The multisensory revolution is fully underway - learnings from neuroscience have broken free of the lab and into the mainstream - telling us that all our senses are interconnected, they are not unimodal i.e. you do not just taste, but what you see, smell, hear and touch all affect your perception of flavor. For marketers this is particularly important as the natural extension of this concept is that a multisensory experience is a more engaging and memorable one. Who doesn’t want to be engaging and memorable?
With its strong physiological link between the olfactory and limbic system, no other sense is as firmly linked to memory and emotion as our sense of smell. With around 1000 genes that encode distinct scents, compared to vision that only has four, our sense of smell is highly discriminating and adept at distinguishing and recognizing smells, even though we may struggle to articulate them.
However, despite this understanding of the powerful effect of scent on human emotions and memory, this sensory asset is often overlooked when creating memorable brand experiences. Moreover, bricks and mortar retail stores still rely largely on visual and auditory experiences for customers. Our client, Premium Scenting and Ambius wished to understand the effect scent could have on people’s experiences. Neuroscience was required to ensure that we identified the unconscious emotional response to truly understand the effect.
In order to understand the unconscious emotional response to scent, galvanic skin response (GSR) was used to measure arousal/ physiological involvement. This allowed a continuous measurement of unconscious arousal to be recorded from each respondent without interrupting the experience. With all experiences being identical across the conditions and the only manipulation that of scent, we wished to understand if, and to what extent, scent would impact the experiences.
The research was built around six virtual reality experiences (VR) consisting of vision and sound (Beach, Waterfall, Northern Lights, Undersea, Skiing, and Base Jumping) that were delivered either with or without scent (scented and unscented condition). Respondents were assigned to one of two groups: a VR and scent group or a VR only group.
A total of n=50 respondents were split across the two conditions - following a short intro to the VR and calibration of the GSR, respondents experienced each of the six VR films, the order was counterbalanced across the sample. Each VR lasted 30 seconds followed by a 60 second period of a gray screen. In the scenting condition, each VR experience was accompanied by a different scent delivered in a jar – between conditions, the jar was sealed, and the scent cleared from the room.
The results from the unscented condition helped us understand the baseline levels of arousal across each experience, ranging from a low level of arousal in the “beach” experience to a high level in “base jumping” condition (figure 1). Looking at the initial effect of scent, when averaged across all experiences the effect of scent resulted in a highly significant, 38% increase in arousal. As expected in line with our understanding of the physiological effect of smell, this result was expected. However, does this mean that scent has the same impact regardless of experience? Looking across conditions it was clear that the impact of scent varied.
Figure 2 shows the impact of scent on experience (averaging arousal across all 30 seconds of each experience), increases in arousal ranged from highly significant uplifts in Beach, Waterfall and Northern Lights experiences. However, in the experiences where arousal (as shown in figure 1) was already high (Skiing and Base Jumping) there was no significant uplift between the scented and unscented conditions. In these latter conditions, arousal was already high and scent did not amplify it. Therefore, does this mean that scent is only impactful for calmer, low-arousal environments?
Lastly, we investigated the effect of scent over time within each experience. Figure 3 shows the effect of scent in the first five seconds and shows a notable effect of scent on all experiences when it is first introduced. However, over time the effect of scent evolved differently depending on the visual experience. In the more visually extreme videos (Skiing and Base Jumping) the significance of the differences between the scented and unscented conditions becomes increasingly less significant throughout the length of the experience. The opposite is true in other conditions.
Scent is a powerful sense that is arguably underused in the retail environment. This study has shown how scent not just increases arousal/ involvement but can be used strategically. Where the experience is not too intense, scent can have an impact on physiological involvement in the whole experience i.e. it is plausible that in a relaxed, calm store environment, where your physiological arousal is low, adding in the scent may amplify that experience. However, if instead, you are in a high street fashion store with bright lighting, loud music, and striking visuals - here your arousal levels are already high - adding in scent is less impactful at a total level. Here scent may be used differently e.g. to orientate attention, driving an immediate (but not long-lasting) physiological reaction before the senses of vision and sound take over.
While this study has shown how scent can enhance an experience, brands need to consider how they can develop a scent to be congruent with their brand identity, allowing it to act as a brand asset as part of the broader memory structure of the brand. By doing so strategically, this effect will last out of the store; the memory triggered by one sense will activate others, creating a longer-lasting, and arguably more engaging experience – strengthening the emotional connection to the brand.
As the battle to engage and enhance the customer experience rages in the high street, scenting may open up a whole new window of opportunity.