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Brain Matters: Marketing, decision making and the psychology of smell

From the sweet, sweet smell of success to the stink of a failure, we’ve always used our sense of smell to convey, in rich visual imagery, what’s going on in our mind. It begs to ask. To what extent does our sense of smell affect our decision making?

By  Prakash Sharma and Reshma TonseDec 7, 2022 12:32 PM
Brain Matters: Marketing, decision making and the psychology of smell
The psychology of smell reveals a lot about the way we interpret our environments and make decisions. Why is smell so primal? Maybe because it is the only sense that is more or less in a ‘developed’ state during our time in the womb. Our abilities of touch, taste, hearing are at the bare minimum. As for sight, we are yet to open our eyes at this stage. (Representational image via Unsplash)

Evolution has encoded many tools in us humans to ensure that we survive. Chief among these are the five senses, the neural system and our cognitive OS made up of heuristics and the resulting cognitive biases. The main task of the primal brain is to run internal systems and manage external threats. It forces you to quickly decide if something is safe or unsafe. The ability to see clearly thus becomes an important need. Research says that more than half of the brain cortex is dedicated to processing visual stimuli. No wonder WYSIATTI – What You See Is All That There Is, is our go-to strategy to process the world, and why we trust anecdotal experiences over established truths. However a study of evolution and the early days in the womb reveals something interesting and even more primal than sight. Few scientists understand the phenomenon better than Jagjit Singh does.

At the risk of demystifying the maestro, Jagjit Singh has a knack for creating fascinating pieces of work from a neuroscience point of view, for the rich imagery he manages to conjure. Take for instance, ‘Tere aane ki jab khabar meheke’. The composition is about the longing and the anticipation of the lover returning home. Jagjit Singh sings about the ‘mehek', the aroma that the news triggers and takes us listeners on a journey of how his home, his evenings, the nights and the whole world around him now has the fragrance of his lover. As he absorbs this world, the scent becomes intertwined in his memory and will perhaps be the trigger that makes him nostalgic a few years down the line. In another Ghazal, he is in pain wondering how to burn the letters she wrote him. All those letters carry her smell, her essence.

Artists are famed for their ability to breathe life into worlds they create in the minds of their audience. When Proust talks about the smell of the Madeleine, a French cake that triggers his memories, we join in on that journey, nodding along with a knowing smile. We too have been in similar situations in our lives. Indeed for many, the magic of movies like Chocolat, Parasite, Perfume and Como Agua Para Chocolat lies in the joy of experiencing the sensory details that the filmmaker skilfully crafted.

The psychology of smell reveals a lot about the way we interpret our environments and make decisions. Why is smell so primal? Maybe because it is the only sense that is more or less in a ‘developed’ state during our time in the womb. Our abilities of touch, taste, hearing are at the bare minimum. As for sight, we are yet to open our eyes at this stage.

Smell is nature’s first lesson to us in survival. We learn what is safe and unsafe, familiar and new, via smell, starting with our mother and breast milk. We’ve learnt to avoid the putrid smell of rotting flesh. The smell of fresh flowers and ripe fruits on the other hand, is tempting – it distracts us and pulls us towards the source. There is a promise of something good awaiting us. So basic is the sense, it is almost as though the decision makes itself, before you are aware of it. A nuclear weapon for marketeers.


A consumer’s decision making is a function of availability – either mental or visual. Decisions are made when a consumer is clearly aware of what they need or is triggered to take action by seeing what is in front of them. Your local retailer is aware of this. So is your search engine. It is the basis on how they earn billions in revenue by allowing companies to appear on the first page of search results. The top 3 results on your search page and the items on the shelf at eye level have a disproportionately high probability of receiving your attention. ‘Jo dikhta hai, wo bikta hai’ indeed.

Smell is nature’s first lesson to us in survival. We learn what is safe and unsafe, familiar and new, via smell

Can we also trigger mental availability, a memory, a desirable moment for our customer when they are in this hot state? Roger Dooley, in his book Brainfluence, mentions a case. “In one experiment, two pairs of identical Nike shoes were evaluated by consumers: one in a room with a floral scent and one with no scent. A massive 84 percent of the subjects evaluated the sneakers in the scented room as superior.”


Dooley further writes, “Once a scent is embedded in an individual’s brain, even visual cues can cause it to be resurrected and even ‘experienced’. For example, a television commercial showing a pizza being pulled from an oven can trigger olfactory responses in the brain.”

Psychologist Johan Lundstrom, PhD says that smell differs from the other senses. The other senses are first processed by thalamus, but olfactory inputs reach brain regions like those dealing with memory and emotion before reaching the thalamus. Your brain has already done some quick processing even before you even have the awareness of the whiff that you caught. This means scent affects mood, concentration and emotions. In fact, research says 3 out of 4 emotions generated daily are due to smell. Further research says we can recall scents with 65 percent accuracy after 1 year while visual recall of images falls to almost half after just 3 months.

Companies have realised that to fully engage with potential customers, one needs to up their game. Enter aroma marketing, or ambient scent marketing. The right scents can cue different states of mind, different memories and impulses. It is the reason a kiosk selling freshly baked cookies can draw customers to it, but the same brand in a boxed format, with no scent to rekindle that memory can be ignored at the retail shelf. Using the science of triggering olfactory senses and strategic placement of pleasant aromas, one can create better brand imagery, products and customer experience and influence the time spent in the store.

Step into any upscale retail showroom and you go: Whoa, what’s that lovely smell? Abercrombie, Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, Singapore Airlines, Hyatt Place all have a distinctive aroma. Data shows a rise in retail sales by 11 percent and increased customer satisfaction scores by 20 percent, with the help of scent marketing. Nike noted an 80 percent increase in intent to purchase in a study after adding scents to their stores.

In his book Buyology, Martin Lindstrom talks about Samsung’s flagship electronics store in New York City “smelling like honeydew melon, a light signature fragrance intended to relax consumers”. Lindstrom further illustrates the case of Procter & Gamble, which rolled out their facial tissue brand, Puffs, with the scent of Vicks, to play on consumers’ childhood memories of their mothers’ treating their cold with Vicks’ ointment. Tests have shown that people gambled 45 percent more on a slot machine when a pleasant scent was introduced into the area, relaxing players.

Decisions are made when a consumer is clearly aware of what they need or is triggered to take action by seeing what is in front of them. Your local retailer is aware of this. So is your search engine.

Interestingly, experiments suggest that just changing the fragrance while keeping all other ingredients the same, can change perception of the product performance. In one case, people reported that their shampoo was suddenly better when it came to foaming, rinsing and the level of glossiness of their hair, when only its scent was changed in reality.

Not just the willingness to purchase or perceiving a product better, sensory branding can also help create better workspaces and healthcare systems. Various experiments show that the scent of lavender and jasmine can bring reduced levels of stress at work and vanilla-like sweet aroma can reduce anxiety by up to 63 percent . The scent of lemon on the other hand, has shown to increase productivity by up to 54 percent. The right fragrance in our environment can mean less stress and also better sleep!

When looking to create our own olfactory brand experiences, here is a starting point. Look for fragrances that your target group was exposed to as a child. Fresh bakery bread, the scents and smells around the Indian home, seasonal fruits and sweets from festivities are examples. Smell is primal and closely tied to memory. Evoking them can cue the comfort and warmth associated with these experiences in childhood.

As with all things in life, scent based interventions can backfire if not done correctly – think about the brand perception created by the smell of sandwiches in a café where roasted beans would have been more appropriate. For best results, try to integrate these interventions with similar behaviourally designed interventions related to visual and auditory senses, physical space design and ground staff communication.

Prakash Sharma and Reshma Tonse are the co-founders of 1001 Stories, a user-consumer research and solutions consultancy which uses Behavioural Science and Context Architecture to analyse, understand and influence human behaviour.

First Published on Dec 7, 2022 12:02 PM