News Release

Scent sells – but the right picture titillates both eyes and nose, research finds

The right image in branding and advertising of scented products can trigger both sense of smell and sight

Peer-Reviewed Publication

City University London

Scented products with relevant images on their packaging and branding, such as flowers or fruit, are more attractive to potential customers and score better in produce evaluations, new research confirms.

And such images, the researchers conclude, are particularly effective if manufacturers and marketers choose pictures that are more likely to stimulate a stronger sense of the imagined smell – for example, cut rather than whole lemons. This, they say, suggests that as well as seducing our eyes, the images are stimulating our sense of smell.

The study, published online in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, could provide manufacturers and marketers with a cost-effective way of promoting the ever expanding range of scented products. As well as the obvious, such as perfumes, candles and air fresheners, products such as bottled water and greeting cards are now sometimes infused with scent.

The whiff of failure

Despite rising recognition of the power of scent, the paper says, much product branding does not include an image evoking an appealing smell. Alternatively, other marketers and their clients even choose images that actually reduce consumer appeal. Examples include objects whose unpleasant odours the product is designed to disguise, such as old trainers or ash trays. The new study confirms the negative impact of such images.

It also revealed that only 27% of the 957 scented laundry detergents and all-purpose cleaners on sale in America included in the study carried a picture of the object whose scent was recreated in the product.

The researchers then measured the customer ratings for the 532 products where consumers had provided feedback using 1-5 stars on the retailers’ website. Products branded with a relevant image of the source of the scent scored significantly better, with an average rating of 4.66 out of 5 stars, compared to 4.46 stars for products without a picture of scent on the package.

In an online study, 200 participants were asked to choose between two fruit-scented handwash products with and without pictures of the relevant fruit on packaging/advertising. As expected, the presence of an image was more important in determining consumer choice than whether the handwash was scented with clementines or pears.

A rose by any other name…

Similarly, when considering products described as having a floral scent, images of yellow roses scored better with participants than sunflowers, almost certainly because the latter does not have a strong smell.

The paper also concludes that marketers can boost the olfactory impact by adding a second ‘cue’ to packaging and branding material, such as showing cut lemons rather than whole lemons.

Co-author Zachary Estes, Professor of Marketing at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), City, University of London, said: “Marketers and their clients have sought for some time to infuse packaging and even print advertisements with appropriate pleasant fragrances. There is strong evidence that appealing scents can boost sales in shops. However, for individual products that process is costly and not always particularly practical. It also has limited impact – research suggests that just 11 per cent of customers sniff fragranced magazine ads, for example.

“Our study suggests there is a less expensive route to the olfactory senses – one where people’s imaginations almost do the marketer’s work. It is no surprise that attractive images of flowers or fruit with pleasant smells will attract customers if they are relevant to the product. However, that impact can be magnified by using specific images that intensify stimulation the olfactory senses as well.”

Co-author Varun Sharma, Assistant Teaching Professor at Carnegie Mellon University (Qatar), said: “With this large market comes a growing demand to advertise and package these scented products effectively. Our work suggests that scent has far more pervasive and powerful marketing potential than previously thought.

“It’s reasonable to assume that even when packaging or advertisements carry a scent-related picture, it is initially chosen for visual appeal. Marketers and their clients need to understand the wider power of such images. Unless marketers fully understand why such pictures are effective and that their impact is multisensory, they may make costly mistakes.”

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