Scent Marketing – Does It Work?

Scent Marketing - Does It Work

Scent Marketing – Does It Work?

Potential buyers arriving at a house for sale are often greeted by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee or the smell of baking. It’s an old marketing ploy, but still works surprisingly well. Why?

Our sense of smell directly affects those parts of the brain involved with memory and emotion. Smells don’t just trigger recollections, they can arouse a flood of emotions more intense than even photos can achieve. This is why estate agents commonly use aromas to evoke nostalgic memories of a happy childhood, coupled with a homely atmosphere.

Savvy hoteliers have recognized the value of smell memory in marketing for decades and some are creating unique scents associated with their brand.

It is one thing to use the familiar aroma of fresh brewed coffee to trigger a response but is it practical to create new scents and expect them to have the same effect? A multi-million dollar industry has developed based on that outcome.

Is there evidence to show scent is not just a gimmick?

The Power of Smell

Research shows that what we smell not only brings back pleasant memories, but it can also influence our behaviour. A report by the Washington State University College of Business found a direct link between consumer spending habits and the smells they were exposed to while shopping. The investigation also showed that ambient smells affected the shoppers’ perception of value.

Similar tests on two cruise ships reinforced the results. One ship was scented while the other was not. There was a noticeable difference in people’s willingness to spend between the two ships.

Our understanding of how we discern smells is relatively new although the science has been studied for centuries. Recent research shows we can recognize millions of different smells and our ability to remember them accurately is remarkable. When tested, subjects had a 65% recall of smells after twelve months, compared to a 50% recall of visual memory after only three.

Hotel brands are using the ability to differentiate scents, and the emotions they arouse within us, to create what are known as ‘olfactic’ logos. The goal is to reinforce brand loyalty by engaging these powerful stimuli that exist deep within our brain.

A Complex Business

In North America and much of Europe, the iconic smell of coffee can stir feelings of well-being but that is not necessarily true in all parts of the world. Hotels have to take into account a wide range of factors before they can risk using a particular scent. Some smells can have a positive influence but the wrong ones can be more harmful than none at all.

Part of the difficulty hotels face is that not everyone perceives smells in the same way. Culture plays a large role in our response, as does age and gender. Typically, people from the Middle East favor stronger and spicier smells than Europeans. Those from South East Asia are said to prefer those that are more subtle.

The ambiance and location of the hotel itself needs to be considered. In an older, traditional hotel with leather chesterfields and deep pile carpets a tropical coconut-based scent might be out of place.

With so much at stake, hotels are turning to scent marketers. The cost of creating a unique scent might be anywhere from US$5,000 to US$30,000 or more. The complexities involved may mean the marketers need to bring in psychologists, perfumers and even experts on interior design. Already estimated at US$300 million, scent marketing is forecast to become a US$1 billion industry within the next ten years.

Packaging Memories

Hotels can feel they are trying to achieve contradictory goals. On the one hand they want the scents to be subtle but, at the same time, sufficiently noticeable that they create a brand-based attachment.

There are often common themes among the hotels using scents, although each has gone to great lengths to make theirs unique. Variations around citrus, vanilla and green tea are popular, regardless of location. Citrus is often used in conference facilities to increase productivity and alertness, whereas the soothing effect of lavender is reserved for spas and places of relaxation.

Brand-based scents have generated a new revenue stream for many hotels. The popularity of the fragrances has encouraged the hotels to package and sell them either as scented candles or as perfumes. Guests can now conjure up memories of their stay in ways that photos never could.

When Smells Go Wrong

Scent marketers are not infallible. At the 2015 Milan Fashion Week, a well-known hotel used a powerful orange scent in its lobby. While some guests liked it, others found it so overpowering they reportedly changed hotels.

Even after cultural differences are accounted for, individual likes and dislikes can play a large part in a guest’s reaction. Additionally, they may be asthmatic or suffer allergies. These complications mean that scents should be used with caution, and in the appropriate amounts.

Early use of scents by hotels in the UK saw poor choices in the strength and method of delivery which backfired and, until recently, hindered its acceptance as a marketing tool.

To be effective, scents need to be delivered discreetly which is normally done using such technology as nebulizers and cold air diffusion. This allows them to be distributed via the hotel’s heating and cooling systems, resulting in a uniform and subtle scenting experience.

The Scent of Success

Most hotels use fragrances to some extent, even if it is only to mask unpleasant smells. A few are well known for their innovation in this field, like the Mandarin Oriental which places incense sticks in the lobbies of some of its hotels. Others are still exploring the possibilities. Few now doubt that the appropriate scent wafting through a lobby can affect guests in positive ways.

For years, hotels have used color to influence the ambiance of their restaurants and the mood of diners. In a similar way, scent marketing gives them a tool to create a unique experience leading to enhanced guest loyalty. By using the science of smell, they can tap deep into our emotions and memories. And our wallets.


Ehotelier / Bloomberg / Just Luxe / My Customer / Mandarin Oriental / Tanyagannon

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David Haggett About the author

After a successful career in sales and marketing, David assists businesses in delivering their value message to markets around the world. With first-hand experience of the hospitality industry gained in over 60 countries, his unique content and writing style will engage your customers.

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