For some people, the rich and sweet smell of morning coffee puts them in pleasant spirits as the day begins. This smell can give them a feeling of waking up and being energized (Seo, Hirano, Shibato, Rakwal, Hwang & Masuo, 2008). According to the Sense of Smell Institute, the average human being is able to recognize approximately 10,000 different smells. Furthermore, 75% of emotions are generated by smell (Bell & Bell, 2007). Hence, there are many different smells that can be responsible for a big part of our emotions. Smell plays an important role in our daily lives by influencing our mood through eliciting emotions. Mood influences decision-making; therefore, smells can affect our purchases. In order to understand how smells influence our consuming behaviour, it is important to know how smells are perceived.
Smells can be perceived as a result of molecules entering the nose and stimulating odour receptors on the olfactory mucosa, which is a dime-sized region located on top of the nasal cavity just below the olfactory bulb. The olfactory receptors are located in the mucosa, and these receptors are sensitive to smells. Each type of olfactory receptor is sensitive to a narrow range of smells. Each smell causes a different pattern of firing across the olfactory receptor neurons. (Goldstein & Brockmole, 2014). There are a couple of brain areas involved in the activation pattern of smells. Starting in the olfactory mucosa, the olfactory information travels to the olfactory bulb, next to the piriform cortex, which is the primary olfactory area. The secondary olfactory area is the orbitofrontal cortex. From this area the information travels to the amygdala. The amygdala gives feedback to all three areas (Goldstein & Brockmole, 2014). Exposure to a highly aversive smell produces strong increases in both the amygdala and in the left orbitofrontal cortex. Exposure to less aversive smells produces increases in the orbitofrontal cortex, but not in the amygdala. These findings show that the human amygdala participates in the hedonic or emotional processing of olfactory stimuli (Zald & Pardo, 1997).
Research confirms that our sense of smell is the strongest sense in relation to memory, finding that we are a 100 times more likely to remember something that we smell than something that we see, hear, or touch (Vlahos, 2007). Memories for a certain smell are formed by the strengthening of neural connections due to repeated exposure to this smell. Coffee seems to be a strong smell, especially for people who did not sleep very well (Seo et al., 2008). Coffee smell contains a hundred different chemical components. After a number of exposures to coffee, which causes the same activation pattern to occur over and over, neural connections will form. The neurons become associated with one another. Once this occurs, a pattern of activations has been created that represents this coffee smell. Every time someone smells coffee, these neural connections become stronger due to more memories, which are linked to this smell (Goldstein & Brockmole, 2014).
Smells can unlock memories that had not been thought for years. This is called the Proust effect: the elicitation of memories through olfaction. An explanation for these memories linked to smells is that there are connections from structures involved in olfaction to the hippocampus, which is involved in storing memories. A study compared participants, who were triggered by olfactory and visual cues that were connected to a personally meaningful memory, with participants that had a control cue presented in olfactory and visual form. Functional MRI analyses indicated significantly greater activation in the amygdala and hippocampal regions during recall to the personally significant smell than any other cue (Herz, Eliassen, Beland & Souza, 2004). Smells can trigger emotional memories through the connections between olfactory structures and the amygdala, and hippocampus. As a consequence, marketers can influence people through their memories and emotions by the sense of smells (Solomon, 2014).
Over the last few years, marketers become more aware of the potential usefulness of smell as a sense. Companies invest money in odour marketing because distinctive, carefully considered smells will help amplify the attraction of customers. The goal is to create memorable brands throughout smells (Dowdey, 2008). Marketers’ interest in using smells relies on two physiological conditions that impact associative learning and emotional processing. Emotional processing is established via the direct connection between the olfactory bulb and the limbic system. Second, perceiving smell is one of our most deeply rooted senses. Therefore, the olfactory system functions as a chemical alert system. When someone senses a smell, the odour receptors produce an immediate, instinctive reaction (Zaltman, 2003). For this reason, the sense of smell is interesting for marketers because of its potential to create uncensored reactions to marketing stimuli. People often consume out of emotions and instinct rather than rational thoughts (Grunert, 2016). Thus, if marketers can elicit emotions and memories through smells, they can influence consumer behaviour.
The neurological substrates of olfaction are geared for associative learning and emotional processing. Associative learning happens when marketers link a smell with an unconditioned stimulus, for example a certain product or brand. This unconditioned stimulus elicits the desired response, for example positive associations with the stimulus. Eventually, this positive association will prompt a conditioned response from consumers, which could be buying the product (Herz, 2002). When people are in a positive mood when they see a certain product or brand they will associate their mood with the product, which will create positive associations. Marketers can create this positive mood by using certain smells in the store (Solomon, 2014). When consumers are visiting a store for a couple of times, they will be exposed to this specific smell, which causes the neuronal activation pattern to occur over and over. This repeated exposure forms strong neural connections. Every time an individual is exposed to this specific smell, new memories – experiences with the store – will be connected to this smell. When marketers create a specific smell for a store, only the sense of this smell is needed to get the consumers in a direct positive, and familiar mood, which will increase the amount of purchases (Johnson, 2013). A good example of this is the Dutch company ‘Scotch & Soda’. Walk into one of their stores and you will immediately be captivated by the pleasant recognizable smell.
The use of a general smell as part of the retail environment is called an ambient smell. Researchers found that in a warm- (vs. cool-) scented and thus perceptually more (vs. less) socially dense environment, people experience a greater (vs. lesser) need for power, which manifests in increased preference for and purchase of premium products and brands (Madzharov, Block & Morrin, 2015). A vanilla smell diffused into a women’s clothing store, and a spicy, honey smell into a men’s clothing store almost doubled sales. When the smells were reversed, sales fell even to levels below the amount when no smell was infused (Tischler, 2005). Clean smells like citrus-scented influence people to behave in morally acts. Episodic memories of a pie out of the oven or a steaming cup of coffee creates feelings of nostalgia and warmth (Solomon, 2014). One study found that the smell of fresh cinnamon buns induced sexual arousal in men, which increases purchases (Solomon, 2014). Major Asian shopping malls used Johnson & Johnson baby powder in clothing stores, and cherry fragrance in eating areas, which increased sales to pregnant women and increased the time spent in these malls by mothers and newborns (Solomon, 2014). In general, smells can entice shoppers to linger in a store via eliciting positive moods and memories, which translates to a higher purchased amount (Johnson, 2013). However, marketers have to be careful with using ambient smells in stores because consumers can also dislike the smell. Therefore, using smells for commercial goals requires specific market research.
Smells are powerful in eliciting emotions and memories, ranging from positive moods to nostalgia to moral behaviour. The sensation of certain smells influences our perception of a product. If this tool can be successfully implemented, marketers can create a strong positive association in the mind of consumers between the smell and the product.
Enjoy the sense of the rich and sweet smell of your cup of coffee!