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Show what your product smells like

Showing a picture of the product’s scent (e.g. what flower it smells like) increased up to 13.6% how much people liked an ad.

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📝 Intro

Imagine you own a small cosmetics store and release a new product - a natural apple-scented hand soap.

As you’re briefing your packaging designer you realize you’re not sure what’s the best way to communicate the scent.

Should you write it down in a small font? Add it to the product name? Include a picture of a juicy apple instead?

Here’s what you should do, according to the newest research. 

P.S.: Adding a scent to your product (e.g. infusing your clothes collection with a specific scent) makes your product much more memorable.

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Visualize your product’s scent on your product packaging and in its ads

Topics: Ads | Product
For: B2C. Can be tested for B2B 
Research date: February 2024
Universities: Carnegie Mellon University Qatar and City University of London

📈 Recommendation

If your product is scented (e.g. soap), visually illustrate the scent so people can imagine smelling it. 

It’s especially effective for scents that are simple for people to imagine (e.g. jasmine flower). For example, if it’s rose-scented show a rose, or if it’s lemon-scented show a lemon.

People will be more likely to choose your product and like it more. 

🎓 Findings

  • Adding a picture of a scent on the product packaging makes people like the product more and more likely to choose it.

  • As part of 10 experiments researchers found that:

    • When shown 330 scented products (e.g., laundry detergent, all-purpose cleaner), customer ratings were on average 4.5% higher for items with a picture of the scent

    • 61% (vs. 39%) of people chose a hand soap with a picture of a pear (vs. no picture)

    • People liked a hand soap ad 13.6% more when it contained a picture of a clementine (vs. when it did not) 

  • This effect is stronger:

    • For people who like strong smells 

    • For products where a scent is relevant (e.g. multipurpose cleaner, but not a lint roller)

    • When people can imagine the scent better (e.g. people were 15.4% more likely to imagine the smell of a cut lemon vs. a whole lemon on dishwashing liquid)

  • This effect backfires for unpleasant scent images on odor-removing products (e.g. including a picture of a fish on an air freshener to show that the product removes bad scents).

🧠 Why it works

  • Pictures of scents stimulate our visual cortex, making us think about the scents shown (pictures activate our memory better than reading text alone).

  • When we see an image of a scent, we subconsciously use memories and imagination to experience olfactory imagery - the sensation of smelling something that’s not there.

  • Olfactory imagery activates smell sensory networks in our brain making the experience seem even more real.

  • When we imagine the smell, we start liking the product better, it seems more tangible and present.

  • Visual signaling can be so effective that red coloring added to white wine makes people perceive it smells more like red wine.

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Limitations

  • The visual-smell effect might not be as effective when multiple senses are activated at once and a person’s attention gets divided (e.g. trying to show the shape, taste, color, texture, size, and effectiveness of a product all at once). 

  • The research focused mainly on consumer household products (e.g. cleaners, soaps). Including smell references for products like electronics, or software may just confuse customers and backfire - but this was not tested.

  • Unique and “organic” scents like the smell of books or a new car may not give the same effect, because they are hard to visualize and they occur naturally (vs being added as a fragrance).

🏢 Companies using this

  • It’s common for companies selling household, personal care, and beauty products to include scent imagery on their products and in their ads.

  • For example:

    • Dove uses a picture of a coconut on its body wash to convey the scent

    • Bath & Body Works includes fruit imagery on their candles

    • Jo Malone perfumery often uses floral imagery in their ads

Dish soap AJAX correctly displays fruit on its packaging to evoke the product’s scent.

⚡ Steps to implement

  • If you sell a product with a pleasant scent, include an image of the smell on the item or in its ads.

  • Use images that are easy to understand and have an easily recognizable smell (e.g. a rose, not a sunflower)

  • Be mindful not to overcrowd the packaging design and still keep it simple. People are willing to pay up to 24.6% more for products with simple designs. 

  • If you sell products that mask bad odors, be cautious. Illustrating bad smells (that the product should counteract) can backfire. Focus instead on the good smell they use to cover up the bad smell (e.g. lemon).

🔍 Study type

Online experiments.

📖 Research

Seeing is Smelling: Pictures improve product evaluations by evoking olfactory imagery. International Journal of Research in Marketing (February 2024)

🏫 Researchers

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