It’s your day off and you decide to treat yourself to a new shirt/top. After having your morning coffee, you hop in your car and head towards the nearest mall. You’re cruising along when you see one of the most dreaded sights known to man; brake lights. Your heart rate almost immediately skyrockets as you know what the next 30 minutes entail. After playing the real life version of red light, green light (sidenote: notice how our favorite childhood games are all things we now despise doing.) you are almost at your destination. As you pull into the mall the real fun now begins and you get to look for a parking space. After driving around for 15 minutes and refusing to park in the parking garage for whatever reason, you find yourself at the valet (tip your valet by the way.) Paying $10 for parking was the straw that broke the camel’s back and you are extremely frustrated. What you hoped to be a relaxing outing has turned into a big cloud of stress. You walk into your favorite department store and almost immediately begin to feel calm. You can’t place a finger on it, but something about the aura of the store is soothing to you. As you come to a cool state, you begin browsing the store and grabbing multiple items to try on. As you try on the clothes you picked out you become a virtual owner of the products, almost all of them look amazing on you and you cannot bring yourself to choose just one item. As you go to retrieve your car from valet, you feel good about your purchases even though you only came to buy a single shirt and walked away with five.

So what about the aura of the store calmed you? Was it the displays that the store’s creative team spent hours upon hours on creating? Was it the lighting that made your heart rate come to a resting level? Oh I know, it had to be to kind sales woman that said hello to you and made you feel welcomed. While all of the factors stated may play a tiny role into grabbing your attention and giving you a warm welcome, none of them have quite the power to persuade you to purchase five items when you intended on buying one. The x factor in this scenario and the reason you had a sense of calm come over you was due to the scent being pumped throughout the store from a unit in their air conditioning system.

That’s right, many successful stores actually pump scents through their vents in order to add an additional element to your shopping experience. This marketing technique is called Ambient Scenting and is used in many different products including makeup, new cars, even the baby section of certain stores. Ambient scenting falls under the Sensory Branding umbrella along with other techniques including color in brands. We all know that most fast food restaurants sport red logos. In theory, the color red increases our heart rates and excites us to eat at their restaurant. Think of your favorite fast food joint, I bet their logo has red in it.

The most popular scent in America is vanilla. In fact, a study was conducted by Eric Spangenberg, a consumer psychologist and dean of the college of business at Washington State University, on scent marketing at a particular women’s clothing store. The study found that when vanilla scent is present in the store, sales doubled. So why is this? How can the scent of vanilla make you want to purchase more items? As the rule of thumb in psychology states; correlation is not causation. Thus meaning that the smell of vanilla alone is correlated with the increase in sales, but it does not directly cause the increase in sales. So what about vanilla attributes to increased purchase behavior?

As Pam Scholder, marketing professor at Georgia State University, says

“All of our other senses, you think before you respond, but with scent, your brain responds before you think.”

When we smell a familiar scent, it activates the limbic system in our brain which controls memory, emotion, and the sense of security. When we are infants, we encounter the scent of vanilla often. From our Johnson & Johnson baby powder to our mother’s breastmilk, vanilla is commonly present. Most of our earliest memories contain the scent of vanilla as our mother changed our diapers and coated our bottoms with baby powder, fed us her breast milk, and smothered us in vanilla scented lotions. As a baby, our mothers calmed us from crying and gave us a sense of security. While we may not cognitively remember being an infant, our brain remembers the emotions we felt and the associations we created. So when you walked into that department store frustrated and angry at the world, the scent of vanilla being pumped throughout the store had the same effect on you as it did when you were an infant. You felt calm and secure and suddenly you trusted the department store. Once the store has your trust you are willing to purchase more from that store and you begin forming a long time association of trust thus leading to customer loyalty.

Powerful stuff, huh?

A study conducted by Martin Lindstrom, author of the book buy-ology found that while the power of scent is powerful on its own, combined with a matching image it becomes even more powerful. Lindstrom was one of the first researchers to use fMRI brain scanning during studies. He did so to find out “the truth and lies about why we buy.” When interviewed about a product, we are prone to lying without even realizing it. Monitoring brain activity during research studies was a sure way to see how we react to various things when making decisions. A particular study he did was to show participants images on a slide and pump in a scent that either matched the image or had no association. The study found that when the scent and image matched, the participant rated the slide very pleasant and when they did not the participant almost always rated the image as unpleasant or very unpleasant. For example: when an image of a fish fillet sandwich was presented along with the smell of lemon, the participants rated the image as very pleasant. If an image of a cup of coffee was presented along with the smell of hand soap, the participants would rate the image as very unpleasant.

Companies like ScentAir specialize in creating scents for their clients to increase their customer experience. Their website is filled with data on scent marketing and there is even a scrolling quote wall with various facts about our sense of smell including “Tests show a 40% increase in our mood when exposed to pleasant fragrance.” ScentAir has a very impressive client list ranging from Bloomingdales to Lexus to Coca-Cola.

Lexus? You might be wondering. That’s right. Don’t you just love the smell of US7770817 B2?

Oh you might know it as the “new car smell.” Car manufacturers are even creating an experience through smell by pumping the new car smell through your cars air conditioning vents. Many companies are on board with these tactics. Ever been pumping gas at a 7Eleven or other gas station and got a big whiff of coffee? Well that is because the scent is being pumped out into the parking lot. I’m sure you love the smell of RTX9338PJS. That’s the code for the scent “just cooked bacon cheeseburger” and is used in many of your favorite fast food restaurants to increase your appetite. I could go on and on but you get the point. When we smell certain scents, our memories are activated and we can almost see an image of what we are smelling. One small smell of Abercrombie & Fitch’s signature cologne and you can picture the dimly lit store and it’s ripped denim.


Sensory Branding is a powerful tool used by brands and is an ingenious way to embed their products into your memory. What scents do you smell and instantly think of a brand or product? How do you feel about Ambient Scenting or scent marketing? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below and pass this article along to your friends.

3 thoughts on “ How Smell Persuades You to Buy ”

  1. I have great childhood memories of Burton Davis general store because of the smells there. It was the only store for miles in our neck of the woods. The old building was sided with huge red blocks, and the low poarch at the opening had old boards that creaked when you stepped on them. Inside the first think that hit your senses was Sealtest ice cream. The flavor was carried throughout the dimly lit building by old ceiling fans. As you made your way to the back of the store, the smell of leather entered your nostrils as you stared at all the boots, belts and overhauls.
    Thanks for allowing me to recall, and keep up the blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing! What a great description, I almost felt as if I were there alongside you. Question, when you smell the scent of leather or ice cream does it instantly take you back to that moment? These associations we have embedded in our brains often come alive when we smell a familiar scent like that. Every time I smell burning wood I think of Christmas on Chamberlin Road and it warms my heart. Stores often have seasonal scents and around Christmas they fill the air with cinnamon and nutmeg to give you that same warm feeling.


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