Thoughts & Notions

Brand Scents

Could you recognize the unique smell of Crayola, or Play-Doh? Each is as instantly identifiable as are their brands’ names and logos. They both use the addition of scent to round out the typical verbal and visual experience. This adds an extra dimension of sensory engagement that helps to differentiate each in the marketplace. From automobiles and airlines to hotels and consumer products, scent is being used to engage and persuade consumers.

The idea of using a signature scent as a marketing device is nothing new. Religions have been engaging our olfactory receptors with burning incense since the beginning of time and retailers have been known to leverage atmospheric scent as a motivator: Bloomingdales bathes its infant department in the scent of baby powder and Exxon uses the aroma of coffee to persuade customers in their convenience stores.

Engaging all the senses creates a completely immersive customer experiences that helps to foster deeper emotional bonds between brand and consumer. While vision is unquestionably our most powerful sense, when it comes to garnering an emotional response, scent may be the more powerful. We don’t process scent the same way we do sounds or images, because the receptors that allow us to smell are directly connected  to the limbic system, the region of the brain responsible for emotions, behavior, decision-making and long term memory.

Studies have shown that ambient aroma can impact consumer behavior. Noted neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. Alan R. Hirsch studied the effects of fragrance on human behavior and found scent to be a highly effective motivator. Dr. Hirsch’s study at the Las Vegas Hilton resulted in gamblers inserting 45.1% more coins into slot machines within the presence of a pleasant fragrance. At first, it would seem that the gamblers might have been attracted to the pleasant aroma and chosen the machines in those areas over the control group. However, when the Hilton provided the final figures to Hirsch, the results showed that, not only did the scented areas receive more traffic, the slot machines in the fragrance-free areas showed zero decrease in revenues.

Perhaps no one knows this more than automobile manufacturers who have long recognized that the intoxicating scent of a new car is key to linking their marque and new owners. As a result, many have optimized this scent, bottled it and sprayed into new vehicles. Take for instance Cadillac who infuses interiors with a custom scent called Nuance, to ensure that their models smell distinct from other vehicles.

Scent design permeates other markets as well. As part of their sensory environment Westin Hotels, infuses a white tea fragrance throughout its lobbies (The signature fragrance was chosen for “it’s simplicity and its ability to both relax and energize”). SONYstyle infuses the scent of mandarin orange and vanilla in their stores and showrooms and is exploring methods to radiate the scent from store windows to entice shoppers with a whiff of a new flat screen, camera or laptop. While Singapore Airlines began distributing brand scented towels nearly a decade and a half ago.

Testing has shown that scented products are to be considered both of higher value and better quality than “unscented” alternatives. However, before you go scenting your own product and environments, remember you can’t just use a pleasant scent and expect it to work.

For emotional communication to be effective the fragrance has to be congruent with the brand and product or environment it’s supposed to enhance. On top of that, many fragrances consider to be intoxicating in one market may be repulsive by another. Developing a scent that has international appeal and reflects the values and image that the brand is trying to present can make scenting global brands very tricky business.

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17 Responses to “Brand Scents”

  1. Great exploration of case studies for incorporating scent into brand experiences. While not every brand can incorporate scent, it's definitely worthwhile to explore if there are ways to do it, ideally through multiple avenues.

    I'll admit my affinity for Holiday Inn Express because of its cinnamon rolls, which give off an incredible scent in the mornings. Holiday Inn has extended the connection by having cinnamon scented hand lotion in your room. If you happen to use the lotion, you'll have a slight hint of the cinnamon rolls with you throughout the day. This does a great job of extending the brand experience even when you're not at the property.

  2. blackcoffee says:

    Thanks for contributing. I didn't know about Holiday Inn Express and I do love me some cinnamon rolls!


    Mark Gallagher
    Brand Expressionist®

  3. ken peters says:

    Just the mention of Crayola and Play-Doh engages my "scent memory". The scents of those two brands have to be their most powerful identifiers, and they're both indelibly tied to childhood memories.

    Great post on an often too-overlooked aspect of branding. Think of all the things in life where scent is a critical factor to the joy of the experience: Going to the ballpark and smelling the popcorn, peanuts, etc., the scent of pine and a warm fire at Christmastime. I've even ended up equating the scents of chlorine and sun tan lotion with the Fourth of July because of all the swimming that's typically involved at our house.

    I love walking into a Sports Authority and encountering the scent of rubber (new shoes, basketballs, etc.). It's distinct, and it immediately feels "athletic". And, it's a totally different rubber smell than that which you encounter when purchasing new tires. Both tie in so strongly to the experience.

    Took my son to PetSmart the other day, and that is definitely a brand that needs to improve the retail scent! :-)


    • They say that earlier someone is exposed to a scent the stronger the connection. This may explain why brands like Crayola and Play-Doh and scents like popcorn, peanuts, etc… each invoke such powerful memories and emotions.

      Thanks for sharing and sorry for the late response.


      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  4. S.L. says:

    I'm not sure religions use incense as a branding tool, but I agree that scent can be very powerful. Who doesn't have a memory associated with fresh-cut grass, coffee or bacon? I'm curious – what do you think some major brands would smell like, say Apple vs. Microsoft? Or Target vs. Walmart?

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