Retail Marketing

Are retailers forgetting about the power of scent?

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By Annabel Engels, Managing director

May 30, 2024 | 6 min read

Mother Design’s Annabel Engels explains the importance of incorporating scent into brand strategy. Is it an overlooked sensorial asset?

Close-up of a sniffing dog

Our sense of smell is not merely a passive observer; it’s a powerful catalyst that can transport us to distant memories, evoke intense emotions, and forge lasting associations with brands.

Think about the last time you stepped into an Aesop store. Did the calming scent of chamomile instantly soothe you, or perhaps the zesty citrus fragrance lifted your spirits? These olfactory experiences don’t just happen by chance; they can facilitate brand loyalty and connection within the intricate dance of consumer behavior.

From the moment we encounter a brand’s scent, whether consciously or subconsciously, it sets the stage for our entire interaction.

It intertwines seamlessly with visual cues, product offerings, and other brand touchpoints, transforming what could be a mundane transaction into a captivating journey of discovery. And it’s not just about creating a pleasant atmosphere; it’s about tapping into the deepest recesses of our brains, where scent-triggered memories and emotions reside. Neuromarketing research has also proven that specific scents can activate regions of the brain associated with reward and pleasure.

In a world where retailers are often obsessed with novelty, trends, and refreshing style cues and aesthetics, many of these brands fail to build identities that go beyond this. What if, instead, these retailers spent time creating a holistic brand language and a world that placed more emphasis on the interplay between scent, visual, verbal, and sonic elements to offer a truly holistic, multi-sensorial experience?

Look at two heritage brands: Abercrombie & Fitch and Chanel– they have mastered the art of scent branding to deepen connections and strengthen brand identities. That also means increasing dwell time in-store to encourage more purchases. Abercrombie & Fitch, with its youthful “Fierce” fragrance, creates an immersive experience that resonates with its young adult demographic, while Chanel’s timeless No. 5 fragrance evokes luxury and elegance, forging an emotional bond with its audience.

Imagine a world where the brand’s scent follows consumers seamlessly across various touchpoints, from online interactions to physical encounters.

By infusing packaging, digital platforms, and even wearable technology with signature fragrances, brands can create a multi-channel scent experience that leaves a lasting imprint. Brands such as Diptyque exemplify effective scent marketing, seamlessly integrating their fragrances into both physical and digital environments. In-store, the brand creates immersive experiences through carefully curated atmospheres, allowing customers to explore its range of scents firsthand. Online, they engage customers with interactive content and personalized recommendations while also infusing their packaging and promotional materials with signature fragrances. But it’s not just about scent-based products any more.

Brands across other retail industries have the opportunity to embrace the power of fragrance to spark innovation and redefine the consumer experience.

Cue our Marks & Spencer work. The brand is pioneering the integration of scent branding beyond physical stores, extending its impact to e-commerce and out-of-home advertising. Its recent ‘Pump up the Jam’ summer campaign featured a multi-sensory takeover of Oxford Circus Tube station. M&S introduced vibrant visuals combined with the evocative aroma of sun lotion, transporting commuters to an M&S summer paradise. This innovative approach illustrates how integrating scent into out-of-home advertising can create a more immersive and memorable brand experience.

So, how can brands best implement scent branding?

Tie your brand to cultural relevance: Cultural trends influence the types of scents that resonate with consumers in different regions and demographics. As global travel and multiculturalism continue to rise, there’s a growing interest in exotic and culturally inspired fragrances. Brands that tap into these cultural trends can create sensory experiences that feel authentic and relevant to diverse audiences.

Elevate the ordinary: Retail brands have the opportunity to elevate the ordinary through immersive sensory experiences. We’ve seen this more recently with Hermès and Chanel, which have reimagined their traditional pop-ups with the Hermèsmatic pop-up laundromat and Coco Game Center pop-up, incorporating elements of multi-sensory brand experience. These playful sales formats also speak to a younger millennial and Gen Z audience, where the novelty and scarcity of pop-up experiences like this successfully evoke an emotional response, provide instant gratification and create a buzz.

Be intentional and consistent: For brands looking to integrate scent into their identity, consistency across touchpoints is key. Scent should be present in all brand interactions. We see this being optimized in the travel sector. Singapore Airlines uses a signature fragrance–a subtle blend of rose, lavender, and citrus–to create a consistent and unforgettable passenger experience. This fragrance permeates the aircraft cabins, infuses the hot towels given to passengers, and even the perfumes worn by flight attendants. By integrating scent across these touchpoints, Singapore Airlines embeds its brand deeply into the sensory memories of travellers, making every journey with them a distinctive sensory experience. Another example is Westin Hotels’ use of its “White Tea” fragrance. This signature scent is diffused throughout lobbies and public spaces, instantly evoking feelings of cleanliness, tranquillity, and luxury.

Tell your story: Crafting a signature scent is an artful process that goes beyond mere fragrance–it’s about storytelling. Just as brands carefully curate their visual and verbal identity, their scent should reflect their unique narrative. Sharing the inspiration behind a scent–whether it’s a location, a memory, or a key ingredient–can deepen connections with customers and spark joy. At Mother Design, we created our bespoke scent, “The Garden,” inspired by our creative approach. We crafted a playful nursery rhyme-esque poem to encapsulate our journey with clients, forming the foundation for our harmonious scent. This blend represents our essence, creating a sensory experience that embodies our brand and invites others to join our creative journey.

Shifting from design to experience: As brands recognize the importance of sensory engagement in building emotional connections, the role of experience teams becomes paramount. Design teams must evolve beyond visual aesthetics to engage all the senses, incorporating elements like sonic mnemonics and luxurious packaging. Store design teams must transform into experience teams, requiring a collaborative approach that includes store designers, business development, marketing, and IT specialists. This integration will create innovative, visually appealing designs that enhance customer experience and ensure operational success.

For retailers especially, utilizing the power of scent can truly elevate brand experiences, making them memorable and emotionally engaging.

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