The Great Whiff: Scent Marketing Across the Globe

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There are certain smells that stick to your brain. The smell of a bakery with fresh breads,  new-car-smell, and the somewhat flowery smell of hotel rooms and cozy cafés.

For a while now, brands have been using scent to distinguish themselves. By connecting a brand with a certain smell, you have this feeling of coming home every time you walk into a hotel or a restaurant.

Scent is the New Music

“Nothing is more memorable than a smell.

One scent can be unexpected, momentary and

fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer

beside a lake in the mountains…”

Diane Ackerman

In contrast to music, smell hits you all at once, with little possibility for your brain to escape. Scent marketing nowadays is what ambient music was in the 1940s. Similar to music, scent is so powerful, because it’s hard to turn away from: there is no switch you could turn off, the same way you can close your eyes.

Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the first retailers, which aggressively made use of scent marketing. I remember when I walked into their store on Fifth Avenue in New York and felt that all of my senses were on a rollercoaster ride that would likely end at the cash register. It was dark, there were blinding wave-video installations on the walls, and the all-encompassing scent of Abercrombie & Fitch’s “Fierce”. It felt like a teenage gym where everyone overdosed on perfume, anxieties included.

However, the scent was not only aggressive, but also new, exciting, and profitable. Nowadays, everyone from restaurants to hotels, from electronic stores to cafés is using scent marketing to attract customers and to make them feel comfortable enough to reach into their pockets.

Scent Marketing is a Multi-Billion Dollar Business

What started as odor control is now a multi-billion dollar industry. In 2017, the global fragrance market is estimated to be worth about USD 40.8 billion and this number will only increase. The reason for that is simple: brands want to create a lasting impression and that is best created with scents. Studies show that 40% of customers stay longer in a pleasantly scented environment and 75% of our emotions are affected by smell.

Scent is creating more powerful memories as well: Compared to visual memory triggered by photographs, participants of an Oxford study could recall experiences with an accuracy of 65% when being exposed to a fragrance as far back as one year.

Aroma 360 is a fragrance company creating scents for clients such as the Ritz-Carlton, the Westin, and Eden Roc. Their founder, Farah Abassi, promises that “Scents have the ability to influence perception, emotions, behavior and even buying decisions.”

Especially when it comes to international brands, the question that lingers around much longer than the smell of buttery croissants on a side street in France is: Does an international brand stick to one unique scent across their several properties or are they trying to adjust their scent composition for local preferences?

Scents differ across countries and so do preferences

The telegraph recently published an article titled 21 things you should smell before you die. It’s the big whiff bucket list including car exhaust in LA (*cough cough*) or lavender fields in the Provence (*mmmh!*). The underlying argument of this is that when you travel, you enjoy the scents of other countries. And it is true that other countries (even if you travel within Europe) have a different olfactory plate.

In France, for example, you have the pungent smell of chlorine when you enter a public bathroom, whereas in the US it smells like flowers (at least if you are lucky). In France, chlorine symbolizes cleanliness, whereas in other places, it is the artificial smell of flowers.

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Many big brands and hotel chains are using the same scent no matter if you are visiting their properties in Paris, New York or Tokyo. Usually it is something flowery, fruity or a scent hinting at green tea that is pumped through the air vents. They want to welcome their guests with a familiar whiff when they are having breakfast or return from a late night stroll to the lobby.

While we live in a united world, smells and scents differ from country to country. And so do scent preferences, according to Abassi from Aroma 360. In India you have the prevailing scent of sandalwood, in the Arab states it is a spicier scent. Asian countries often have a hint of sweet smoke or woodiness to it, explained Abassi. With these difference in preferences, does scent marketing even work across the globe? And how are brands responding to local needs?

Scents trigger memories and if you grew up in a Norwegian family, you might not reconnect the smell of sandalwood with daily praying rituals.

While some brands have chosen to have a single smell across all their locations, others such as the Four Seasons, for example, have adjusted their scents to location-based notes and aromas to reflect cultural differences. For brands, it is the question if they want to be reminded that they are staying in a Ritz-Carlton or if they want to let their customers know that they are in the Dubai Ritz-Carlton. The St. Regis brand for example decided for one scent, which you can come across in all of their individual properties.

The future of scent marketing

This might be a bold hypothesis, but what if the future of scent marketing would be, well, no scent. Or rather, as an olfactory equivalent to white noise, “white scent.” The locker-room approach of Abercrombie & Fitch was too aggressive to be sustainable for other brands — not to mention a serious hazard for those who suffer from allergies — no scent might be the better option. I for one, would be in favor of a the scent-candle known as “white scent.”

white scent

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