Overwhelmed by Olfactory Hues

You're the Creative Director of Scent Marketing. What do you do?


  Hound in Field 1958  by  Alex Colville. Used with permission.  Copyright A.C. Fine Art Inc.

Hound in Field 1958 by Alex Colville. Used with permission. Copyright A.C. Fine Art Inc.

There seems to be a resurgent (not new: it’s at least a hundred years old) marketing method afoot: scent marketing.

This little-acknowledged and somewhat sneaky approach to hawking wares was touched on in a broader New Scientist piece about how marketers are targeting more than our eyes and ears, and in a post from Andrew Hanelly, “Scentjacking: Making dollars from scents.” If its comeback continues apace, it can offer some intriguing opportunities for marketers.

What sort of ideas might a Creative Director of Scent Marketing propose? This role doesn’t seem to exist anywhere yet, not even at groundbreaking agencies like New Zealand’s Resn (N.B.: check out their psychedelic website), but since it may become more commonplace in the future, why not start creating some scent campaigns on spec?

Cue the Scent Campaigns on Spec

The first ideas to bubble up relate to the Number One and Number Two greatest scents in the world, i.e., fresh toast and freshly mowed grass, respectively. (Of course it's ridiculous to actually rank them but those two are up there for sure. Some runners up: Laphroaig, new books, a charcoal grill in July, brewing coffee.)

Maybe our first client is a retro diner chain, or a fast food franchise trying to increase its “share of wallet” (sorry) in the “breakfast sphere” (so sorry), or a coffeehouse chain with a similar goal. I’d say to these daring, visionary scent-marketer-hiring folks, “Blast that fake toast smell to the skies! Not metaphorically: Pump it outside.” (If you doubt the power and allure of the smell of toast, try to make some, hang around to really inhale the goodness, then decline to eat the toast.)

Let’s say another client is the New York Yankees. The first 50% of my pitch might focus on razing their current abomination of a ballpark and restoring the true House That Ruth Built to all its glory and (relative) modesty. Viz., no more on-site Hard Rock Cafes or butcher shops. But the next suggestion would be to waft the scent of mowed grass every game day throughout all of their parking garages, and in as far a radius from the stadium as allowed by law (will there be a regulatory regime for this to mirror noise complaint violations?). You know: cut grass, summer vacation, baseball gloves, catch with your pop, fights with your brother, simpler times, etc.

Yes, although being hit with the cut-grass smell could provoke some deep-seated nostalgia, you’re right, Mr. Steinbrenner’s churlish but nattily dressed consultant: nostalgia doesn’t necessarily translate into increased profit margins at your stadium, which by the way offends the baseball gods. But that’s OK, because the grassy scent’s real purpose would be to prime spectators for the summertime slice of Americana that is (was?) Major League Baseball, Little League, T-ball, vacations, softball leagues, and general outdoor romps from their idealized salad days.

Then, fully primed and within the monstrous stadium’s gates, it’s time for the counterpunch. This would be concession-related, natch. Even with the preponderance of delicious, $15 processed hot dogs at every stadium, it never really smells like a classic summer charcoal BBQ (see above re: great smells). Why not? What is the deal? Let’s fix that. Maybe even pump in the smell of roasting peanuts, yes? Maybe the smell of baseball glove oil. And non-stale beer.

Broader Appeal

Those are some immediately obvious options, but they’re cheating — we were working backward by having a smell already in a bottle, then taking it to a client. In the real, shark-infested universe of scent marketing, clients approach you with scent-seeking RFPs. Could there really be a smell-based approach for any business?

For a time I worked at an agency that had Victoria’s Secret as a client. What sorts of scents might succeed in that environment (if success in these ventures can in fact be reliably measured, a constant point of contention in the advertising world)?

Women’s magazines are often perfumed, ostensibly to sell perfumes. Could those fragrances subtly influence women to buy more lingerie in-store too? Does Victoria's Secret already in fact do this? And if perfumes wouldn’t really be effective, what’s their converse? The smell of men’s t-shirts? The not-so-subtle aroma of Old Spice? These seem like terrible ideas for the brand, and even if they worked, their appeal would be limited to women interested in men. Perhaps some intrepid olfactory scientists have determined scents or pheromones that can enrich Victoria’s Secret’s coffers, and maybe stores are already using them. But beyond just making the stores smell nice, any non-problematic options for scent marketing are not immediately obvious.

Is It Our Destiny to Smell Things, Then Drop Cash on Other Things?

As Hanelly points out in his piece, Proust is considered to be the first to observe that smell is our sense most closely linked to memory. Today it’s perfectly commonplace to acknowledge this subtle, mysterious connection, and its exploitation will likely increase along with our knowledge of neuroscience. There are also fascinating developments in using scents to enhance the movie-going experience, a technique first tried in 1960. (Aldous Huxley called it.)

But while there are surely opportunities for scent marketing, much of smell’s raw power is deeply entangled with individual experience, which doesn’t necessarily translate to mass-appeal or purchase-triggers or ROI or clever out-of-home marketing campaigns. Many of our powerful scent associations might be random affinities, unique to individuals, and thus unlikely to be actionable in any real-life scent-marketing scenario. Then again, there should be a percentage that are common enough to be exploitable. Perhaps the ever-heralded rise of Big Data will prove helpful in identifying the more common smell–memory pairings that many people share. It could be worthwhile to start paying more attention to these evocative connections as they are experienced. How much thought do we normally give to our sense of smell?

As a wee lad, I lived for a time in England. I don't know about these days, but back then our friendly English neighbors displayed zero compunction about burning their dead leaves ever fall, a practice long prohibited in the U.S. Still, in rare moments my Californian nose is presented with the unmistakable smell of some noble rebel's smoldering leaf pile, each one a thumbing of the nose, as it were, at our overseers. Just as with certain perfumes redolent of vanilla (memories of high school) or that first sublime whiff of a freshly cracked paperback (memories of fleeting peace), the autumnal smell of burning leaves transports me to an idealized youthful moment, in this case an age when I spent many afternoons bicycling along chestnut-dotted trails that line the verdant suburbs of Surrey. And I wonder yet: What could that make me buy?



Posted on February 3, 2014