Customer Experience: Smells Like Memories

Scientists have researched olfactory perception and discovered it’s quite common for people to associate memories and experiences with certain smells. However, it’s probably fair to say that most businesses haven’t given much thought as to what their showroom, waiting room or lobby smells like. In an effort to design a better customer experience, does your business pass the “smell test”?

Some smells bring us back to places, memories, or points in time. In a New Yorker article titled, “The Dime Store Floor,” author David Owen visits childhood haunts to recapture smells from his youth. In his journey, he checks to see if his old dentist office still smells of “volatile solvents and fear” or the basement in his childhood home still reeks of “dust and damp and plywood and clothes dryer exhaust.” Indeed, some smells linger on. Owen discusses how decades later, he can still generate a mental image of the smell of a museum he frequently visited as a child.

If you think about it long enough, chances are you can mentally reproduce a smell from a memorable time or place. That’s because the human mind creates deep sensory links to a variety of smells, and these sensory links are especially prevalent when attached to an emotional experience.

This familiarity is well documented in the research of Dr. Rachel Herz of Brown University. The whitepaper “I Know What I Like: Understanding Odor Preferences” cites three findings regarding the power of olfactory perception:

• Like or dislike of various smells is due to our emotional associative history with the odors in question
• Culture can influence our emotional attachment to smells
• Context sets the stage for perception of smells

First, the whitepaper mentions, “Whether we have a preference for a certain smell or not is due to our acquired emotional associations to that scent.”

For example, let’s suppose you run an auto repair shop. It would be pretty difficult, outside the installation of a coffee maker in the lobby, to change the odor of your business. Not to fear—the research of Herz and others show that what matters most is the pairing of odors to the customer experience.

In an experiment, Herz and other researchers noticed that when an “unpleasant odor was paired with a positive emotional experience, subsequent evaluations of that odor were more favorable and when a ‘pleasant’ target odor was paired with a negative emotional experience, subsequent evaluations of that odor were more unpleasant.” So yes, it’s possible that over time your customers could ultimately begin to love the smell of auto grease and car exhaust—provided, of course, that you’re offering them an incredible customer experience every time they walk into your repair shop.

Cultural differences also matter in olfactory preference. A supermarket poll by the Times of London cites that Britain’s top five favorite smells are: fresh bread, frying bacon, coffee, ironing, and cut grass. But if you plan on marketing a new chewing gum in Britain, just don’t try “wintergreen” as most Brits associate wintergreen with medicine! When it comes to “smell”, cultural associations matter, so do your homework and know your customer!

Finally, when it comes to smell, context sets the stage. Herz mentions an experiment where a particular odor is labeled “vomit,” when in actuality it’s parmesan cheese. Simply labeling an odor can influence end user perception of how it smells. To this point, Herz cites a clever example for marketers to think about: Are you selling a pine-scented disinfectant or is the smell actually “Christmas Tree”?

When designing a customer experience, smell matters. What associations are your customers forming from scents emanating from your business? What emotional attachments are you creating?

Questions:
• Are women more sensitive to some odors than men? Which smells?
• Suppose you plan on opening a maternity shop, which smells should you probably avoid?
• What odors do you powerfully associate with past experiences? What smells can you visualize—even from events decades ago?

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3 comments

  1. Another example that can be added is that shown in the last scenes of Ratatouille (the animated movie); a fierce food critic was all set to write the most reproachful review of a particular restaurant when he unexpectedly gets served a recipe his mum used to make at their farm house when he was just a kid. The review, of course, was a success.

    As for your question about the maternity shop, I’d used the ‘baby powder and lotion’ smell that makes us cuddle kids even more. I believe J&J products are responsible for it

  2. Fehmeen, love your idea of baby powder and lotion for maternity shops. I can still smell J&J baby shampoo (in my mind) if I think about it long enough. Brings back great memories!

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