Smell you later: The nose knows – and can significantly boost memory of products

13 06 2012

Contrary to popular belief, researchers say the true power of scent isn’t in affecting our mood — surprisingly, an uncommon occurrence — but rather its capacity to make us linger longer, spend more, recall brands more positively, and greatly improve our memory for products. In fact, a new study shows the latter effect is so potent that it even outshines an advertisement’s visuals in terms of boosting brand recall. “When I first started doing this work, I assumed that if scent had an impact, it would be primarily related to people’s moods. But it’s actually rare that I find that effect,” says Maureen Morrin, a professor of marketing at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “In my analyses, memory is improved because scent makes people pay closer attention to things. It makes them look longer and process more deeply.” This bears out in a study conducted by Morrin and May Lwin, of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, using 100 women in a simulated movie-house environment. The cinema was used because it’s one of the last strongholds of captive audiences, with consumers being unable to fast-forward through ads and less likely to divert their attention from them. Participants were shown a spa ad in one of four conditions: scented theatre, ad with pictures; scented theatre, ad with no pictures; unscented theatre, ad with pictures; unscented theatre, ad with no pictures. In the scented condition, a rose-sandalwood combo was used because pre-tests revealed it as an especially pleasant odour to women. Ad recall was tested five minutes later, and again in two weeks, with a scent strip used to trigger memory. In both cases, scent proved a mighty force. “When the ad contained pictures as opposed to no pictures, memory went up. If you added a scent, memory went up. And if you had both pictures and a scent, consumers’ memories improved by more than those two things added together; that is, one plus one equalled more than two,” says Morrin, whose study appears in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour. “So not only do scent and pictures help memory, when you put them together, they have a super-additive effect.” But don’t expect commercials in smellovision anytime soon. Morrin notes that the cost of installing scent diffusers in theatres is unlikely to be tolerated until studies establish a clear return on investment. She also says there are limitations to its use in large groups because many people have olfactory sensitivity. The effects of scent on brand recall are so strong, however, that marketers can be expected to leverage them in more practical ways — some of which you may have already experienced. A handful of Canadian liquor stores, for example, have pumped the aroma of freshly cut grass into beer aisles to evoke cracking a cold one at a BBQ. Last year, Spy Kids 4 was presented in “aroma-scope,” with audiences being given scented cards to sniff at different plot points. There are even burger-scented candles designed to remind White Castle patrons of the chain’s beefy fare. “When you’re in an environment with a pleasant odour, somehow your brain is telling you that it’s a safe place,” says Morrin. “It’s almost a Darwinian thing.” Indeed. Survival of the fittest wallet.

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