How Brands Are Going Through Your Nose to Reach Your Wallet

A few years ago I had the good fortune of spending a week in Paris. One afternoon I was exploring near the Champs-Élysées, the famed shopping street, when it hit me: a very distinct, strong, somewhat spicy fragrance that I immediately recognized. I started looking around for the source, but I was in a residential area and all I could see were houses. Curious as to what on earth that particular smell was doing in the middle of Paris, I continued to the Champs-Élysées proper, and then I saw it, several hundred yards away from where I had first smelled it: the Parisian Abercrombie & Fitch.


There I was on the other side of the Atlantic exploring a cosmopolitan city, and one whiff of their (incredibly cloying) cologne sent me straight back to Saturday afternoons as a high schooler in suburban Phoenix, wandering aimlessly around the mall with friends. And that’s exactly what Abercrombie executives want.

The heavy-handed use of their signature cologne in their stores is no accident. It’s what’s known as scent marketing, and you may not be aware of just how many companies are doing it.

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Scent is a powerful marketing tool because the sense of smell, more than any of the other senses, is the one most closely linked to our memories. Essentially, the part of our anatomy that registers scent is directly connected to the areas of our brain that process and store emotions and memories. Other senses such as taste and touch are registered through an entirely different process.

The most obvious examples of companies that use scent marketing are those that sell food. Cinnabon, for instance, has specific requirements for its franchisees to put the ovens at the front of the store and to use low-grade ventilation technology to ensure that the smell of cinnamon is as strong as possible. And if that’s not enough, workers frequently heat trays of cinnamon in the oven to supplement the scent. Even without falling prey to the lure of cinnamon and trans fats, if you have been to an airport you can confirm that this tactic works wonders for their sales.

But what about nonfood-related businesses – how would scent help them sell their products? In those cases, scent marketing is more about creating a welcoming and inviting atmosphere than it is about triggering cravings. Many hotels have worked on creating signature scents that permeate the lobby, guest rooms and restaurants, adding another dimension to their brand experience. Westin’s signature scent, for example, is a combination of white tea, cedar and vanilla.

Both Home Depot and Lowe’s smell strongly like freshly cut lumber – a scent that they may come by honestly, but one that also serves to energize its customers and convince them that yes, they are capable of installing that new vanity without needing to call someone for help, now HAND ME THAT HAMMER!

Lush Cosmetics is another nonfood-related chain that takes advantage of a signature scent to alert customers to its presence. Like the aforementioned Abercrombie & Fitch, the brand relies on utterly bombarding your nasal passages to get its message across. And while I personally am not a fan, I would be able to recognize it in an instant – and that’s really the ultimate goal.

Some important caveats to keep in mind if you are interested in exploring scent marketing:

  1. Your scent needs to make sense. Scenting your store with cinnamon or pine is proven to increase traffic and sales during the Christmas season, but it wouldn’t work in the summer.
  2. Along those same lines, it needs to match your aesthetics. If you are a contemporary, modern retail space, then a dark, heavy scent will likely lead to confusion and not translate.
  3. Any distinct scent, no matter how subtle, will drive away a certain number of potential customers. Allergies, scent sensitivities and general dislike of a particular scent are all risks that businesses run. However, when used appropriately, the increased business it brings can outweigh the negatives.

When done in moderation, utilizing scents – whether customized or more common – in your retail or service space is a unique and effective way to flesh out your brand experience, as well as create a powerful link between your brand and your customers for years to come.

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Six Degrees
Six Degrees uses psycho-sensory tools and techniques to build more successful national and global brands. Brands are rooted in human perception. And our psycho-sensory approach is designed to identify deeper and richer insights from human perception and then develop brand communications that change suboptimal perceptions or reinforce the right perceptions. More than 80 percent of the information humans process is nonverbal, making it essential that brands manage the sensory signals they send out. Our people are passionate branding experts wielding powerful psycho-sensory tools to build stronger and more successful brands across the globe.

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