This article was originally published on Advertising Age.
When I was a teenager, I’d borrow my mom’s clothes before going out. I loved not only her clothes, but her smell on them. (She was considerably less thrilled by the lingering smell of underground Belgrade clubs afterward.) I still remember that smell, although it’s been ages since I went to a club or ventured into my mother’s closet.
Symbolic and visceral, smell can be a powerful brand language that convincingly conveys identity and differentiation. It has potential to create a direct, tangible connection between a brand and its consumers. It can easily create an emotional space around a brand’s audience, and builds and nurtures a brand community around shared feelings and tangible bonds.
Some smart brands already use smell as marketing. We all know the “new Mac smell” that is actually infused on purpose in the new Mac computers. Scent craftsmanship company 12.29 similarly creates the “Nike scent,” combining smells of grass, sweat on the machines in the gym, rubber and a pair of new Air Jordans to scent Nike packaging. They also successfully created the brand identity for American Express Centurion Lounges around the world. The scent is designed to unmistakably evoke an association with American Express and to go well with smells of food, coffee and a group of people.
Still, brands have yet to crack the code of scent craftsmanship in modern brand-building. Sure, there are quite a few examples of scented stores, hotel lobbies and event spaces. But scenting a locale is different than introducing bespoke visceral experience as the critical pillar in building a modern brand. The former is the domain of marketing; the latter of the brand identity.
Building brand identities via the expanded sensory repertoire has become a necessity. Businesses migrate online en masse — often providing functionality but failing to emotionally connect with their customers. When they do invest in forging emotional bonds, they opt in for visual and verbal communication that fails to stand out in the oversaturated market of and among overstimulated consumers.
Smell creates the most immediate and emotional of impressions, and is proven to influence purchase behavior. Well-received ambient scents have the power to inspire consumers to stay in retail spaces longer and browse more. Pleasant scents also create the perception of quality, positive associations and customer satisfaction.
Today, the preindustrial experiences of comfort, simplicity and spiritual fulfillment are aspirations to be achieved. A cursory search reveals more than 37,000 Instagram posts tagged #slowmade, with all sorts of handcrafted objects, farm-to-table food, sustainably made clothing and transformational experiences. This consumer shift is also reflected into the impressive growth of the global wellness market as the new luxury category. In 2015, this market reached $3.7 trillion, and is considered to be one of the world’s fastest-growing, most resilient markets.
Confronted with the need to tell their stories to audiences that simultaneously want to unplug and be super-plugged-in, brands have to rethink their narrative-building strategy.
In building intimacy with their customers, they need to realize that messaging is only one part of their brand story. Their umbrella brand narratives need to be consistently implemented across the entire non-linear, multi-touchpoint customer decision-making journey. Within this journey, physical stores and packaging (think “New Mac Smell”) will assume a new role as cultural and social moments, rather than transactions. As such, they will embody the brand identity and the story. Modern bespoke experiences are about signaling a lifestyle and creating an overall context in which products and services are a part. In order to deliver these signature experiences, brands have to combine visual and visceral communication.
Going forward, it is not hard to see digital pure-players with a couple of flagship locations adopting visceral narrative-building. They are going to be likely joined by members-only clubs, high-end car-sharing services, white-glove healthcare services, high-end fitness studios, movie-screening rooms and modern offices — not to mention festivals, events and dinners.
The attraction of visceral storytelling is how seamlessly it infuses the sense of artistry and alchemy into today’s retail. It is the embodiment of the work of human hands, custom-making, human ingenuity and imagination, all the while being undeniably modern.