Tricky Smells of Aroma Marketing

unhealthy aroma marketing

Companies use all sorts of marketing tactics to persuade consumers into buying their products. Most of which we are aware of, such as billboard signs, bright colors, and catchy slogans… but did you know that many of these corporate heavyweights use even trickier methods to make their products seem irresistible? Various consumer brands, restaurants, and hotels use the sense of SMELL to capture their customers’ attention and lure them into buying unhealthy foods. This powerful technique motivates individuals to buy products without having to overtly sell anything. These manipulative methods are being used by many retailers; attempting to lure you toward unhealthy foods, without you even knowing it!


The History Behind Aroma Marketing

It’s not coincidence that as you’re walking down the street, you may be overwhelmed by the smell of something delicious cooking nearby. Restaurants and retailers (like the Peanut Shoppe in downtown Akron) have been using aroma to lure customers in and create an enjoyable environment for years!

In ancient history, the Greeks and Romans used certain scents to mask victims’ blood, perfume the air during banquets, and for other ceremonies and rituals. As scent has been studied, it’s shown to be linked with influencing emotions and moods. Aroma has played an important role in appearance, status, and now in the modern world for marketing tactics.

Today, corporate giants such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks use odors within their stores to create a sensory experience, enjoyable for all of their customers. Starbucks even has an “aroma task force“, with the job of ensuring their stores smell only of coffee aroma, not of the lesser appealing aromas of the food products they serve.

Cinnabon places their ovens near the front of the stores, so the smell that escapes can easily entice customers. This aroma marketing has been planned so well, down to the very placement of their stores within malls and airports, never outdoors, to ensure that the smells are always captured. It’s reported that some store operators heat additional sheets of brown sugar and cinnamon to keep the aroma strong between their 30-minute baking periods.

supermarket chain in Brooklyn, N.Y., goes to an extreme with five specialized scent machines in various areas of their store that pump in aroma depending on the food in that specific section. Scents include grapefruit for the produce department, chocolate for the candy isle, and rosemary focaccia by the bakery. The goal with the aroma is to make customers hungry for the food they will purchase. If they are successful, the ultimate goal is to make more sales.


Science Proves It Works

Smell is one of the most primal senses that we as humans experience. Affecting more than 75% of what we taste, it is no wonder that marketers caught on to using it to boost sales. The physiological connection of aroma is undeniable, and can “trigger” us both emotionally and physically from the deeply linked connections in our brain. Studies suggest that the use of scent has the ability to regulate levels of stress and other health benefits.

Melvin Oatis, clinical supervisor of the New York University Child Study Center states, “The sense of smell is so primal, it goes into an odor part of the brain before it can all register and it’s an unconscious wonderful thing that happens to you. So that sense of smell actually translates later into, ‘Oh, I wasn’t even hungry, but now I want popcorn.”

Movie Popcorn Aroma Marketing

Smell is by far the most powerful sense, with the most detail for the human body. Recent studies took 128 different odor molecules and mixed them into different configurations. Twenty-eight adults then smelled them to see how much they registered as “unique.” This research reported (with a margin of error present) that the human nose could detect one trillion different stimuli. This is approximately 2.8 million times more sensitive than our hearing and 150,000 times more sensitive than our eyes!

Unlike other senses, smell skips the rational filter in the brain and has a direct highway to your most primitive centers of the brain; the limbic system which influences emotions and memories, and the neo-cortex which is where conscious thought is modified. The limbic system structures work together to affect many behaviors including emotions, motivation, and memory. It also handles our instinctive behaviors and has little to do with our conscious thought. This means that smell has one of the most primitive reactions in our body, and because of where the smell is reacting within our brains, we have little or no control over how the smell affects our subconscious. This in turn makes smell very hard to resist and a powerful tool for marketers to use when attempting to motivate individuals to buy their products.


Who’s Behind It?

Over the past decade, scent marketing has increased drastically and is being used by many companies to promote products, keep customers engaged in their stores, and provide an enjoyable experience overall. New technology can be accredited for the boom in aroma marketing in today’s marketing mix. Now smell can be cheaply added to any environment and has a proven track record for increasing sales. Companies such as ScentAir are at the forefront of this boom, boasting clientele such as Westin Hotel & Resorts, Bloomingdales, and Anytime Fitness. Due to lowered cost because of innovative technology, now almost anyone can create the right scent for their business and attract customers through their noses.


How Bad Can It Be?

Even though these scents, like Cinnabon’s claimed “natural aroma,” may be delicious to our senses, they cause us to be motivated to eat food that is most dangerous to our systems.

Cinnabon’s ingredients, for example, are littered with processed sugars, chemically enhanced preservatives, and two ingredients that are added to enhance the smell of the product. These ingredients, “heliotropin” and “citral” are artificial ingredients added solely to help the product smell better, which affects the way that it tastes. While many of these smell enhancers are not considered to be dangerous, they cause many to eat more, and make unhealthy dietary choices.


Good Health Is Really Up To You

Companies are using certain appealing smells to lure you toward making decisions that may be bad for your health. It’s already hard enough to avoid all of the sugary sweets that the typical American diet has been trained to crave; now, our noses are working against us as well! Scent marketing is not considered unethical because it doesn’t constrain a person’s freedom to make a choice, but it may be considered unethical in terms of the artificial and potentially dangerous ingredients added to foods to achieve such aromas. Scent marketing is not going away anytime soon! It’s ultimately up to you to know what you’re eating, know why you’re drawn to various products, and to understand the effect of marketing on our brains and bodies. Remember that motto: “Never Shop When You Are Hungry!”


  1. Aroma marketing sounds pretty cool. It’s weird to think that smalls can trigger us and make connections in our brain. Like you said, it doesn’t surprise me that savvy business people are using that to their advantage.


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