Scent of a Billboard


Outdoor sign makers are trying hard to stay relevant as the era of targeted mobile advertising approaches, and their latest move is to add scent. In Mooresville, NC, a billboard has been erected that, for parts of the day, emits the smell of grilling steak.

The scent component of the sign operates during prime commute times. It was designed by ScentAir, whose spokesperson described the aroma as, “a blend of black pepper and kind of a charcoal grilling smell…It smells like grilled meat with a nice pepper rub on it.”

At first glance, a billboard seems like an unlikely medium for olfactory marketing. Proximity would have to be an issue – typical scent marketing ploys use either an interior location or are aimed at consumers a few feet away. The fact that many potential targets are in sealed, air conditioned cars likely reduces the impact of the smell as well. The biggest issue, I’d guess, is that pumping fairly massive amounts of ersatz steak smell into the environment will annoy at least a few people, and a tiny minority will likely go bonkers.

Then again, this effort is likely a much better example of PR and social media use than olfactory marketing. A group of anti-fragrance protesters picketing the billboard would be just add charcoal to the barbecue, so to speak.

Now, if we added scent to talking billboards (see Directional Audio) and made them interactive (see Start Me Up: Brilliant Billboard), we might really have a powerful new outdoor selling medium!

  1. @matpsic says

    Good and original idea.

  2. Liz says

    According to my small (& admittedly skewed) poll, a majority of people find this annoying. Now I have no choice but to smell what someone wants me to buy? It’s like running the gauntlet of the Macy’s perfume counter. And I notice even those folks have backed off.

    Completely agree that it’s been a success in terms of generating buzz though.

  3. Tracy Pepe says

    I am so pleased that this concept has FINALLY expanded in the US, and well my friends who are south of MY border, nice to have you participate.

    As you know Roger I have been scenting spaces for 17 years and there was a fantastic scented billboard in Toronto last year. Many countries around the world continue with this marketing.

    I always find the comments such as Liz interesting, for the loud noise off the highway, and the awful stereos from peoples cars or the smell of the exhaust so more offensive to me than the wonderful aroma of black pepper & BBQ.

  4. Cherita Smith says

    While the idea of olfactory marketing sounds awful — I get massive headaches just walking through the perfume section of a department store — in this instance I actually think it’s brilliant. I’m not sure people would get all that annoyed… after all, wouldn’t it be like walking past a restaurant?

  5. Roger Dooley says

    Liz and Cherita, I do think there is a difference between a scent like this and a department store fragrance department. I would expect that if ScentAir could actually reproduce a grilled steak smell, driving by the billboard in a car in an outside environment would be a far less intense experience than being assaulted by a cologne-wielding store clerk.

    Tracy, what kind of billboard and aroma was featured in Toronto? Was there much buzz?


  6. Tracy Pepe says

    There is a huge difference – department store fragrances are perfumes – the actual chemical term -perfume-“an aromatic substances of 8 to 10% diluted with alcohol”. it is the the alcohol that most people react negatively to. People smell the alcohol first, (no one waits for evaporation to occur) it assaults the nose membranes -(FYI to smell a true perfume you must wear it for 12 hours so it binds to your skin – stores do not have the time – so they spray you hoping for a reaction or they spray paper that never captures the true scent – another topic).

    The aroma scent-air would use – and I am guessing would be a fragrance blend, concentrated and much more stronger than a 10% solution but because you would only be smelling the aroma, as well it would be properly diffused in an open space creating an incredible “silage” or scent trail – many will not even notice it. In fact thousands of people will drive by and not even know – but this is how scent marketing is brilliant when they are at a BBQ and smell steak, eat steak -or when they are at the grocery and see the brand – the sensory recall will happen (in some). The question and very hard to monitor – how many?

    The buzz in Toronto was quiet – it was for Marc Jacob Daisy – the Coty company here in Canada went one step further – the billboard was scratch & sniff – this was interesting for the sensory was touch & smell – I posted the link on the Olfactive Group via linked-in if people are interested.

  7. Michael Sanjek says

    I think the whole idea stinks.

  8. vegetarian says

    Ugh. This is so incredibly gross. I think I would vomit if I were forced to smell “the wonderful aroma of black pepper and BBQ” on my daily commute. Take it down!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That’s one of the big challenges of olfactory marketing, Veg… There’s no aroma that will appeal to everyone and annoy nobody. Then again, you are likely not their target market.

  9. Jeffrey says

    Interesting, albeit thought a long overdue solution amongst the sensory branding ilk. Yet finally, brands seem to be seeing the value here (where were the NCBA when these types of pitches were laid upon their desks?).

    To address considerations of those against scent marketing, in this instance (anti-meat argument aside) it really depends on who’s operating the grill. Chefs, like scent marketers, are not all created equal. Additionally, limiting the scent activation during the drive home (versus all day long or mornings-only) would no doubt lay cause for spouses to call home, “Honey, I’m picking up steak tonight. Fire up the grill.”

    The same could be done for chocolate, bacon, BBQ pork ribs, apple pie, Baklava, etc.
    If numbers shift from the 6-12% of U.S. full-time vegetarians, and 0.6-1.1% of U.S. full-time vegans, then we might very well see/smell soy-based yogurt ice cream billboards. I wonder what that might smell like, if anything.

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