Would you prefer a scented pencil? How about a tennis ball? Tires? You might not care, or even prefer to avoid the olfactory assault altogether, but research shows you’ll remember the product better if it has a scent.

“Product scent may be particularly effective at enhancing memory for product information as a function of its ability to enhance a product’s distinctiveness within its surrounding context,” write authors Aradhna Krishna (University of Michigan), May Lwin (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), and Maureen Morrin (Rutgers University).

Scent enhances a product’s distinctiveness, which helps consumers remember it down the line, the authors found…

In one study, the authors had 151 participants evaluate pencils that were unscented, scented with pine scent (common), or scented with tea tree scent (uncommon). “We found that the memory for the scented pencils was much greater than memory for the unscented pencils, and that this effect was especially pronounced after a time delay,” the authors write. They also found that participants’ memory of the uncommonly (tea tree) scented pencils was more resistant to decay. [From the Journal of Consumer Research - Does Scent Enhance Product Memories?]

Some of the product attributes presented to the subjects were claims like, “Is endorsed with the Green Seal environment standard,” “Contains superior graphite lead,” and “Are made from premium oak trees that hail from California.” The subjects remembered these and other characteristics better for the smelly pencils.

Another experiment tested the effects of ambient scent; the researchers found that recall of all objects in an environment was improved by an ambient scent, the recall of individual products wasn’t aided significantly. The full paper, Scent and Product Memory, can be accessed here.

In reading this study, I wondered about the novelty effect. I might remember a pencil that carried a tea tree aroma simply because such a scent would be unexpected and unfamiliar in the context of a writing instrument. On the plus side, it’s worth noting that the improved recall was achieved without the aid of scent cues. Based on other research, I’d expect that exposing subjects to the same scent when quizzing them weeks later would further increase recall. (See The Brut Effect: Cologne Doesn’t Really Make You Smarter.)

The neuromarketing takeaway is that people will remember more about a product that is scented. We don’t know how effective scent would be if many or all products in a category are scented. It seems likely that there is a first-mover advantage for those who employ olfactory marketing in a new category. If your product is unexpectedly scented and competitive products are not, people will remember not just the scent but what you tell them about the product. Another first-mover plus is that in the U.S. scents can be trademarked. So, if you attach a particular scent to your product, you can stop competitors from using the same (or, presumably, very similar) scent.

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