Something in the Air

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

Illustrations: Sam Bosma


In 1921, Coco Chanel was preparing to take the wraps off her first commercial fragrance. She had already contracted the most renowned perfumer in Europe to create her No. 5 scent, designed the moderne bottle herself and sent samples to all the society women in Paris. But Chanel needed an extra push to help sell the fragrance at her boutique at 31 rue Cambon. That’s when (the story goes) the designer ordered each of her salesladies to spray the perfume all over the boutique, from the dressing rooms to, especially, the entrance.

Good marketing ideas have a way of sticking around. Today, thanks to the development of electronic scent diffusers, brands no longer need to hose down the air with expensive bottles of parfum. And that’s a good thing. At a time when brands have already fine-tuned everything from their store color palettes to employee dress codes to the music thumping through the speakers, scent—the sole remaining sense that can directly influence how a customer regards a brand—is becoming an increasingly important instrument in the marketer’s toolbox. Given that smell is the most powerful and emotional of all the senses, the bigger surprise might be that it’s taken brands this long to wake up to smell’s potential.

“This is a huge trend,” observes environmental psychologist Eric Spangenberg of Washington State University. “The technology has advanced to the level where anyone can do it.”

Indeed, it seems like almost everyone is. Singapore Airlines uses a scent called Stefan Floridian Waters to perfume the cabins of its airplanes. Samsung has reportedly pumped the summery scent of honeydew melons into its New York flagship store, and British Airways diffuses the fragrance of meadow grass in business-class lounges. Sequoia, a scent designed by Lorenzo Dante Ferro, greets guests at New York’s Mandarin Oriental as they step in off the street, much like the alluring blend of citrus and green tea floats from “air machines” strategically tucked into Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco locations. Customers at Victoria’s Secret and Juicy Couture no longer have to bother hunting down a sample bottle of the stores’ branded perfumes to know what they smell like; they just need to walk into the stores and sniff the air.

Behind-the-scenes diffusers have also largely freed Abercrombie & Fitch employees from spritzing the air with the clothier’s muscular array of colognes; the smells are pumped into the air full-time now. And the list goes on and on: Westin, Bloomingdale’s, J.W. Marriott, Hugo Boss, Ritz Carlton and Jimmy Choo—all brand their retail environments with distinctive aromas (some custom-designed, some off-the-shelf) wafting through the lobbies and aisles.

“Brands realize now that this is a part of doing business,” says Andrew Kindfuller, CEO of ScentAir, the largest manufacturer of scent diffusers in the U.S. “We’re implementing these systems in many different environments—not just hotels and retail, but funeral homes, retirement villages, and medical and dental and law offices.”

Brands want their customers to be in such environments because, as research has shown, even a few microparticles of scent can do a lot of marketing’s heavy lifting, from improving consumer perceptions of quality to increasing the number of store visits. At the same time, the technology has its liabilities. It’s also not cheap—and not without its critics.

Chanel’s example aside, scent diffusion in retail spaces, a practice sometimes called “ambient scenting,” dates back roughly to the 1970s, when retail stores began toying with the first scent diffusers—Rube Goldberg-type contraptions that never caught on.

“In the old days, they used these cartridges with some sort of material soaked in scented oil and a fan would blow it out,” explains Jennifer Dublino, COO of the Scent Marketing Institute. “The scent would be really intense at first, but then it would wane.” Worse, the stores’ merchandise would end up coated with a fine film of oil.

But technology improvements have been dramatic. Proprietary technologies vary—cold air diffusion, dry air evaporation and several others—but the basic idea works like this: High air pressure or a vibrating electronic membrane atomizes a fragrant oil into microscopic particulates, which are then pumped (“diffused”) into the output duct of a store’s HVAC system.

“The mist is so fine you can’t even see it coming out of the atomizer,” says Ed Burke, ScentAir’s marketing director. “You don’t have to worry about residue, and you can control the intensity.”

Brands that use the technology have a singular aim: to put people in the mood to spend. “Pleasant, subtle scents lift our moods and impact buying behavior,” says Donna Sturgess, president of Buyology, a neurological marketing firm based in New York. Brands that have found the right ambient scent, she says, “have seen results as high as double-digit increases in brand preference.”

“In retail spaces, you’re saturated with visual and audio to the point where you’ve learned to turn them off,” observes Steve Semoff, SMI’s co-president. “But olfactory is a different kettle of fish. Sight and hearing senses go to the left brain, but smell is hardwired to the right brain’s limbic system, which is your emotional core. It triggers an emotional response, and the customer builds an emotional connection with the brand.”

For Ward Simmons, vp of marketing for Hugo Boss, scent was the last piece missing from his marketing mix. “For us, it’s about the customer experience,” he says. “If you walk into our stores, you already see beautiful clothes and hear beautiful music—why not make it feel even better and have a great smell? It’s like a ‘hello.’” Simmons had scent diffusers installed in all 42 of the company’s stores two years ago. Not only do customers like the smell, he says, but “they’ve even asked if we sell the fragrance, so we’re looking to expand to candles.”

Victoria’s Secret is pleased with the results too. According to the brand’s vp of fragrance Mark Knitowski, stores waft the brand’s signature scent in the air to “increase the sensory and emotive connection with our customers. We have found—provided the right level and fragrance—the customer is more happy and willing to spend more time in store.”

Continue to next page →