by Marguerite de Villiers. Do you remember — when you were a child — the scent of new clothes in the New Year, wrapping paper and cake candles on your birthday, freshly baked bread in a local bakery and newly cut grass on weekends? Do these scents remind you of moments, memories or emotions even now?

When I was a child, South Africa smelled like bushfires, laundry detergent, Zam-buk and KFC. Now, when I drive past a burning field, hang up the laundry, get sunburnt or order takeaways, I am transported back to my childhood here.


Aromas tend to conjure up childhood memories because we encounter most new scents in our youth. When we first come across these aromas, we forge a link between scent, memory and emotion, and these links form part of our episodic memory.

Episodic memory refers to the events in people’s lives that are subjective, personal and relative to the individual. Scent marketing draws on episodic memory to enhance or establish particular associations consumers might make with certain products or brands.

The challenge for marketers is to create memorable moments and emotional links between the consumer and a brand or product. Because particular scents are lodged in our memories with deep-rooted associations, scent marketing is an effective way to draw and build on these existing connections.

Two big brands, New Balance and Mercedes Benz, appear to have gotten it right — but in different ways — by tapping into the two categories of scent marketing: ambient scenting and scent branding.

1. Ambient scenting

Ambient scenting fills the air with a particular scent in order to influence the consumer experience within that space. In other words, it adds to the experience of walking into a place — whether it is estate agents brewing coffee before an open house to create a feeling of home and warmth, or barbershops spraying cologne to create a refreshing and sophisticated atmosphere.

When the New Balance shoe store opened in Beijing in 2009, it understood that “it’s no longer simply enough to present or provide your products or services in a strongly branded visual context; the brand needs to connect and engage with all five senses of the customer in order to create resonance and establish long-term loyalty.”

The New Balance store brought in notes of wood and leather to convey ‘heritage and craftsmanship’ by imitating the aroma of a mid-20th century shoe store. Results reflected the success of doing so, as customers seemed to spend more time in the store.

2. Scent branding

Scent branding is about creating a signature scent that is associated with a brand and evokes certain emotions. It draws on “social developments, cultural movements and sociological changes” — something futurologists at Mercedes Benz are very familiar with.

By looking at past and present patterns, it was able to pinpoint what is and will continue to be important for its core target group and then, together with a team of olfactory experts, created a signature scent that reflected that.


Marguerite de VilliersMarguerite de Villiers is an anthropologist at strategic marketing consultancy, Added Value.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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