How smells, sounds and spaces influence what people do

Right now I am enjoying new car smell. You know, that particular smell that only a new car has? So important is this smell that you can buy “air fresheners” in lavender, pine and…you guessed it, “new car”.  The smell makes me feel different, which has got me thinking about all the environmental cues that influence us and how you can use these techniques to shape customer behaviour.

The smell of success

According to a paper (PDF) by Robert Van Lente and Stephen Herman, “of all our genes, one percent is devoted to the detection of odours — more than for all other senses combined.”  Added to that, 75% of emotions are generated by smell.  In the words of one marketing professor in the NY Times, “With all of the other senses, you think before you respond, but with scentyour brain responds before you think”. That means we need to pay attention to what’s wafting around us because smell can change behaviour.

For example, Van Lente and Herman cite research that smell has resulted in:

  • Greater in-store lingering time  
  • A 45% increase in gambling (where odorants complimented a casino’s theme)  
  • Increased sales (from a pine odorant in a furniture store’s heritage line department)
  • Reduced in-hospital patient insomnia plus patient calming (through exposure to heliotropin, a key ingredient in baby powder scents).

Other studies have found:

  • Purchase intent increased by 80% when Nike stores added scent
  • A petrol station convenience store increased coffee sales by 300% by pumping the smell of coffee through the store
  • Exposure to pleasant scents made people more creative in problem solving and more vigilant during tedious tasks

Hear hear

Sounds become associated with actions and brands.  They provide reassurance that an action has been completed (like the whoosh when you send an email) or alert us to something new (like a ding when a new message arrives). Known as “sonic branding”, businesses are investing heavily in what their products and services sound like.

Take, for example, the “thunk” sound of a car door closing. Mercedes have a signature sound (listen here), with their “manager of operational sounds” telling Bloomberg that while an SUV may sound slightly different to a sedan, “it should always sound like good quality, be authentic, and be a Mercedes.”  

Not to be outdone, Volkswagen even promoted the sound of their car door in an ad for Jetta (watch here).  This was particularly important because Jetta is one of their smaller cars, so they wanted to convey that size does not compromise quality.

It would have been no small decision by Apple, therefore, to remove the start up “chime” from its latest MacBook. Sure it’s great for people who want to open their computer in a quiet lecture hall, but Apple have just ceded some of their brand equity.

Space race

Beyond sound and smell, physical characteristics like dimensions and weight also have a bearing on behaviour. For example:

  • Heavier wine bottles being perceived to be higher quality
  • Mineral water served in a heavier plastic cup being judged less pleasant than a lighter cup
  • Higher ceilings encouraging expansive, creative thinking and lower ceilings, detailed work
  • Curved glasses leading people to drink more quickly than straight glasses
  • People eating more salads when seated at a window seat, and more desserts when in a booth

Lessons for you

One of the biggest mistakes we make when seeking to influence behaviour (our own or some else’s) is underestimating the environment. And here’s the thing: you can’t NOT have an environment. Your workspace is an environment. Your shop is an environment. Your website is an environment. I’d even go far to say that the collateral, letters or brochures you send your customers are part of the environment. The environment IS having an impact on how your customers are responding to you. The question is whether it’s impacting in the way you want?

P.S. An interesting read on the importance of sound is “The Sonic Boom: How Sound transforms the way we think, feel and buy” by Joel Beckerman.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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