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The Secrets to Olfactory Marketing During Christmas

Olfactory Marketing

If you ever thought the mouthwatering smell wafting out of a Cinnabon shop was merely the coincidental smell of the buns baking, then you were sorely mistaken. Those tantalizing smells that lure you in are part of a billion-dollar industry known as scent marketing or olfactory marketing. Sensory marketing strategies are clever techniques that retailers use to tap into our senses and make us want to buy their products.

What Is Scent Marketing?

Our senses influence us in ways that we are often unaware of. Consider how the smell of coffee brewing or freshly baked cakes can drive us into a craving distraction, or how the aroma of freshly popped popcorn at the movies can produce an intense craving for that fluffy, buttery goodness.

Our brains are finely tuned into scent. It is most closely linked to memory, so when your nose catches the smell of meat cooking on a braai (the South African version of a barbeque) on a Sunday afternoon, it makes its way into the areas of the brain responsible for emotional and memory processing. This can trigger a happy and nostalgic memory of Sunday braai’s gone by. This is why retailers spend so heavily on scent marketing, because smells link quickly and deeply to positive memories, which make us want to repeat those experiences – or avoid them if they are associated with negative memories.

In our Cinnabon example, Cinnabon uses this specific tactic – of olfactory influence – to promote their freshly baked goods by locating their stores in malls and airports to allow the smell to linger, baking buns every 30 minutes to keep the scent in the air, and placing their ovens in the front of the shops and directing the vents towards the queue. The breakfast sandwiches sold at Cinnabon are carefully selected to feature ingredients such as maple syrup and cheddar cheese, and not onion or garlic, because the former compliments the smell of the buns, and the latter would constitute a competing scent.

While the smell of food cooking or being prepared can stimulate cravings in consumers and increased appetitive behaviour, what about other olfactory sensory experiences not related to food? Singapore Airlines recognised over 30 years ago that the stale cabin scent was not the most appealing smell to weary travellers. They developed a custom floral and citrus scent to spray into their hot towels, thereby masking the stale air smell and creating a calming aroma that reduces anxiety and improves the overall experience.

The Impact of Olfactory Sense Marketing on the Brain

Our olfactory bulb is responsible for processing information related to our sense of smell and is part of the limbic system. The limbic system is a group of brain areas which are mainly implicated in emotion and memory. Hence, this suggests that our sense of smell is highly connected to our emotions and memories.

Some research has suggested that olfaction relates strongly to episodic, autobiographical memory (Dolan et al., 2000 & Herz et al., 2004, in their papers on olfaction and autobiographical memories) and emotion memory (David et al., 2001 & Herz et al., 2004). Autobiographical memory relates to memories for previous personal experiences and is usually associated with strong positive and negative emotional experiences. Thus, the decisions we make may be unconsciously influenced by a smell which is familiar and evokes emotional and autobiographical memories.

This type of consumer influence is seen over holidays, for instance during Christmas. Christmas related scents such as cinnamon, oranges and pines diffused through stores, can:

  1. Remind and prime consumers that Christmas is coming; and

  2. Invoke happy memories, in many consumers, about the festive season, and consequently contribute towards a positive consumer experience and mindset.

However, in terms of Christmas, smell alone is not responsible for consumers’ behaviour. For example, in addition to olfaction, playing auditory cues, such as Christmas jingles in stores, is also effective in producing positive sentiments and even evoking positive memory retrieval. Research on Christmas marketing has suggested that scent and auditory congruency is an effective avenue to promote a positive experience during Christmas shopping (Spangenberg, Grohmann & Sprott, 2003).

Another strand of research suggests that Christmas window displays are responsible for encouraging consumers to opt for an in-store Christmas shopping experience. Popular stores spend months and large budgets to create beautiful and elaborate Christmas window displays. In the era of online shopping, contrary to what would be expected, window displays are still an important part of Christmas advertising. Analyses of twitter data has shown that there are online conversations that occur about the competing Christmas window displays in London. The windows often seek to tell a well-known classical story which everyone can connect to during Christmas time.

Christmas is not only the most wonderful time of the year (thanks Andy Williams), but also one of the most important times of the year for stores. Store owners spend months preparing and make a marginal amount of their years’ profits over the festive season. Various Neuromarketing techniques tap into our senses (such as smell, hearing, and sight) to influence unconscious consumer decisions and improve the experience of holiday shopping by assisting with the occasioning of positive autobiographical memory.


Herz, R. S., Eliassen, J., Beland, S., & Souza, T. (2004). Neuroimaging evidence for the emotional potency of odor-evoked memory. Neuropsychologia, 42(3), 371-378.

Spangenberg, E., Grohmann, B., & Sprott, D. (2005). It's beginning to smell (and sound) a lot like Christmas: the interactive effects of ambient scent and music in a retail setting. Journal Of Business Research, 58(11), 1583-1589. doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2004.09.005

White, C. (2011). The smell of commerce: How companies use scents to sell their product. Independent.

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