Seeing is smelling: how even a picture of a lemon can sell products | Letter

As a longtime enthusiast of ambient scents in retail spaces I very much enjoyed Aimee Levitt’s article (‘It’s the brand speaking to you’: the scent firms making smells for Subway, Abercrombie and more, 8 May). However, it misses an important limitation of ambient scent: consumers can only smell it if they’re actually in or near the physical retail space, but most shopping is now done online where brands are unable to diffuse scents.

I recently co-authored research revealing a simple yet effective way to create a sense of smell without using actual scents. We showed that simply including a picture of a scented object (for example, coffee beans or a rose) on a package or in an advertisement strongly evokes that scent in consumers’ minds. Some colleagues have dubbed this “smellising”. That imagined scent, in turn, influences consumers in much the same way as an actual scent.

For example, most Method cleaning products come in transparent packages without any visual imagery. We showed that people are more likely to choose Method’s clementine-scented hand soap when the ad had a picture of clementines than when it didn’t. Additionally, the more strongly the picture induces consumers to “smellise” the scent, the more they like the product. For instance, consumers chose a dish soap with a picture of cut lemons on the label over one with a picture of whole lemons, because cut lemons are more evocative than whole lemons.

As your article made clear, scent is powerful. And as our research reveals, “seeing is smelling”. Therefore, online retailers can also harness the power of smell in shoppers’ minds.
Zachary Estes
Professor of marketing, City, University of London


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