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Just Follow Your Nose!

Rick Ruffolo
  • Branding through fragrance is a real consumer marketing trend that cannot be ignored—based in real science and consumer preference.
  • Branding through fragrance is about solidifying an emotional connection with consumers.
  • The best approaches to branding with scent involve well-thought-out test scenarios, coupled with savvy marketing/merchant instincts, before rolling out a broad-scale initiative.

Earlier this summer, I was walking through New York City and happened by the Hershey Store in Times Square. Like many others, I was drawn into the store by the enticing, yet familiar scent of chocolate that wafted onto the street as shoppers entered and exited the doors. The scent hooked me.

It was a scene repeated countless times that day and every day throughout the world of retail—whether the door was in New York City’s Times Square, a Midwestern farmer’s market, Toronto’s artsy shopping districts, Oxford Street in London, Magnificent Mile in Chicago, or at the “Big E” summer festival in New England.

Consumers are influenced by their senses.

For decades, those who study global consumer trends and consumer behavior—notably, Paco Underhill and Martin Lindstrom—as well as Madison Avenue’s top advertising agencies—have researched and tested how to orchestrate sight, sound, taste and touch in ways to influence brand choice and consumer shopping decisions. However, it’s only been in the past five to 10 years that marketers, retailers and brand leaders have begun to embrace the role of scent in enhancing the consumer brand experience.

Fragrance is More Than a Fad—It’s Science

The past decade has seen a flurry of research into the influence of scent on a person’s experience.

Although some of the studies may have been somewhat self-fulfilling in design, the overwhelming conclusion from both academic and commercial organizations is clear: scent matters. The science is there. You’ve probably read about it, and frankly, it’s pretty cool. Only our olfactory sense works directly with the brain’s limbic system, where emotion and memories are controlled. One example, in the medical field, IFF has partnered with hospitals in Europe to use scent to help trauma patients recall memories and restore brain function.

Biologically speaking, the olfactory sense played a critical evolutionary role in early human survival by helping our ancestors sense dangers that they could not hear, see or touch.

Super Sense

Essentially, evolution has led all of us to share a super-powered olfactory gene pool that has survived the dangers facing early humans. A well-known study by the Fragrance Institute determined that people can recognize 10,000 distinct odors; that is a simply staggering statistic. It also has been recorded that people can recall specific smells a full year later with nearly 66% accuracy. For perspective, this type of recall dwarfs our ability to remember images (photos/pictures). In fact, one study showed human’s image retention to be less than 50% after only three months.

In this year of blockbuster Hollywood superhero movies, isn’t it unfortunate that our unsung olfactory ability (our “super sense”) is not highlighted? X-ray vision is a well-known superhero trait, but why don’t superheroes use their “superior sense of smell”? I guess it’s safe to say that Thor’s hammer, his long hair, and his powerful sculpted abs have sold significantly more movie tickets than theaters would have been able to sell if they had focused more on the olfactory acuity of his Norse nose.

More Than Science—It’s Emotion

All kidding aside, Hollywood and the entertainment industry were early adopters in the use of scent, starting with the smell of buttered popcorn in movie theaters. Disney World has mastered integrating all of our senses into the experiences it provides, and its use of scent in its theme park rides/theaters is notable—flying over fragrant orange groves in Disney’s virtual flying experience “Soaring,” a playful stink bug in A Bug’s Life, the smell of sweet honey in the Winnie the Pooh ride. In each case, scent is integrated into the experience to help convince your brain (and your heart) that what you’re experiencing is the real thing.

Ever since Toucan Sam entered the scene in Froot Loops TV commercials in the 1970s, I have been fond of quoting his sage advice: “Follow Your Nose … It Always Knows!” This is not simply a matter of being hungry for Auntie Anne’s Pretzels or Cinnabon rolls when walking through an airport, and it also is not just about tracking changes in electrical impulses in the brain when consumers are exposed to specific scents. Branding through fragrance is about solidifying an emotional connection with consumers—the ever-elusive objective for any brand marketer.

The Opportunity is Right In Front of Your Nose

Since scents, or aromas, influence taste perception by more than 80%, it clearly makes sense that food marketers have long experimented and continue to invest heavily into scent marketing.

This also is true of perfume/fine fragrance brands, where eliciting positive emotions through fragrance are the higher-order selling benefit. However, what about everyone else?

No longer content to just help spur a consumer’s appetite for food or to cover up unpleasant odors in public bathrooms, scent marketing can be found all around us—whether you are buying a new car at a Fiat dealership, gaming at the casinos in Vegas, staying at a Westin hotel, or walking through the mall past stores such as Crabtree & Evelyn, Apple, Abercrombie & Fitch, Lush and The Body Shop.

“Today, retail operators are seeking innovative ways to build loyalty and enduring relationships with their customers,” says Tom Conroy, CEO, Scentair. “Fragrancing environments is a way to create lasting first impressions; hence bringing customers back time and time again. Signature fragrances help bond people to places. It is the new frontier in place branding; scent is the ideal way to create enduring affinity for one’s brand.”

Enhancing the brand experience through scent is emerging nearly everywhere. Just as you can’t ignore the nose on your face, no brand can continue to dismiss the potential impact of this trend. Even brands that don’t have a direct connection to a distinct fragrance character or profile should be evaluating this opportunity. It might not be immediately obvious, but don’t just look for the easy answer. In his book, Brand Sense, Martin Lindstrom showed how scent positively impacted how long consumers perceived they had been shopping at Galeries Lafayette in Paris. While consumers in the control group overstated their shopping time by only 5 minutes, (claiming they had been shopping for 45 minutes vs. 40 minutes), consumers who were exposed to a scented test environment grossly underestimated their time believing they had spent only 25 minutes shopping when, in fact, it had been longer than an hour.

“Think of fragrance as a fourth dimension,” says Bruce Dybvad, CEO Interbrand Design Form. “The olfactory sense has the power to go beyond height, width and depth to take an experience to a different level. Scent can create an experience envelope that heightens your emotional takeaways as it establishes a mood, paints a picture and elicits memories. This fourth dimension changes environmental experience, changes product experience and has an add-on effect that improves our sensorial experience, amplifies our impression and fulfills immersive experiences—from theater, to shopping environments, to a consumer product benefit.

“If you don’t use this key ingredient you risk not managing all the variables of an experience, similar to not using all the colors of the spectrum or all the notes on an instrument. If it’s not there, everyone knows something is missing. They may not readily know what’s missing, but without fail, it will be seen as a picture that is incomplete,” Dybvad says.

To paraphrase Walt Disney the man, people like to shop more (and spend more money) when they are happy and enjoying themselves. So, this opportunity is not just for brands in the food and fragrance business. This should be a key discussion more broadly embraced by brands and retailers, among others, across a wide spectrum of product/service categories—and those in beauty.

“At Crabtree & Evelyn, we are using scent to create ‘indulgent moments’ in and out of the store,” says Tom Woodside, vice president, marketing and e-commerce, Crabtree & Evelyn. “In store, we partnered with Scent-Air, a fragrance technology company, to fragrance our stores and also into the lease line area to attract customers. Out of store, we deliver scented direct mail, catalogs and samples via e-commerce fulfillment. We have found the combination delivers an attractive ROI.”

Where To Turn?

As might be expected, there also has been a sudden influx of people and companies claiming to be experts in this nascent field of branding through fragrance. Caveat emptor. Don’t be fooled—if it smells fishy, it probably is (especially in this field). Like other new marketing tools that have emerged in the past decade—including the World Wide Web, digital marketing, e-commerce and social media—many consultants and companies have rushed in an attempt to be perceived as the leader in the scent marketing space. Some genuinely add value. Others … well, you decide.

The best advice from those with decades of experience in fragrance and leading global brands is to be prudent and pragmatic while also pushing yourself to be imaginative. Be open to learning something new and seek out partners who are experienced enough to know they don’t have all the answers. The best approaches involve some well-thought-out test scenarios, coupled with savvy marketing/merchant instincts—before rolling out the program in a broad-scale initiative.

An Integrated Experience—All Five Senses = A Perfect 10

In summary, like all elements of the marketing mix, branding through fragrance needs to be integrated as part of the total brand positioning. Integrating all five senses in a cohesive manner is a testament to the authenticity of the brand— the 360-degree brand experience.

Without integration, the brand will lose relevance. With it, the sky is the limit as the impact can provide a truly exponential brand lift.

Rick Ruffolo, a member of the GCI editorial advisory board, is an experienced beauty, fragrance and personal care brand leader who has held executive roles at P&G, SC Johnson, Bath & Body Works and Yankee Candle, among others. He is an industry-recognized expert in fragrance marketing; the founder of the retail consultancy R4 Innovations; and the CEO and president of Sensible Organics, a leading organic personal care company.