Between the bouncy music and stacks of colorful jeans, visitors to the Benetton store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue might catch a whiff of a blooming marketing trend.
High in the corner beside the store entrance, a scent diffuser installed in November spreads a bright spring fragrance modeled after Benetton’s Verde cologne.
“It finishes the emotion we are trying to create in the store,” said Robert Argueta, director of visual merchandising for the United Colors of Benetton, who is testing the scent in Benetton’s Chicago and New York flagships and has been so pleased with the feedback (and the inadvertent increase in cologne sales) that he plans to roll it out in more stores. “It’s the first and last impression a customer gets.”
Long the domain of casinos and hotels, scenting is increasingly catching on among retailers and in car showrooms, sports stadiums, airports, banks and apartment buildings that seek to distinguish themselves with customers via the deeply influential sense of smell.
“It’s a way to market above the clutter,” said Roel Ventura, a Seattle-based ambient designer with Ambius, which designs business environments. “We are bombarded with so many messages, so this creates an experience that will last longer than the music at the mall.”
The tactic also is gaining traction among businesses hoping to drum up sales thanks to research that has shown the right scent can open people’s wallets, project a sense of comfort and home (think hotels), shorten the time you believe you’re waiting (think banking) or even improve your sense of performance (think gym).
While smells can be a turnoff or cause health problems for some people, the global scent-marketing industry is on the rise, grossing an estimated $200 million in revenue last year and growing around 10 percent annually, said Jennifer Dublino, vice president of development at ScentWorld Events, the industry’s trade group in Scarsdale, N.Y.
Some environmental health scientists are concerned that scent marketing is involuntarily and unnecessarily exposing people to ever more chemicals that aren’t fully understood. Fragrance gets criticism because the formulas aren’t required to be disclosed, so people don’t always know what chemicals are in them.
“With this particular trend, lack of disclosure and increased exposure to unnecessary chemicals are both at issue,” said Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research at the Environmental Working Group. Some synthetic musks, a common ingredient in fragrance, have been flagged as potential hormone disrupters, she said.
Among asthmatics, who represent about 10 percent of the adult population, or allergy sufferers, who represent 30 to 35 percent, fragrance can trigger protective throat closure, burning eyes and nose, or headaches.
Scent marketing is divided into two main categories: ambient scenting, which fills a space with a pleasant smell, and scent branding, which develops a signature scent specific to a brand, like an olfactory logo. The former can cost $100 to $1,000 a month, depending on the size of the space. The latter can run anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000, plus a monthly maintenance fee.
If the aim is to improve consistency or create or maintain an iconic brand, a signature scent may be best, said Ed Burke, director of marketing and communications at ScentAir, a leading scent-marketing company based in Charlotte, N.C., that says it scents 70,000 locations, including Benetton. Less than 10 percent of the company’s clients go that route, he said.
“Hugo Boss is a great example of a signature scent,” said Burke, whose company created the rich tamboti wood scent that Hugo Boss pumps through its stores’ heating and air conditioning systems, the preferred delivery method for large spaces. The high-end brand, an early retail adopter of scenting in 2011, at the time sold its apparel mostly in other stores like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, so scenting was a way to tell a consistent brand story, Burke said.
If the business is just looking for a smell to give a lift to the customer experience, they usually can find something that works among the 3,000 scents in ScentAir’s catalog, Burke said.
Some venues use multiple scents. The scent program launched last month at Marlins Park baseball stadium in Miami includes the smell of caramel popcorn in the general concourse areas for a “whimsical, family atmosphere,” a more sophisticated black orchid aroma in the stadium’s luxury Diamond Club and a muted orange scent in the team store to reflect the stadium’s history of hosting the Orange Bowl, Burke said.
Businesses you wouldn’t normally think would scent are jumping on the bandwagon. Among ScentAir’s newer clients are rent-to-own retailers like Aaron’s, which use scents like “clean cotton” and “golden bamboo” to “project a sense of home and comfort,” Burke said.
Some banks have signed on, with research suggesting that scent can shorten the time you feel you’re standing in line, said Roger Bensinger, executive vice president for AirQ, a division of Prolitech.
At Belgium’s Brussels Airport, a scent called “fresh clean,” which is “almost like being outdoors after a spring rain,” greets visitors as they clear customs.