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Scent: The quickest sense on the block

It’s commonly understood that smell is the most rapid-acting of all the senses, accessing brain receptors before the other senses kick in. This gives it a real advantage in sensory marketing, as scent will normally be the first sense to be acknowledged by the customer, preceding other sensory inputs such as haptic (touch), audio and visual.

Why is scent so fast acting?

To put it simply, smells enter the nose, where they’re hailed by millions of sensory neurons in the ‘olfactory epithelium’, a specialised area of tissue. After travelling via about 450 different protein receptors, the odour molecules enter the limbic system of the brain and make an immediate impact. Our olfactory physiology is set up for immediate access into the mind and sensory memory – and it’s easy to see how this can be a powerful tool for those reaching out to customers and clients.

hotel reception

Why is this important in branding and marketing?

Because scent acts with rapidity and stealthy power, it can be a vital and original access point to a brand essence, whichever sector it arises.

In a recent study conducted by Premium Scenting and Walnut Unlimited, a sample of people were given six virtual reality (VR) experiences – ranging from calm beaches to high adrenaline base-jumping – allied with certain scents. Their galvanic skin responses were recorded, and although responses to the experiences differed, there was one notable constant: that scent had an immediate effect across all the VR environments. “We saw a significant initial impact of scent across all experiences within the first two to five seconds,” says Dr Andy Myers of Walnut Unlimited, who conducted the research.  “The results were consistent with our studies of the limbic system. The olfactory system is one of the first sensory cues when we approach a new environment and smell impacts straightaway.”

"The olfactory system is one of the first sensory cues when we approach a new environment, and smell impacts straightaway.”

Dr. Andy Myers

Director, Walnut Unlimited

First impressions count

The study is consistent with the strong neurological relationship between the olfactory and limbic system and has serious implications for the use of scent in zoning retail and hospitality environments.

As Dr Myers puts it, “Smell provides us with our sense of orientation before the visual role is fully established”. He recommends that retailers should think about the possibilities of scented entrances and zones within stores, to involve customers at an initial stage of brand engagement with a congruent sensory input. “Our sense of smell is the one that supports our orientation in a new space before the visual role is fully established and the sense that drives immediate immersion in the experience.”  

In our world of multiple competing messages which are mostly still visual and aural, a scent makes for an obvious – and immediate – advantage.

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