Buying by the Nose

My husband and I are racing through Penn Station to catch a subway to my brother’s house in Brooklyn. We’re expected for dinner in 15 minutes—now an impossible deadline. Near the LIRR entrance my husband suddenly stops. “I want to go to Cinnabon!” he shouts. “What?!” I call back to him. “We’re going to be eating as soon as we get to my brother’s…” But then it hits me, or rather my nose. We’re within scent distance of the Cinnabon kiosk and its aromatic temptation. Will this compulsion force us to eat dessert first? If we’re strong willed, maybe not. But if we succumb, are we really to blame? Or are we just victims of manipulation by scent marketing?

Cinnabon is among the best of the literal scent advertisers—those who use the scent of their wares to lure passersby. Indeed, an increasing number of food retailers use aromatic amplification to entice customers. The latest on the block is KFC, which is using the aroma of its world-famous chicken on mail carts to seduce the taste buds of cubicle-dwellers during pre-lunch postal deliveries. The shocker is that rarely are these delicious aromas from real food. Most of these mouth-watering, dinner-date-stopping scents are synthetics prepared by an aromachemical company and diffused through special apparatuses in and around the purchase locale. Scent marketing doesn’t stop at food aromas, Bloomingdale’s in New York recently promoted a new Donna Karan perfume by dispensing the scent outside its doors at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue. Scratch and sniff is still alive and well, too. For the December release of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Fox Walden, the film’s distributor, ran a scratch and sniff advertisement of frosted cake in the Los Angeles Times, spending $110,000, double the cost of a full-page color ad.

Everyone knows that consumers shop with their eyes and their ears, but the newest hook is the nose. Scent marketing is the most provocative way to turn us on to merchandise because the olfactory system is uniquely and intimately connected to the limbic system, where our emotions and motivations are born. The feelings and associations elicited by scents are more immediate and intense than those brought on by anything else, and it takes a while for our brains to rationalize why we want what our noses tell us.

According to Harald Vogt, president of the Scent Marketing Institute, the practice is already a $100 million business and is projected to reach $1 billion within a decade. But does it work? Exxon On the Run stores added a coffee scent to their brewing systems and increased coffee sales by 55 percent. Aromatic marketing provider ScentAndrea added a chocolate fragrance to vending machines, tripling Hershey’s sales. Literal scent advertising does seem to ratchet up sales.

But many retail environments and products don’t have a literal smell. What is the aroma of a high-def TV? To use scent marketing these retailers must develop “scent abstractions”—conceptual olfactory suggestions of their brand. Successful to this end, Thomas Pink infuses its clothing stores with a fragrance evocative of fresh dried linen, and DeBeers in Beverly Hills, Calif., intrigues customers with a sparkling citrus and French sunflower cocktail. The “right” scent can make clothes seem higher quality and diamonds sparkle brighter.

Less successfully, a Tokyo beer hall experimented with signs at its entrance that smelled like oranges and lemons to entice happy-hour drinkers, and the Sony Style store in New York is trying to woo customers with an infusion of vanilla, orange and cedar essences. In order to be effective a scent must be both appealing and conceptually congruent to the shopper with the products being sold. Fresh-cut grass might work in a gardening store, but it won’t in a haberdashery. Scents persuasive to women differ from those persuasive to men. Because our backgrounds and experiences differ, we also differ in what scents motivate us. If you love Cinnabon’s scent, you may dive into your wallet and off your diet with reckless abandon. But if you don’t, the aroma will have the opposite effect.

In addition to failing by being the wrong smell, the right smell can flop by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The scented “Got Milk?” campaign is a case in point. In late 2006, “just baked cookies” scent strips were added to five bus shelters in San Francisco in hopes the aroma would prompt riders to think that they must buy some milk. Almost immediately these scent ads were removed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, apparently because the MTA had received complaints from bus riders worried that the fragrance might not be safe. People are easily frightened by aromas when they are unexpected-a bus shelter is an unlikely place for a bakery.

Fear of scent can also translate into avoidance of any scented environment. Lobbyists for people with multiple chemical sensitivities (an ailment where allergic reactions, sometimes severe, are reported in the presence of odors) have successfully banned fragrances in various public places around the country. But the most likely problem for the future of scent marketing is too much of a good thing, so caveat venditor. If too many brands jump on the scent bandwagon, the resulting nasal cacophony will send consumers running in disgust, closed purse in hand. Yankee Candle meets the food court is only a hint of the unappealing aromatic collisions the nose of the future might face.

(Rachel Herz is the author of The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell.)