In early March this year, a news item struck me – the public bus operator in Singalore, Tower Transit, will pump the new scent into 100 of its buses, following a months-long partnership with the local marketing company AllSense. In an interview with the BBC, scent expert Terry Jacobson described the smell as having a “green note” that reflects the city’s biodiversity, mixed with a cool, refreshing aroma that soothes passengers in the city’s tropical climate. And while the smell is subtle, so passengers aren’t overwhelmed, Tower Transit hopes it’s strong enough to keep riders coming back—and more importantly, to lure people away from their cars.
While it is still early to see the results, those who have had a good whiff of the Transit Tower’s marketing ploy reported, for the most part, positive reactions. Most who spoke to the local news site The Straits Time and BBC welcomed the fact that it made the buses smell fresher and said it would make them want to take public transit.
That is the objective – reduce dependence own private vehicles and make the public transport option more appealing. Now, can those feelings translate to action? Time will tell. But it reminded me of how important it is to engage with customers at sensory levels, and how rarely it is practised.
And brings us to that question we are all trying to answer – in a hyper-crowded marketplace, how does a customer tell the difference between products and services? How do we create offerings that are not just efficient and beautiful, but also emotionally compelling? How do we engage with customers through other, innovative channels that are subtle, pleasant and non-intrusive? Beyond the typical mobile/computer UI approach?
The ideal customer experience should delight the customer by engaging all five senses, not just their mobile device. And smell is a key piece of that puzzle: Scents have been proven to eliminate stress, stimulate fond memories and inspire customers. The right scent has been shown to make people more comfortable at hotels, shorten the time they think they are waiting at banks, and improve sense of performance at a gym. Nike conducted research with the Smell & Taste Research Foundation that found a scented retail environment induced more favorable product perceptions in in shoppers – making them more likely to buy the shoes, and often willing to pay more for the product.
Using scents to not only enhance customer experiences but also to inspire certain behaviors is a growing trend in marketing. According to the latest research in the Journal of Marketing, “The Cool Scent of Power: Effects of Ambient Scent on Consumer Preferences and Choice Behavior” by Adriana V. Madzharov, Lauren G. Block, and Maureen Morrin (2015), by using warm scents in store, more attention could be attracted towards high-end products.
Recall North Carolina’s steak-smelling billboard, or the many odors of the Magic Kingdom, or city streets’ infamous Subway Smell, or magazines’ scented papers, which are themselves the olfactory offspring of the perfume-strip ads that have been around since the 80s. Traditionally, however – to the extent that scent-based advertising is traditional — smells have been used bluntly. Scent is notoriously indiscriminate: It reaches all those in its proximity, promiscuously.
Back in 2012, a U.K.-based baked potato company installed ads that waft the aroma of “slow oven-baked jacket potatoes” at bus stops whenever you press a button. More aggressively, Dunkin’ Donuts in South Korea installed dispensers in public buses. Every time their jingle came on, riders were treated to—or bombarded with—a blast of coffee aroma.
Engineers employed by the shop’s marketing agency created a machine that, air-freshener-like, “releases a coffee aroma.” And they designed the device in such a way that its scent-squirt would be triggered only by the sound of the Dunkin’ Donuts jingle – so that, “When a Dunkin’ Donuts ad plays on the radio, a coffee aroma is simultaneously released.”
What’s fascinating is that, after the commuters were subjected to the olfactory factor, they were much more likely to frequent, Dunkin’ Donuts says, a Dunkin’ Donuts store. Over the course of the campaign, more than 350,000 people “experienced” the ad, Cheil estimates – and sales at Dunkin’ establishments located near bus stops increased 29 percent. The sound-scent combination – the synaesthetic approach to advertising – seemed to be, in this case, effective.
So the use of scents makes … well, you know. The power of smell when it comes to human cognitive connection is well documented; it’s fitting and unsurprising that marketers would want to capitalize on that power when it comes to brand associations. The Dunkin’ advertisers orchestrated their experiment to optimize immediacy; the point was to create a scenario in which commuters would hear Dunkin’ Donuts, then smell Dunkin’ Donuts, then see Dunkin’ Donuts … and then, you know, taste Dunkin’ Donuts. After buying Dunkin’ Donuts.