I love shopping. I mean, I really love shopping. Not the hustle and bustle, mega-mall, door buster debacle but the casual meandering through an antiques store or small, local shop. I buy some things online, but I truly enjoy the process of looking, feeling, and pondering over objects before I purchase them. It has been roughly a year since I set foot in a shopping mall and, just this past week, I had to stop in and pick up a few items that weren’t available online. Now, I know it’s the holiday season and being overwhelmed is 50% of the equation, so I had geared myself up for a crowded, hot, and loud situation.
Forget the wall of people—everyone was relatively cheerful and a simple “Excuse me” or “Pardon me” made navigation a breeze. Hot and stuffy? Not a problem. I left my coat in my car and shivered my way to the entrance. I had just a few things to buy and I can take the heat. The noise level in the mall was roughly a dull roar. There were children being towed (loudly) behind parents with arms full of packages, bell ringers, cell phone talkers, and the like. As a cubicle-dweller and a mother of an exorbitantly talkative five year old, I can tune all that out, too. The problem….the crippling, unforeseen problem was the olfactory equivalent of a sucker punch to the gut. I was about to fully realize the pervasiveness of ambient scent marketing.
It appears that nearly every store or chain now has a signature scent as part of their look and feel. It’s not a foreign or new concept by any imagination, but this isn’t the simple “throw a batch of cookies in the oven” realtor trick. Ambient scent marketing is serious business. Corporations are trying to connect with their customers on a very basic, associative level by engaging not just their eyes and ears, but tapping into the very unique connection between the nose and the brain. This makes perfect scientific sense. There are only a handful of synapses connecting our olfactory nerve to the limbic system; the part of our brain responsible for not only olfaction but long-term memory. The theory is if you connect a place or product with a particular, distinctive, pleasant scent, you can create a positive association within the customer’s memory that is much stronger than an association created by the product itself (1).
Ambient scent marketing isn’t limited to retail stores. Many hotel chains have signature scents pumped through their facilities in the hopes that customers will recall their stay in a positive light and solidify the memory of features of the hotel that they really enjoyed. Hospitals are also buying in. Celebration Health in Florida is a great example. In order to combat patient cancellations in their MRI department, Celebration revamped the department to incorporate a beach theme. The newly dubbed Seaside Imaging is now complete with beach murals, wooden rocking and folding beach chairs, and an MRI machine masquerading as a large sand castle. Celebration Health enlisted a company that specializes in ambient scent marketing to soften the “medical” feel even further. ScentAir, a Charlotte, NC based scent marketing company, created fragrances called Coconut Beach and Ocean to complete the transformation. Did it pay off? Celebration Health reported a 50% reduction in MRI cancellations which ScentAir touts as a success story for ambient scent marketing (2).
I’m a scientist and a marketer. I strive to find the best ways to reach customers on a personal level daily, providing them with the best products, applications, and data to help them be successful. I’m intrigued by the ambient scent marketing concept, but there is one fatal flaw is the one that plagues everyone in marketing regardless of industry: convolution of message. While we can attribute the forging of a deeper connection to scent marketing, in the mall-type setting consumers are often hit with too many messages. Are you really getting the most bang for your marketing buck if a customer won’t enter your store? I can honestly say that with the barrage of different fragrances, I couldn’t attribute one particular scent to any given store or product line. Perhaps in a closed environment such as a hotel or spa, one can fully utilize the olfactory/long-term memory connection in a positive way but in the hectic mall extravaganza, customer attention is easily diverted and messages are diluted.
I realized as I stood paralyzed in the mall thoroughfare, searching desperately for a tissue, that I was overwhelmed and it had nothing to do with the holidays. I looked longingly at one of the small children walking sullenly next to me. I wanted to stomp my feet and whine too, but that’s not acceptable behavior for grown adults in a shopping center. I quickly wrapped up my shopping, high-tailed it out of the mall, and took a deep, cold breath of fresh air.
- Krishna, A. 2011. An integrative review of sensory marketing: Engaging the senses to affect perception, judgment and behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology. Available online at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~aradhna/JCPS_247_rev_prf_ak.pdf
- ScentAir case study. Florida Hospital. Available online at: http://www.scentair.com/scent-marketing-case-studies/florida-hospital/