There are certain scents -- warm cookies, fresh-cut grass, salty air -- that evoke powerful memories and can alternately make someone feel cozy and content, energized or just plain happy. It was only a matter of time until someone bottled that up and sought to connect scents with sales.
As brands continue to search for innovative ways to distinguish themselves, scent marketing is becoming another tool in their arsenals. "We're where music was 15 years ago," said Roger Bensinger, exec VP of AirQ by Prolitec, which works with Abercrombie & Fitch, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Giorgio Armani, among others. "You wouldn't walk into an established retailer today without some sort of music playing, but that wasn't the case 15 or 20 years ago. You can walk into a beautifully designed space, and it's rendered meaningless if there's a bad smell or an absent smell."
While the roots for scent marketing lie in odor control -- think smoky casinos and medicinal doctor's offices -- industries as varied as retail, hospitality, auto dealers and financial services are now looking to scent as a way to better define their brands.
Smells are more quickly and strongly associated with memories than visual or auditory cues, because smell is the only sense directly connected to the brain's limbic system, which houses emotions and memories, according to scent experts.
A study done in 2013 by the Global Journal of Commerce and Management Perspective said that ambient scent has the strongest impact when it comes to enhancing consumer behavior in terms of emotion, evaluation, willingness to return to a store and purchase intention.
Jennifer Dublino, VP-development at ScentWorld, a global nonprofit organization, estimates the scent-marketing industry is growing at an annual rate of 15%, with revenue of about $300 million worldwide.
More than a decade ago, Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the first brands to make scent a crucial part of its identity. That won't come as a surprise to anyone who wandered into its stores in the early 2000s. Fierce, the brand's signature scent and men's cologne, was once sprayed manually by employees throughout the store -- not an ideal delivery method. It was expensive; employees were doused in the scent and there wasn't a uniform effect.
Several years ago, the retailer began working with AirQ to better deploy the scent. A delivery system was installed on the ceiling and powered by the track lighting. "They already had a commitment to scent as part of a multisensory experience," said Mr. Bensinger. "We just helped them deliver it in a more consistent, safer fashion."
For marketers, it's possible to work with a company like AirQ or rival ScentAir to attach brand attributes and adjectives to certain fragrance notes like citrus, vanilla or floral, for example. "It's like translating a marketing language," said Mr. Bensinger, noting that there are 80 adjectives for marketers to choose from. "It allows a company to define itself and not rely on the subjectivity of a salesperson. And it makes it more scalable."
It's also possible to create a fragrance from scratch, as ScentAir did for JW Marriott. Edward Burke, director-marketing and communications for ScentAir, described the scent -- named Subtle Sophistication -- as soft and fresh with a bit of citrus. "It's not over the top," Mr. Burke said. "It could be as much for a business traveler as a vacationer."
Mitzi Gaskins, VP-global brand leader for JW Marriott, said the scent is just as important as music, lighting and botanical elements in creating the right mood. Fans of the smell can even bring it home with them -- a Subtle Sophistication candle is sold on the CuratedByJW website.