Holiday Marketing Tricks: Teasing Your Senses With Scent and Sound

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In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp bring you a December warning at least as important as the one given by Jacob Marley: Beware! Advertising gurus and marketing maestros have peered into your psyche and they know how to make you buy. And buy. And buy more. And every year, when shopping season arrives, they pull out every tool in their arsenal.

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One that you many not notice, because it flies under the radar, is how companies control the sensory environment in their locations. The scents, the sounds, are all being chosen with great care to make you feel happy and put you in the mood to spend on what they're selling -- and it really works.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Dec. 5, 2017.

Alison Southwick: The fourth way that marketers will try to get you at the holidays is through sounds and smells. This is the most Manchurian Candidate of the ones that I've seen. It's also super fascinating. Your sense of smell is very closely tied to your memories and ultimately your emotions; perhaps more so than any of your other five senses. Have you noticed that?

Robert Brokamp: I have noticed that.

Southwick: Sometimes I'll smell a cup of coffee and it will make me think of my dad, or you'll smell laundry and it makes you think of home. Fresh cut grass. Things like that. It's largely a matter of location -- spatial location in your noggin. Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. It has direct connections to the parts of the brain that hit emotion and memory, the amygdala and the hippocampus. We all remember that from our anatomy classes, right?

Brokamp: Sure.

Southwick: Smells evoke memories and they hopefully are evoking good memories. Retailers try very hard to elicit these memories and they use smells to do that, such as at the Westin, where we have our annual FoolFest. Have you ever noticed how relaxing the Westin smells? I have. If Dayana is listening, she knows what I'm talking about.

A lot of retailers, hotels, and airlines have their own signature scent. At the Westin it's called White Tea, and any Westin that you go to is going to smell like this smell. You can even Pro Tip by the way. If you go to the bathrooms closest to the conference rooms, they'll have little sample bottles of their lotion, and you can just put them in your purse. That's a Dayana and Alison Pro Tip that you can take to the Westin.

Brokamp: I definitely noticed this when I went to Bed, Bath & Beyond. And what's the other one? Bath & Body Works? I never go until the holidays. They always smell the same to me, and so now I associate that smell with Christmas.

Southwick: Oh, do you?

Brokamp: Yes.

Southwick: Other stores like Bloomingdale's, Jimmy Choo, Samsung. They have signature smells. Hugo Boss spent two months tweaking the formula of its signature scent to get it right. The guy who helped design it described it this way."Light accents of fruit and citrus with a hint of cocoa filling the top note before a green floral heart of gardenia, jasmine and" -- some word I can't pronounce -- "muguet over a foundation of vanilla, sandalwood, cedarwood, and amber." So, you can see these retailers take this very seriously.

Brokamp: I'll just take the muguet, please.

Southwick: What is that? Muguet. I'll google it later.

Southwick: Don't email me. I'll just google it later. The logic, here, is the store smells good, good smells make you happy, happy makes you stick around, sticking around makes you buy more, and there are numerous studies to back this up. You're just going to have to take my word for it, because I'm not going to bother telling you about it.

Engdahl: It's why you can smell a McDonald's all the way down the street.

Southwick: Or like a bakery. Every time we walk past a Panera, it smells like toast, and my husband just loses his mind. He's like, "Oh, that smells so good."

Brokamp: Toast!

Southwick: Toast! It's true. Smells can backfire on you, though, of course, because we all have our own emotions attached to different smells. So, tea rose to you might smell like your dear Aunt Ruth, Bro; but to me it smells like this girl I went to high school with and it was so overpowering in science class. It was the worst! So, you've got to be careful.

Around the holidays, of course, they want to make their places smell festive, although one expert I read said that around the holidays you want your store to smell familial instead of like Christmas. I don't know what that means.

Brokamp: It smells like Grandma.

Southwick: I don't what that means. "Grandma smells like tomacco." Anyway, I butchered that quote. Tomacco smells like Grant, right? He says, "It smells like grandma. Tomacco."

Brokamp: That's a Simpsons quote.

Southwick: Thank you. So, the next time you're in a store, give it a good sniff and see how it makes you feel. Do you feel familial? Do you feel...? I don't know. Anyway, that's something to look out for and to be conscious of it.

Brokamp: If it makes you feel good and if it makes you spend money. That's a really interesting question. As opposed to other stores, and I won't name any. But there are stores that do not smell all that good, or at least don't have a pleasant smell.

Southwick: Why would you say something weird, like I'm not going to name any.

Brokamp: Well, Wal-Mart.

Southwick: Oh, really? Wal-Mart doesn't smell good?

Brokamp: I don't think so.

Southwick: I don't have any thoughts about that.

Brokamp: Maybe it's just the Wal-Mart by my house, but it does not smell good.

Southwick: Eventually you get used to it, but it probably doesn't make you want to stick around, or it doesn't make you think... A lot of these stores are going to be high-end luxury stores that want you to then associate these smells with high-end luxury things, whereas maybe Wal-Mart is like, "Yeah, we sell stuff. Come get it."

Brokamp: As opposed to the Target, at least the Target by me. You go in and there's their little cafeteria where they're making popcorn. That's the smell I notice when I go in there.

Southwick: And they want you to have some popcorn. A lot of these tactics, at least when it comes to store design and actually going to physical stores, is to try to get you to stay in the store as long as possible. We'll talk about that more later.

Brokamp: I wonder if that's why increasingly to me it seems like more grocery stores are offering... There's the little Starbucks there, on the side. First of all, that smells good, but also that's a reason to stay in the store.

Southwick: If you're like, "Oh, I'm so tired. Let's just go to the Starbucks right there and get a cup of coffee. We'll recharge. We'll go back out there."

Engdahl: There's a cupholder in your shopping cart.

Brokamp: That's true.

Southwick: There is a cupholder in your shopping cart. So, smells. Also, music. Of course, when you go to the stores around the holidays, they're all playing Mariah Carey, All I Want for Christmas is You.

Brokamp: Oh, my gosh.

Southwick: You don't like that song?

Brokamp: No, I do like it, but they are all playing it. And I particularly love it when she did it with the Roots and Jimmy Fallon, but they all play that song.

Southwick: That one's really good. So according to a study, the majority of U.S. consumers think music makes the shopping experience more enjoyable. It improves their mood and it makes them feel like it's a brand that they relate or connect to.

Here's some fun ways that music has influenced people. A 1993 study found that classical music induced wine buyers to spend more money. It's not that the shoppers bought more wine. They weren't like, "More. Let's buy all the wine. I'm drunk."

Brokamp: Bach! Beethoven! Wine!

Southwick: Wine! It was the idea that, "Oh, here's this classic music floating through the room. I am a refined individual, who deserves a $40 bottle of wine. Now you know what an expensive bottle of wine means to me."

Brokamp: And it's not in a box.

Southwick: And it's not in a box. It's fancy. Fancy music makes you feel fancy. Slow music supposedly makes you move slower through a store and buy more. The bottom line is I feel like these are the sneakiest, creepy ways that stores try to manipulate us through sounds and smells. But take notice. The next time you're at a store, what are they trying to tell you by how they smell? What are they trying to tell you by the music they're playing? Because also with the Christmas music they want you to get nostalgic. They want you to get in the giving mood and just go crazy.

Alison Southwick has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Robert Brokamp, CFP owns shares of Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Starbucks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.