It makes scents

I believe smell is our most interesting, and probably the most commercially untapped, sense. After working for 10 years in creative communications and marketing, I also think it’s an unsung hero when it comes to building brand awareness and loyalty. I’m not talking about those prehistoric, peel-back perfume panels you found in copies of GQ, that 14 year-old you ripped open and rubbed enthusiastically on your wrists/neck at WH Smiths, in the vein hope it would send the local females stampeding to your location (a la Lynx). No, definitely not. I’m talking about powerful and memorable, actual, real life experiences with products or services.

PANIC NOT – this isn’t a poor excuse for creation of some Mickey Mouse business content, to boost my career ego (although…) Like the last few pieces I’ve thrown together, there’s a sprinkling of nostalgia in this one*, for very good reason.

Incredibly, 75 percent of our bodily reactions and emotions are triggered by smell. When it comes to memory in particular, smell kicks the butt of its sibling, sight. Visual recall is about 50% accurate after three months, whereas people can remember, recall and describe smells with approximately 65% accuracy after an entire year. This probably has something to do with the fact that our sight relies on four kinds of light sensors within the eye, while we boast over 1,000 different smell receptors. And they constantly regenerate and evolve.

For me, smell is a very visceral sense – especially when it comes to memory. ‘So is hearing, and so is taste’, I hear you cry. Don’t get me wrong, our other senses are remarkable – and command individual respect. We know taste and smell are very closely linked – smell accounts for 75-95% of our taste experience. But smell is actually our very first sense to develop, before we’re even born. It’s fully functional and perfectly formed the very second we escape the warm clutches of the womb. Smell also stimulates the brain’s limbic system; regarded as the primitive bit of our head-coral because similar structures were present in the brains of planet earth’s first mammals.

Here are four smells that evoke something pretty raw and magical in my memories. Some are relatively new, and others have been with me for three decades:

1) Suncream. Specifically the Nivea brand, in those big blue bottles with the yellow tops. It instantly transports me to family holidays: Spain, The French Alps, America, Australia and even the tropical north of Scotland! We were very lucky as kids; one thing mum and dad truly believed was the broadening of our little horizons, with annual trips to some pretty impressive places. My positive holiday associations with the sweet smell of suncream are endless – beaches, my siblings, sunshine, heat (maybe not in Scotland), ice cream, Fanta, salted skinny chips, the sea, villas, boats, bays, mountain walks, etc. For me, suncream = warmth and happiness.

2) Tom Ford fragrances. Specifically Oud Wood and London. For anyone who claims their preferred perfume or Eau de Whatever doesn’t last throughout the day – try some Tom. His fragrance line is incredible, super-pricey, but incredible. I actually can’t put my finger on the exact things they evoke – to be honest, I think it’s some really primordial stuff. Oud Wood literally carries you to the Middle East (I promise I’m not on commission). And the rather commanding London has a hint of what I can only describe as ‘musk on steroids’**. The smells completely alter when worn by different people, and sometimes catch your breath – his Tuscan Leather offering is too much for me, but genuinely whiffs like old Chesterfield, if that’s your thing. In short, Mr Ford’s potent potions take me to places I’ve never visited before, and stir in me, some of life’s more primitive thoughts/emotions. Now that’s pretty cool.

3) Freshly cut grass. I spent a lot of time outside as a kid. Either in our back garden or local park. From April thru September/October, the grass was always long and soft enough to chase each other on, play football on, or just roll around on. It was also regularly cut, thanks to its impressive growth rate, stimulated by our rather wet summer climate. Those cuttings are the smell of friendship, reminding me of summers with pals, siblings and very few cares (and fewer cars). Walking past cut grass gardens or parks nowadays makes me smile from ear to ear, and remember pals I thought I’d forgotten about.

4) Hot metal & oil. Ok, this is probably the weirdest one – or at least, that which is most unique to me. It’s closely linked to the holiday thing again, and does evoke happiness. But beyond that, it reminds me why I love TV and movies as much as I do. Florida is warm pretty much all year round, especially for a Scot. In fact, it’s hot – really hot. It also plays host to some of the best theme parks in the world. Universal Studios is a particular favourite of mine – and has been since the first time I visited, aged seven, right through until my fifth or sixth trip last year. When you mix theme parks and heat, you get some very interesting smells. Yep – candy floss, hot dogs, cookies, popcorn and all the other food-goodies a park has to offer. But next time you visit, and step inside/outside one of the attractions – see what you can smell. I finally cracked it last year, when Kirsty and I were in Harry Potter World. It’s the scent of the very hot metal/oil and moving parts that power the rides and machinery that I’m talking about. It gives off a really pleasing mechanical smell (almost in the same vein as petrol) and reminds me of thrills, excitement and movies. Told you it was weird.

If smell can be this powerful, when it comes to memory recall and stimulation of emotion – then I reckon there’s some serious spare legroom when it comes to commercial, creative development of brands and products.

I like to think I’m a wee bit savvy, after working in marketing for around a decade, and am proud to recognise (and circumvent) most of the visual tricks and design practices brands use for ‘engaging the customer’. In the same vein, I like to think my ears are even better trained when it comes to the use of things like NLP sales techniques and ambient in-store music to ease consumers into purchase.

But good old advertising smell-tactics get me every time.

I reckon they tap into the mantra of my above examples, in the same kind of way. But when they’re specifically linked to buying things and positive experience of a brand, I’m shafted; hook, line and sphincter. Some great global executions of this technique include:

  • Singapore Airlines – aim to reduce passenger anxiety and the stench of stale cabin air, by spraying their own scent into the aircraft fuselage and on to hot towels.
  • Abercrombie & Fitch – like to hammer your senses with their Fierce cologne, sprayed in-store and on all merchandise, to create a permanent scented memory of your purchase, their products and the experience.
  • JW Marriott – blast their own unique scent, ‘Subtle Sophistication’, around their lobbies and hotel rooms. Described as ‘soft and fresh, with a hint of citrus’, it appeals to both business travellers and holidaymakers alike – and can even be bought as candle.

Sensory brand expert, Carlos Jose Hinolan, describes how and why this works for us:

“With scent-diffusing technology, you can create a distinct aroma for your brand that will not only add to recall, but also trigger specific feelings with your consumers… Scent marketing can “amplify consumer spending, attract customers, and create memorable brands.”

I’d like to see more brands explore these techniques. However, I think this can be somewhat limited to those brands that offer tangible products or physical experiences. It’s nice to believe a bank could have a recognisable scent. Something that you smell when you walk into a branch, or, when you receive your new Visa card in the post? Perhaps a bold, but calming and welcoming scent – something that instils trust and reassurance could go a long way in building bank brand loyalty? Yet, reality suggests this would be a waste of time when physical finance paraphernalia is becoming increasingly redundant in our post-digital world, and more and more branches are shutting every day***.

So maybe this is a bit of a cry for sensory help, from an already too jaded (and still relatively young) marketing and communications professional. In the digital age, a centillion 1s and 0s have revolutionised our brand experiences; albeit, through a succession of screens and swipes. Should we, therefore, invest a little more in promoting an experience when it comes to product interactions in the ‘real world’?

As our physical contact with things becomes less and less necessary, I for one, would like to make sure when I do get exposed to brand tangibles, that it’s a wholly splendid encounter – and one that I remember for years to come. I want it to be etched in my olfactory memory forever, like Singapore Airlines and JW Marriott, or suncream and cut grass 😉


*I promise this isn’t my writing MO… yet.

** It smells like sex. In a good way. It’s very hard to describe. And now I sound very weird for liking/wearing it. Don’t laugh or nay-say until you’ve sniffed it.

*** Incredibly, this has been trialled on a micro-scale. At Ocean Bank in Florida, Senior Management agreed on creation of a brand scent called ‘Ocean Blue’, which fills the air in their 21 branches. Last I heard, they were even looking at scented pens and cheque-book covers!!

[Headline image credit to Universal Studios, Florida]