It’s no secret that scent is strongly tied to our emotions. When you smell freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies or your partner’s heady cologne, it probably elicits fond feelings or brings up certain memories. Smell skips the irrational portion of our brains, explains one expert, Alan Hirsch. Scent also has the power to influence our mood—inhaling certain scents has been associated with lowering depression, anxiety, and stress.
And just as scent can influence how we feel, it is equally as powerful in influencing our behavior. Thus, businesses are using it as a marketing strategy to build brand loyalty and increase sales.
For example, if you’ve ever been to Disney World, you’ve probably noticed that the theme park is full of very distinct smells. Main Street smells like popcorn and baked goods, the Haunted Mansion has a slightly musty scent, and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride smells like salty ocean water. This technique is no accident: Disney’s Imagineers put “smellitizers,” or powerful fans that blow out scent, around certain parts of the park to help create scent memories for park-goers—and also a more immersive experience. Think about it this way: When you’re riding a pirate ride and smell salt water, the storyline seems a lot more realistic and you feel like you’re actually on a boat in the ocean. Ditto for a haunted mansion that smells more like musty old books, and less like sweaty tourists crammed into a room. And when you walk down Main Street and smell chocolate chip cookies, vanilla, and popcorn, it creates positive memories and eventually nostalgia for “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
Disney isn’t the only business leaning into scent (and other immersive experiences) to drive sales. The Hershey’s store in Times Square has three air systems that pump out the scent of chocolate, and Harrah’s hotels pumped bacon scents into their elevators in the morning and at lunch it switched to turkey. An Exxon convenience store in North Carolina added coffee scents to their new brewing system and saw sales jump up 55%.
Using scent to influence consumers isn’t limited to food. Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is well-known for playing loud music and spraying their “Fierce” cologne to heavily scent the store. According to Psychology Today, "Shoppers make more impulsive purchases when they're overstimulated … sensory overload weakens self-control.” Abercrombie & Fitch’s specific musky, masculine scent is also marketed towards “classic, good-looking, and cool” young men. A blog post from Shopify says, “By associating its fragrance with its stores it creates a perpetual self-fulfilling prophecy for its male clientele who by wanting to smell like A&F will be like the models and sales staff in the store.”
Whether you love or loathe the smell of A&F’s Fierce, you can certainly relate to walking by a bakery and smelling freshly baked bread or passing a coffee shop and smelling the intoxicating scent of freshly brewed coffee (if you like coffee that is!). The scents can quite literally allure you all the way to the cash register. One study showed that baked goods encouraged people to buy a home, floral and citrus scents made people browse stores longer and spend more, and leather and cedar made people purchase more expensive furniture.
It’s these types of immersive customer experiences that not only drive a one-time sale, but bring people back to places over and over again. Scent is such a powerful sales and marketing tool that it can aid in branding, (in fact you can learn about scent branding here) directly and immediately influence a customer’s buying decisions, and even create such a memorable experience that customers return. However, as we spend more and more time in the digital world, how will brands continue to use smell to influence behavior? Stay tuned to find out!
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