Posted February 21, 2014

Smellizing—imagining a product’s smell—increases consumer desire, study finds

Fox School of Business
Professor of Marketing Maureen Morrin of Temple’s Fox School of Business co-authored "Smellizing Cookies and Salivating: A Focus on Olfactory Imagery" to examine the impact that imagining what a food smells like would have on consumer behavior.

Seeing is believing, but smellizing—a new term for prompting consumers to imagine the smell of a product—could be the next step toward more effective advertising.

Researchers came to this conclusion through four studies of products most of us would like to smellize: cookies and cake.

Professor of Marketing Maureen Morrin in the Fox School of Business at Temple co-authored Smellizing Cookies and Salivating: A Focus on Olfactory Imagery to examine the impact imagining what a food smells like would have on consumer behavior.

“Before we started this project, we looked for print ads that asked consumers to imagine the smell of the product, and we found none,” Morrin said. “We think it’s because advertisers don’t think it’ll actually do anything.”

But researchers found that smellizing—imagining a smell—increased consumer desire to purchase and consume advertised food products.

Consumers’ response to advertised food products was measured over several studies that looked at the effect of smellizing on salivation, desire and actual food consumption. The researchers found that imagining what a tasty food smells like increases those types of responses only when the consumer also sees a picture of the advertised product.

Participants who looked at print advertisements were prompted by questions such as: “Fancy a freshly baked cookie?” “Feel like a chocolate cake?” “Look for these in a store near you.”

Morrin found that those types of headlines had a positive impact on desire to consume the product, if they were accompanied by a call to also imagine the smell of the food. That positive impact was strongest when the image of the product could be seen at the same time study participants imagined the smell.

According to the study, olfactory imagery processing is different from that of the other senses, especially vision.

“It has been shown, for example, that though individuals can discriminate among thousands of different odors and are reasonably good at detecting odors they have smelled before, they are quite poor at identifying the odors they smell,” the study said. “That is, individuals often have difficulty stating just what it is they happen to be smelling at any particular moment, unless they can see the odor referent.”

That might be why a picture is so important in activating the effects of smellizing.

When asked to imagine a scent with a visual (versus not being asked to do so), participants’ salivation increased from .36 to .39 grams in two of the studies. In another study, when asked to imagine a scent with a visual, participants consumed 5.3 grams more of the advertised cookies. Those responses depended on seeing the advertised food while imagining its smell.

The researchers also found that actually smelling the advertised products was even more effective on the various measures of consumer response than only imagining the smells. But it is not always feasible to present consumers with product odors in advertisements.

According to Morrin, advertisers are not adequately tapping into the power of the sense of smell when developing promotional messages to encourage consumers to buy their products.

Morrin’s study was co-authored with Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan and Eda Sayin of Koç University in Turkey. It appears in the Journal of Consumer Research.

—Alexis Wright-Whitley , Class of 2014