a scent that always harmonizes with both the product and the situation at hand.

Appealing to the sense of smell online

And yet there are ways to address the sense of smell in online marketing. As humans, we have the ability not only to experience actual sensory perceptions, but also to imagine them very realistically. Often it’s enough to describe a candle giving off a delicate cinnamon fragrance to awaken much of the power of scent. Imagination-based scent marketing is a potentially effective means of boosting sales, both online and offline, because the customers to whom a certain scent appeals are the ones who can and will imagine it. As an added benefit, no one will be annoyed by potentially irritating scents.

One danger, common to all marketing campaigns, then still remains: creating false expectations. That is something good quality marketing never tries to do.

Bernadette Kamleitner, institute head and professor at the Institute for Marketing and Consumer Research

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