It’s fall when Starbucks welcomes the change of season with new drinks and food flavors to tempt customers in. Personally, I am a coffee purist. I take it strong, dark and black. But every now and then, I want something different, in which case I will order one of their high-priced, hand-crafted concoctions whipped up by a barista, like the Pumpkin Spice Latte or the new fall Maple Pecan Latte it just announced today.
Starbucks claims its PSL, launched in 2003, is its “most popular seasonal beverage of all time.” Starbucks has long used seasonal drinks to anchor its marketing throughout the year, like frozen Frappuccinos in summer and Peppermint Mocha for the holidays.
While PSL may be its bestselling seasonal offering, to me, the PSL’s taste isn’t all that appealing. But then, I don’t believe it is the taste that drives people mad for PSL; it’s the scent. And MaryAnne Drake, a food scientist at North Carolina State University, agrees, saying, “The aromas in these holiday products are crafted to trigger emotions and feelings.”
Pumpkin spice fragrance is strong and emotionally evocative. It is the quintessential fragrance of fall. Catherine Franssen, assistant professor of psychology and director of the neurostudies minor at Longwood University in Virginia, says, “Since these are popular spice combinations, it’s very likely we would have encountered some or all of them combined in a favorite baked good in a comforting situation, like a family gathering, early in life. It’s not just the pumpkin spice combo, but that we’ve already wired a subset of those spices as ‘good’ very early in life.”
It’s customers’ emotions and memories that Starbucks and other brands connect with through the pumpkin spice scent. Since scent is hardwired into people’s memories, retailers need to explore the tremendous possibilities found in tapping into their customers’ olfactory sense.
What can retailers learn about the popularity of pumpkin spice, which Forbes pegged at being a $500 million industry in 2015, to achieve greater success? Do retailers need their own signature scents, or seasonal fragrances, to brand their stores?
Those are the questions I asked Sue Phillips, president & CEO of Scenterprises & The Scentarium.Phillips’ firm creates custom signature scents for people and brands, like its recent work with Lincoln Motor Cars to introduce its new Navigator model at New York City’s Seaport District. Scentarium contributed the scent to the “The Navigator Experience.”
How Lincoln’s Navigator smells success
In working with Scentarium, Lincoln wanted to link the consumer’s lifestyle to the car in a multi-sensory way through scent, taste, visual and tactile initiatives. “We gave Lincoln’s guests our Scent Personality Test, which determines the consumer’s Lifestyle Personality, and based on their answers, it revealed whether the consumer liked our fresh, floral, woodsy or amber fragrance family,” Phillips explains.
“Lincoln adapted our quiz to add the ‘taste’ quotient and highlighted the taste of chocolates the consumer liked ― e.g., white, milk, semisweet, bitter. Based on those responses, they guided the consumer through the Lincoln Navigator app ― to showcase the type of car they liked, colors and texture. It was truly a multi-sensory event, and it all pivoted around the Scent.”
In creating the Lincoln Navigator experience, the brand led with scent, not the other four senses, since scent has a direct connection to customers’ emotions. “Fragrance is one of the most powerful aspects of ‘experiences,’ linking memory and emotion to an event,” Phillips says, noting the current trend in retail is to bring experiences into the consciousness of customers, “so much so that Nordstrom is rolling out an ‘experiential’ store without inventory.”
Retailers need their own sweet smell of success, too
As retailers prepare for fall and the buildup to the holiday season, it’s time to think about engaging that most powerful yet largely overlooked customer experience offered with a signature scent. It could create a whole new dimension to the shoppers’ experience that will translate into more sales.
“Traditional retailers get ready for fall with in-store decorations, eye-catching window promotions and colorful displays reflecting the changing seasons,” Phillips says. “Seasonal scents such as pumpkin spice are traditional fall scents in the USA that can be diffused through candles or different scent diffusers. Eucalyptus, burnt orange and cinnamon spices also bring to mind fall. Peppermint reminds us of the crisp smell of winter snow, and evergreen, cranberry, mulled spices and sage are the smell of Christmas. There is nothing more entrancing than linking all the elements atmospherically in a consistent way in a store ― colors, architecture, ambiance, displays and aroma ― so that the look, feel and scent are all related.”
Phillips believes that retailers are ignoring the tremendous power that a signature scent, perhaps rotated on a seasonal basis, could bring to their store. “Retailers should focus on offering thoughtful, comprehensive ‘experiences,’ and scent is a pivotal characteristic of the look, feel and smell of the new season,” she says.
“Fragrance is personal branding,” Phillips says regarding the work she does creating signature scents for her clients. But, she stresses, fragrance can be powerful branding for brands and retailers, too. “Scents make memories and recall memories from the past. Retailers need to realize that tapping into those emotions and memories makes for a better retail experience, and numerous studies have shown that when there is a pleasant aroma in the store, consumers linger longer and sales increase.”
In my book, Shops that POP! 7 Steps to Extraordinary Retail Success, I stress the need for retailers to imprint their stores on the customers’ memory. Based on science, one of the best ways to do that is through their nose, not their eyes. Once the store is in the customers’ memory, it truly becomes part of the customer, embedded in their imaginations.
For a retailer, there is no more powerful space than the customers’ mind to occupy, as Mad Men‘s Don Draper understood when he explained the strategy behind his Heinz pitch: “The greatest thing you have working for you is not the photo you take or the picture you paint; it’s the imagination of the consumer. They have no budget, they have no time limit, and if you can get into that space, your ad can run all day.”