Thursday, January 17, 2013
The thing marketing experts like best about the sense of smell is its alleged emotionality. Feelings stirred up by odor are supposed to be a hot link to purchase intent. So get something—anything!—under the consumer’s nose and you will reap the benefits of scent marketing.
Cooler heads recognize that odor perception is also cognitive, if not predominately so. Smells have to be consistent with the product image or message; if they are not, consumers will think less of the promoted item or service.
A powerful and related effect is that of context, of sheer juxtaposition in time and place. If smell is part of the background when something memorable happens, that smell becomes a useful way of retrieving the memory. Context-dependent memory cues are a big topic in psychology, and lots of work demonstrates that the phenomenon exists in infants.
Developmental psychologists study it using something called the “mobile conjugate reinforcement task,” which sounds formidable but isn’t really. It consists of a ribbon attached to the baby’s ankle at one end and to a mobile hanging over the crib at the other. When the kid kicks, the mobile jiggles. Babies dig this once they figure it out. And when they are put in the same situation after a long interval (which for a baby is a week), they remember the association and start kicking—as long as the context remains unchanged. But if the classical music in the background has been replaced by jazz, it’s as if they’ve never experienced the kicking-jiggling connection before.
A new study from St. John’s University in New York examines odor as a contextual cue in 3-month-old babies. It extends some previous findings in ways mostly of interest to specialists, but the main result deserves attention. Beginning with the standard mobile-over-the-crib setup, the researchers used ambient scent (cherry or coconut, diffused near the crib for 10 minutes beforehand) as a context cue. A week later, the infant was returned to the crib. In the background was either the original odor, a different odor, or no odor at all.
The researchers quantified the infant’s kicking behavior and compare it statistically to kicking in the first session. Babies who got their original scent kicked more, showing they remembered that kicking causes jiggling. Babies who got a different odor or no odor kicked less; they no longer remembered the link between kicking and jiggling the mobile.
They key experimental difference was providing the original odor cue: it made the difference between remembering and not remembering. Or, as the authors put it, “the effectiveness of a reminder is very specific to what was encoded during the initial acquisition process.”
There’s a scent marketing lesson there. If you are looking to rekindle a specific memory, any old smell won’t do. It has to be the odor that was there when the memory was created. Context matters. Even if you’re only three months old.
The study discussed here is “Odor as a contextual cue in memory reactivation in young infants,” by Courtney Suss, Susan Gaylord, and Jeffrey Fagen, published in Infant Behavior and Development, 35:580-583, 2012.