How to use scent to influence your customers

Posted in: Branding, Consumers, Marketing, Tourism

Recent research from Adriana Madzharov looked at how scent can be used to influence customer experience in the tourism sector. Here she explains how scent creates meaning and strengthens memory, showing how different pleasant scents can produce different effects on perception and behaviour. She also shows how these findings can be used strategically by businesses in the tourism sector to achieve specific goals.

The Covid-19 pandemic has proved devastating for many sectors of the economy. The tourism industry in particular has suffered. To stay afloat in such a competitive and challenging sector, companies have to be competitive and use all the tools at their disposal to encourage custom. In this context, marketing is hugely important – to appeal to people and persuade them to buy your product, and to influence your experience of the product.

The billion-dollar impact of scent

Scent marketing is a sub-area of sensory marketing (when a brand tries to create a positive impression and appeal to the customer by stimulating multiple different senses) where pleasant scents are used to influence the consumer experience. Scent marketing is a thriving, multibillion-dollar industry and its tools are especially popular in the tourism industry with scents used in hotels, casinos, restaurants, entertainment venues, airports, and airplanes. The positive effects of pleasant scents on tourists’ experiences are well-known, however the question for tourism practitioners is no longer whether to use pleasant scents, but which particular scents to use and when.

Advanced scent technologies now offer an immense variety of pleasant scents available for commercial use. Yet, there is limited guidance and empirical evidence on how the different kinds of pleasant scents affect tourists’ perception and behaviour. My recent research on scent categories in consumer behaviour offers insights on this and presents suggestions for future research on scent in the context of tourism. Understanding how different categories of scents affect behaviour has important implications for practitioners, especially given the immense choice of pleasant scents available for use.

Experience through sensory exploration

Scent marketing can be used to subconsciously influence consumer perceptions, judgement, and behaviour. Unlike traditional communication efforts that make explicit and direct claims about products and services, scent marketing creates consumer experiences in a more subtle and indirect way. Scent marketing is particularly relevant in the context of tourism. When consumers travel and visit new places, they often undergo sensory experiences that differ from those in their everyday environment.

For example, travelers might experience new sights and sounds, new foods, and new environments with unfamiliar sensory ambience – significantly - in terms of scents. Thus, the subtle but powerful influence of scent marketing might be even more pronounced in the context of travelling. In addition, recent advances in scent technologies and more sophisticated scent equipment allow for ambient scents to be emitted unobtrusively and unnoticeably in the service environment. The notion is that pleasant scent encounters and ambience would enhance the consumer experience. Importantly, scent in service settings serves to make the experience more tangible. Research suggests that scent can be especially important as a memory retrieval sensory cue, and might be stronger than other sensory cues. Because of its strong effects on memory, scent can act as a reminder of the traveller’s experience and help them relive it even when they are at home.

Memorialising through scent

One way in which a pleasant ambient scent might influence tourists is through affect or pleasure. Pleasant scents have a hedonic aspect to them, in that they act as sensory cues that evoke pleasure when encountered. For example, a traveler might experience a positive feeling on entering a pleasantly scented hotel lobby, and as a result give a more positive evaluation of the service at the hotel.

Another aspect of scents is their associative nature where scents act as sensory cues that carry information. Specifically, scents can become associated with certain experiences, information, emotions, or more general concepts. After the association has taken place, scents can later evoke the information or emotion. So, for tourists, scents might carry importance long after the experience and when perhaps evoke stronger, more detailed, more emotional, and longer-lasting memories than other sensory cues (e.g. pictures or souvenirs).

How the meaning of scents can influence customers

While we know a lot about the effect of the presence versus the absence of scent in tourism contexts, there’s still not a huge amount of research on how different categories of pleasant scent affect tourist behaviour in different ways.

My research however focuses on how scents work to influence us. In my latest piece I pulled together all the established findings on the impact of various scents and modelled how these learnings might be used in different tourism contexts.  This provides a clear outline for how businesses can use specific scents to influence consumer behaviour and achieve their strategic goals.

To understand how scents influence us, we must recognise that they illicit more complex response that simply like or dislike. Scents can also become associated with more general concepts following repeated and prolonged pairing with these concepts. Some scents carry ‘semantic meaning’, or in other words scents that come to symbolize or signify something else – almost like a metaphor. In this instance, certain scents are collectively associated with a specific meaning (unlike other types of scent which become linked to memories in a more personal, subjective way). This pre-established ‘semantic meaning’ is activated when we encounter the scent, and the associated concept is evoked. For instance the citrus scent is commonly used in cleaning products because of its freshness. Thus, citrus scent is associated with cleanliness and it evokes this concept upon exposure to the scent.

One semantics-based scent category is that of warm and cools scents, or the scent category based on temperature associations. For example, some scents are categorized as warm (e.g., cinnamon, vanilla scent) or cool (peppermint or eucalyptus scent). Warm and cool ambient scents have been shown to affect perceptions of space – for example, warm scents lead to perceptions of decreased space and increased social presence or ‘busy-ness’.

Temperature-based scents can bias food choice and consumption, for example in the context of warm ambient scents people are more likely to choose lower-calorie food options and decrease their calorie consumption. As temperature-based scents are widely used in hospitality, travel, and entertainment it is possible that warm and cool scents can be strategically employed to alter the tourist’s perception of their surroundings (in terms of social density etc.) in context where these perceptions are important for the overall tourist experience (e.g., in elevators, security lines at airports etc.).

Another scent category is the gourmand one, in which scents are associated with foods or drinks. Studies show that when exposed to indulgent-food scents for some time (e.g., cookie scent) people are less likely to choose unhealthy food options. Indulgent scents can be used to nudge tourists towards healthier food choices and consumption in situations where tourists might more susceptible to unhealthy eating (e.g., airport lounges).

Studies have shown that in the presence of a coffee-like ambient scent people feel more energetic and alert (mimicking the actual effects of coffee) and as a result perform better on a test. Tourism research can examine whether a coffee-like scent in business centers and conference rooms might increase cognitive performance for business travellers. Tourism research can test whether emitting a coffee-like scent when travelers exit the airplane at the end of an overnight flight might lower perception of tiredness.

Using this learning to support the tourism industry

Smell is fundamental to human experience. It is unique compared to the other senses as it is not easily turned off (as it’s connected to breathing). Scents are also unique sensory cues that act in a subtle and indirect way, yet scents can be produce powerful and systematic influence on perception and behaviour.

For these reasons, scent marketing is a hugely important (though still relatively) area for the tourism industry to explore. With my work I hope to extend knowledge in this area, and offer direction for future research.

Posted in: Branding, Consumers, Marketing, Tourism


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