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Who wants to have their free will taken away from them? Especially when it comes to basic decisions in our daily lives, like, for example, what we spend our money on. It has long been common knowledge that emotional factors influence our choices. In department stores calming music provides a feel-good atmosphere while for fashion, up-beat pop and rock songs are supposed to exhilarate shoppers and increase their buying impulses. Which begs the question: If it works via what we hear can it also work through our sense of smell?
New scientific and marketing studies show that the use of scent can influence consumers in their purchasing decision and help companies increase their turnover. The research institute for Customer Insight at the University of St. Gallen found that customers in Zurich stores did in fact allow themselves to be influenced by scent. The consumers stayed longer and more frequently made the decision to buy a product. The result: The shops were able to increase their turnover by up to eight percent. Further studies, for example by the research group “Consuming and Behavior” at the University of Paderborn, confirmed these findings.
Feelings and memories
But what actually happens in the brain in these studies? From birth on human beings possess a sense of smell. As we go through life we experience more and more different odors, store them in the brain and refine our ability to tell one scent from another. The sense of smell is particularly fascinating because it is mainly registered in the sub-conscious. An olfactory stimulus must be sufficiently strong to make its way into our consciousness – only then, do we notice that we are smelling something. The nose is also the only sense organ that sends its impulses unfiltered from the olfactory cerebrum to the amygdala, the part of the limbic system in the brain. This means that the impulses bypass the centers of the cerebral cortex that normally present an obstacle, and enter the sub-conscious directly. There, these impulses awaken feelings and memories. This is where the key to the question whether our buying behavior can be influenced by scent lies. Feelings and memories can be positive, they can reflect beauty and pleasure and thus induce consumers to buy a product. However they can also put us off – if we are repulsed or feel uncomfortable then we will definitely keep our distance from the product and from the purchase.
In the department of Neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, the connection between scent and feelings has been researched more intensively. The scientists have mainly concerned themselves with the question: Why do some smells in particular awaken memories from our childhood? In one experiment participants were shown different objects. At the same time they heard a sound or could smell a scent. Hours later the experiment was repeated – this time however with different sounds and smells. The results showed that afterwards the participants associated the object most strongly with the first scent. At the same time a particular pattern of neural activity in the hippocampus was discovered. The scientists came to the conclusion that smells, which are associated with objects, are strongly anchored in our brains and these pairings normally occur in childhood.
However, according to science, the connection between smell and buying behavior is not quite so simple. In as much as a whole series of additional factors also influence whether, ultimately, our nose has a role to play. Regional and cultural tendencies determine the effect smells have on us. A southern European has different associations with the scent of citrus to a German; the Japanese prefer different smells to the North Americans. Furthermore in a shopping context the scent must suit the product and the purchasing situation – and it should not be contrary to the expectations of the customer. And, as with most things in life, the adage applies: Don’t exaggerate. A very intensive olfactory experience can quickly become repulsive. Tests have shown that simple scents convince customers most of all. According to research, this has to do with the principle of “ease of processing“. The easier a sensual impression can be processed the more positive we experience it emotionally.
More and more companies have already recognized the potential of scent. Apart from giving particular products particular scents some have also become interested in the notion of a Brand Scent – scent as a marker of identity. So, will scent become the next Big Thing? In many cases it is still difficult to measure the efficiency and influence smells have on sales figures. Many questions also remain unanswered in the search for made-to-measure scents for consumers and the most suitable method for releasing the scent. However should the connection between scent and brand prove to be a successful marketing instrument and subsequently be widely put into practice by companies, this could lead to a back-lash from consumers. Because many consumers enjoy and even love particular smells, but there is one thing they do not want, and that is to be lead by the nose.> Back to overview