Something in the Air

In a growing trend, retailers are perfuming stores with near-subliminal scents. Call it branding's final frontier

According to Zev Auerbach, executive creative director for Miami-based Zimmerman Advertising, an ambient scent works best when it evokes imagery that’s tied to the merchandise. “If you see a bathing suit in a store, and you smell the scent of ocean, you’re more likely to want to buy the suit and go on vacation,” he says. “It’s the combination of the see and the smell.” Auerbach hastens to point out that such a connection isn’t just anecdotal. “This is pure science,” he says.

There is indeed a sizeable body of studies establishing links between pleasant smells in retail settings and improved brand perception. Spangenberg, a marketing professor and dean of Washington State U’s college of business, has studied and written about human response to scents in retail environments. “We’ve shown that scent can increase the customer’s positive shopping behavior,” he says. “It keeps people in the store longer, they enjoy it more and they express more positive intentions to return.”

A 1998 study from the University of Paderborn in Germany revealed that when retailers use “olfactory communication,” it can increase consumer perceptions of product quality. (A few years ago, a home-improvement chain in Germany discovered that the moment they began pumping the scent of fresh-cut grass into the stores, more customers began rating their salespeople as knowledgeable.) Still other evidence suggests that a pleasant ambient smell has an effect on shopping times and frequency. A 2011 study from Hasselt University in Belgium demonstrated that a pleasant fragrance in the air increased the likelihood that consumers would revisit a store. Semoff attests that there’s also evidence that scent can keep people there too. “If you introduce a scent, customers will linger longer,” he says. “And if they do, purchase intent goes up.”

Not that ambient scenting is as simple as plugging in a unit and waiting for the crowds to rush in. Like any behavioral science applied to a real-world environment, there are many variables, and some possible risks too.

First, Spangenberg’s research has suggested that ambient scenting can actually do harm to customer perceptions if inappropriate to the setting. “Male smells shouldn’t be diffused in female shopping sections,” he says, “and food odors don’t belong with clothing.” Scent “volume” is another issue. Semoff says that, unlike most other kinds of marketing, more is not better. “The law of diminishing returns can apply,” he says. “The scent should stay in the background—pleasant, but not distracting.”

Knitowski of Victoria’s Secret points out that scent can “create and align with a brand both in a good and bad way,” referring to the feeling that some stores overdo the scents of their signature colognes, and if a consumer doesn’t like it, he or she may stay away, period.

Cost is another factor. While some smaller companies opt out of necessity to go with an off-the-shelf aroma (ScentAir’s Kindfuller says that the popular scents among smaller retailers right now include citrus, fig, tea and grass), a signature scent—especially if it’s a branded cologne or perfume—is labor-intensive. “If you have a fine fragrance product, you can re-engineer it to deliver it via scent-diffusion equipment, but it requires a lot of art and expertise,” Semoff says.

Simmons relates that Hugo Boss spent two months tweaking the formula of its signature scent before getting it right. And little wonder. Asked to describe the juice, Simmons says it contains “light accents of fruits and citrus with a hint of cocoa fill[ing] the top note before a green floral heart of gardenia, jasmine and muguet over a foundation of vanilla, sandalwood, cedarwood and amber.”

Then there’s the price of the diffuser technology itself. While a portable unit suitable for a dressing room might run a mere $130, the HVAC-ready diffusers start at $2,000, and a large area like a hotel lobby may require several of them. Replacing the scent oil then becomes a fixed monthly cost: as little as $30 to several hundred dollars.

Finally, a certain haze of controversy hovers over the topic of scent diffusion. Consumers and employees are inhaling microscopic droplets of oil misted into the air by the diffusers, and most are unaware of the fact. It raises questions not only about whether customers are somehow being behaviorally manipulated, but also whether it’s safe to be breathing the stuff to start with.

As to whether ambient scenting is tantamount to subliminal manipulation, the answer seems to be no—for the most part. “It is not subliminal,” Spangenberg says. “But it is peripheral, and if you don’t draw customer’s attention to the scent, it is more effective.” That said, “One could argue that it’s nothing more insidious than pleasant music,” he says.

The question of health ramifications, however, may not be as easily dismissed. SMI’s Semoff maintains that scent particles in the air are no cause for concern. “The fragrances used are all approved by the International Fragrance Association and meet a high level of global regulatory compliance. [The concentration] is one part per million, so you’re way below the level that would trigger an allergic response,” he says.

Not everybody believes the industry position.

“It’s nonsense,” says Judi Shils, founder and director of the advocacy group Teens Turning Green. “Who has any idea what dose is the tipping point? Nobody can say that X amount of this chemical in your body will not do anything.”

Anne C. Steinemann, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Washington, adds that “there are no harmless levels. Even one part per million is high for certain chemicals. It depends on the substance and the individual. Tell a mother with a child who has a peanut allergy that it’s ‘just one peanut.’” She refers to the growing use of scent diffusers as a “public health hazard” that’s “putting people at risk.”

Shils claims to be in touch with “quite a few” Abercrombie employees in Southern California who claim that the presence of too much fragrance in the store environments have made them ill—claims that Abercrombie corporate has vigorously disputed. Abercrombie’s response to Teens Turning Green, which it made available to Adweek, reads in relevant part: “The [scent diffusion] machines emit a water-based, safe fragrance that complies with local, state and federal law. The scenting formulation is also without Air Contaminants as defined by the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Act. Therefore, based on available information, we firmly believe that the use of this scenting program poses no threat to the health of our associates or customers who are in the store.”

Steinemann remains unimpressed by such positions. “The standards of OSHA are really old, and their regulations do not apply to these products,” she says. OSHA did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

In the meantime, scent diffusion is steadily gaining awareness among marketers, which means that its use is likely to increase. “Scent is grossly underutilized by brand builders,” Buyology’s Sturgess says. “But this has been changing in recent years, and we’re starting to see it be introduced in academia. The science is clear: Scent has incredible potential.”

That’s something that Hugo Boss’s Simmons knows already—and he says he’s never seen an instance of the smell turning a customer off. In fact, he says, “the stores would feel cold without the smell. When I walk into a store and the machine is broken, I notice that something’s missing.” Next up, he says: installing diffusers in the Hugo Boss stores in Canada.