The sweet smell of success: the complexities of using scent as a marketing tool

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As marketers use increasingly sophisticated tools to enhance the consumer experience, Manja Leib investigates how the complexity of a scent can affect retailer sales, purchasing decisions, and shopping behavior more generally.

4 min read

LeibManja Leib is a professor of Marketing. Her primary research interests lie in the area of consumer behavior, specifically in the area of sensory marketing.

Retailers have been targeting the senses of consumers for some time now in the hope of enhancing consumer’s experiences with their brands, products and services. The power of visual cues, in store displays and product packaging, for example, is well established. The appeal to other senses is less well-established, however. Take scent, for example. While the use of ambient scents in retail stores has been shown to influence shoppers, real-world demonstrations of the effects of scent are scarce, as are explanations of how such an effect might work.

A new explanation has been advanced for how scent may have an effect on consumers

Manja Leib, an assistant professor of marketing at HEC Lausanne, (together with academics from the University of St. Gallen, Washington State University and University of California Irvine), has investigated the effect of scent in a marketing context in more depth. To date, much of the research on the effects of olfactory cues in a retail setting has focused on a pleasant scent making people feel good, and therefore more likely to shop than avoid shopping. More recently, though, a new explanation has been advanced for how scent may have an effect on consumers.

Leib and her colleagues suggest that the degree of ease with which information is processed by people – processing fluency – in this case how easily people are able to process the stimulus of scent, may play a role in the effect of scent on customer buying behavior. The theory suggests that we monitor how much effort we expend on processing information. If we perceive information to be easier to process, that ease of processing translates into a feeling, which in turn affects our behavior.

The less complex a scent, the greater its influence on associated attitudes and behaviors.

Scents vary in complexity. They may consist of single ingredient or dimension, lemon, for example, or several dimensions, such as a blend of citrus ingredients. The researchers hypothesized that the degree of complexity of a scent may affect the consumer’s ability to process that olfactory information. The less complex a scent, the easier it is to process, and the greater its influence on associated attitudes and behaviors. This should translate into more favorable consumer responses to the retail environment and associated products.

The researchers began to test their proposition by creating a number of scents with the help of a commercial aroma supplier. They were careful to ensure that the scents used differed in complexity, but not in any other fundamental way (e.g., pleasantness, familiarity, congruency, etc). This way they could be sure to isolate and test for the effects of scent complexity. Scents were pretested in the laboratory and eventually orange was selected as the simple scent and orange-basil with green tea as the complex scent for use in further studies.

Scent scenarios

Having chosen the simple and complex scents, Leib and her colleagues began to investigate their effects on behavior. This involved: studying the effects of the scent complexity on purchasing behavior in a retail setting; studying how the scents influenced information processing in a controlled setting; and discovering whether it is processing fluency leading to the purchasing behavior in a controlled laboratory setting.

Shoppers spent more money in the presence of a simple ambient scent

The first study looked at the purchasing behavior of 403 shoppers in a Swiss home decoration store given three different scent situations: presence of a simple ambient scent (103 shoppers); presence of a complex ambient scent (102 shoppers); and no scent (198 shoppers). Scent was diffused throughout the stores at moderate intensity. The results showed that shoppers spent more money in the presence of a simple ambient scent versus a complex scent, or when no scent was present.

In another two studies, the researchers tested their idea that processing fluency was the mechanism by which the simple scent was affecting shoppers’ behavior. Groups of university undergraduates were exposed to the three scent situations, while asked to complete anagram problem solving tasks. For one group of participants performance was judged by the number of correctly completed anagrams, for the other group researchers measured the speed with which the anagrams were completed. In both cases students exposed to the simple ambient scent performed best.

And they made their purchasing decisions more quickly.

The final study was a controlled experiment to see how scent complexity affected consumer attitudes and shopping behavior in a fictitious shopping task. The groups of undergraduate participants were given a notional budget of $60, and a booklet of grocery items with prices. They were asked to choose items that would be used to cook meals their friends on an imaginary weekend visit. On different days of the week the groups were randomly exposed to the simple, complex or no scent scenario, while completing the task. The results were remarkable. Participants exposed to the simple scent, spent more money: $40.90 compared to $33.58 for the complex scent, and $34.14 with no scent. They also bought more items. And they made their purchasing decisions more quickly.

The research results show that, while scents used in retailing environments may smell equally pleasant, they are not all equally effective at influencing consumer behavior. Simple scents produce the best results from a marketing perspective. Compared to a complex scent or none at all, a simple scent leads to greater retailer sales, faster purchasing decisions, and more favorable shopping behavior overall. Over time that effect translates into a considerable increase in revenues. For marketers, it is the simple scent that offers the sweet smell of success.


Read the original research paper: The Power of Simplicity: Processing Fluency and the Effects of Olfactory Cues on Retail Sales by Andreas Herrmann, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, Manja Zidansek HEC Lausanne, Switzerland, David E. Sprott, Washington State University, US and Eric R. Spangenberg, University of California Irvine. US, Journal of Retailing 89 (1, 2013) 30–43.


Featured image by Victor Wong / Flickr CC