Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The Nose Knows: Sniffing out the marketing tricks of the trade

While navigating the marketplace, customers need to arm themselves with knowledge of aromatic tactics

Published: Jul 3, 2024 02:59:42 PM IST
Updated: Jul 3, 2024 03:00:37 PM IST

The art of scented persuasion is ever-present in retail spaces.
Image: Getty ImagesThe art of scented persuasion is ever-present in retail spaces. Image: Getty Images

Have you ever been enveloped by the aroma of a bakery, feeling as though you're floating on a cloud of freshly baked bread? This isn't a mere figment of your empty stomach—it's a deliberate, subtle, yet powerful sales tactic. Welcome to the world of olfactory marketing, where retailers compete in the sport of "scent seduction," aiming for the gold.

Let's take a whiff of the science behind this aromatic allure. Picture your sense of smell as a top-notch detective, gathering clues and relaying messages to the brain's emotional centre with astonishing speed. This detective is so adept that it can evoke nostalgia, hunger, or even love before you've had a chance to process the emotion consciously.

The art of scented persuasion is ever-present in retail spaces. The comforting scent of chocolate chip cookies isn't just there by chance; it's a strategic choice. That fragrance has the power to whisk you away to the carefree days of childhood, which might just lead you to indulge in a purchase driven by those warm emotions. Here's where it gets really sneaky. Movie theatres pump out the popcorn smell like a blockbuster release. You could be full from dinner, but that popcorn smell has you convinced you could eat a bucket the size of a small child. And you'll happily pay the price of a full meal for it because your nose just signed a contract your stomach didn't agree to.

These fragrant tactics aren't just shots in the dark but precise strikes guided by consumer behaviour studies. The connection between scent and memory isn't just poetic—it's rooted in what's known as the "Proustian effect." Shopkeepers have tapped into this phenomenon masterfully. A deep breath of toasting garam masala can transport you from a crowded marketplace to the nostalgic warmth of your grandmother's kitchen, prompting you to fill your shopping bag as if it were a treasure chest.

Then, there is something called the "halo effect." A store fragrant with the musky perfume of mogra flowers may not guarantee the excellence of its wares. That intoxicating scent is a clever guise, dazzling your senses and adorning even the most ordinary items with an aura of desirability.

This sensory influence extends beyond mere smell—it's about the emotional and psychological impact a scent can have. The concept of embodied cognition suggests that the way a place smells can affect how we perceive its offerings. For instance, imagine strolling into a shop where the air is perfumed with the aroma of rich desi ghee. Suddenly, everything in the shop feels as inviting as your Nani's kitchen on a festival day. You're not just smelling the ghee; you're feeling its warmth, its history, and hey presto, you're convinced that anything you buy from this place will sprinkle a little bit of that warmth into your life.

Consider scent priming, moving from the broader implications of scent to the subtleties of individual experiences. Think of it like your Amma's reminder to wash behind your ears but subtly and through your nose. You step into a supermarket and are hit with the fresh zest of lemon. It's not just a pleasant smell; it's a signal. Your brain starts whispering 'clean', 'fresh', 'pure', and the next thing you know, you're stocking up on more cleaning supplies than you planned—because who doesn't want their home to smell like a lemon grove in the heart of Kerala?

Also read: Take 5: The surprising ways emotions shape consumer behavior


As consumers, it's essential to recognise these olfactory triggers. When the scent of coffee beans in a store stirs you to feel more awake, and you consider a fancy new espresso machine, take a moment to step back. Understand that it's merely your brain associating that aroma with alertness and energy. And when the fragrance of roses tempts you to invest in overpriced rosewater, see it for what it is—a sensory-based marketing strategy.

In conclusion, navigate the marketplace with the wisdom and discernment of an elephant, not easily lured by the snake charmer's tune—or, in this case, the retailer's scent. Arm yourself with knowledge of these aromatic tactics. When you're next enticed by the dance of scents around you, remember to look beyond their beguiling veil. With this awareness, you can revel in the sensory experience without falling into the tango of unintended purchases. Stay alert, dear consumers, and let's reserve impulse buys for the items that genuinely merit their alluring scent.

M Geetha, Professor, Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode
Navya Mohanka, Principal Associate, I – PAC
Irfan Shamim, Doctoral Student, Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode