Smell Better, Sell More


Does a better-smelling product work better? Probably not, but people will THINK it does. Research shows that people rated a better-smelling product higher in completely unrelated performance areas. Reading Whiff! The Revolution of Scent Communication in the Information Age by Brumfield, Goldney, and Gunning, I was led to The Smell Report, a white paper authored by Kate Fox and published by the Social Issues Research Centre. The paper cites two examples of consumer perceptions being influenced by scents:

In an experiment in a Las Vegas casino, the amount of money gambled in a slot machine increased by over 45% when the site was odorised with a pleasant aroma!

In another study, a shampoo which participants ranked last on general performance in an initial test, was ranked first in a second test after its fragrance had been altered. In the second test, participants said that the shampoo was easier to rinse out, foamed better and left the hair more glossy. Only the fragrance had been changed.

The shampoo effect is particularly notable because changing just the fragrance improved the performance ratings of the product in entirely unrelated areas. (I wasn’t able to track down the original research – if any Neuromarketing reader is familiar with that study, please post a link.)

These findings have obvious implications for grooming and beauty products, but could apply to just about any product area. Most products don’t have a scent, nor do consumers have an expectation of a scent. Many products do, of course, as do environments. Often, a fragrance associated with a product or environment is an afterthought – clearly, as much effort should go into choosing the scent as, say, the color(s).

Smells Aren’t Always Good

In the shampoo research, the product tested was originally ranked last in performance. One wonders if the dramatic improvement was due not just to the choice of a pleasing scent for the second phase, but also because the initial scent was a turn-off. I recently stayed in an upscale hotel, and one high-traffic area had a distinct, somewhat unpleasant smell. I noticed it each time I passed through the area. When some hotels are striving to use scent in their branding message, I wondered what kind of branding this particular facility was accomplishing. Being in the middle of reading and writing about scent marketing no doubt made me more aware of this olfactory off-note, but I’m sure many other guests processed it even if all weren’t consciously aware of it.

It would be interesting to see if an environmental scent like the one I encountered in that hotel would, like the shampoo fragrance, affect the hotel’s ratings for mostly unrelated topics like customer service, cleanliness, decor, and so on. If so, the effect would likely be to cause lower guest opinions of these aspects of their stay.

The Sniff Test

The takeaway here is simple – be sure your product passes the sniff test. If you are going to introduce a product that incorporates fragrance, don’t just assume that “Spring Mist” or “Tooled Leather” will be fine – test a number of alternatives on real consumers to see if one outperforms the rest. The performance characteristics of the product that you take for granted may well be upgraded or downgraded by consumers based on the product’s scent.

P.S. While researching this topic, I ran across a product I’m tempted to try… Why not get a wakeup jolt at the same time as you are showering? That’s the premise behind Mocha Espresso Shampoo. The visual of pouring a Starbucks Mocha on my head isn’t too enticing, but research does show that the mere scent of coffee has much of the wakeup effect of drinking the stuff.

  1. Daniel says

    I’ve also heard that if there is a faint smell of surface cleaner in a room, research participants are less likely to leave a mess during an activity.

    It seems that the subtle cue of cleanliness makes people try to be cleaner.


  2. Roger Dooley says

    Interesting, Daniel. Sort of the “broken window” theory applied to scent and cleanliness.


  3. Patrick Renvoise says

    A question that is often asked is: of all the senses which one has the strongest impact on our behavior… and your article seems to confirm it would be smell.

    Although it seems to operate below the consciousness level, smell has a strong if not predominant impact on us. May be this could explain why?

    Firstly the smell sensors are located very close to the brain and if we take an analogy with computer the closer the sensor to the CPU the higher the bandwidth i.e. more information can be transferred faster. Even the optic nerve with a bandwidth 40 times greater than the auditory nerve cannot compete with the smell sensors which are located just under the prefrontal cortex –almost no cable means no delay, high bandwidth!–

    Secondly there is a hierarchy in our senses in term of how well they can protect us against danger. If you take touch for example by the time you’ve detected a danger with touch (like a lion or a snake) it would be too late. Same for sound or sight: by the time you hear or see a lion it could be too late to escape. But smell would be a safe way to stay clear of lions as they mark their territory with scent.

    So evolutionarily smell might be a critical sense to help us survive, hence the importance of smell in the behaviors you have explained.

    Thanks for your blog, I love it…

  4. C. Russell Brumfield says

    I want to thank you for reading our new book
    Whiff! The Revolution of Scent Communication in the Information Age.

    Yes we cover that shampoo study and cite The Smell Report as a source. We believe that this was a private study by one of the big consumer product companies, and therefore remains private.

    Many of the studies we comment on in Whiff! come from privately funded research, but we have had some great access to the researchers – yet not here particularly.

    I would beg to differ with you on your comment that many products and environments do not have a smell. In fact, every living and manufactured thing has a distinct smell – and some companies go to great pains to create scent-free products.
    All environments and products do have smells, but they are unintended and not managed.
    Most every perishable product that you have in every room of your home has a fully researched and targeted scent.

    Concerning Mr. Renvoise’s comments on danger and warning signals produced by scent – we cover this broadly in the book, and show its multitude of applications in everything from terrorist attacks and fire warnings for the deaf, to the military’s new scent communication collar and stench bomb research.

    Both the 1st and 5th cranial nerves are hooked up as danger/warning signals. The olfactory is the primary warning system directly hardwired to the limbic system – and the trigeminal nerve serves as a failsafe system (causing inflamation and eye discomfort) long after the olfactory system has been blown out by smoke, stench or other dangerous acidic ethers.

    I believe that scent/brain connection is undoubtedly the body’s foremost and primary warning system.
    And this is a product field that could be very big in the coming years.
    Thanks again for the mention,
    And hope that Methyl Mercaptan (the manufactured smell of propane) continues to keep your saturday afternoon barbecues enjoyable.

    Russell Brumfield

  5. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks for stopping by, Patrick and Russell, and adding to the insights here!

    Good point about my “most products” comment, Russell. I probably should have said an “intentional” or “designed” scent. You are quite right that most products and environments DO have a smell of some kind – good, bad, or indifferent.


  6. Nada Khalil says

    I believe the study is The cross-modal effect of fragrance in shampoo: Modifying the perceived feel of both product and hair during and after washing study. It is available online.

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