How Do You Sell Smells?

Humans have five senses, and TV appeals to most of them. We can see next year’s car on TV. We hear a clip from an upcoming album – but smells are different. Your TV doesn’t smell. Your computer won’t smell. So, how do you sell smells?

If you’re a perfume advertiser, you have a challenge: to sell a smell on TV, you can’t rely on aroma. You have to demonstrate value in other, less-tangible means, while honoring or relating the values of the brand.

Take Spike Jonze’s latest entry into perfume promotion for KENZO World, “My Mutant Brain“. In this, The Leftovers star Margaret Qualley gyrates throughout a swanky venue, dancing like no one’s watching and living the Kenzo World tagline, “take control”. 

But, by the end of the glitz and glamour of the incredibly talented Jonze’s spot, we still left scent-less.

This reliance on emotional cues, or the promise of lifestyle, has long-plagued…well, everyone working in aromatic-advertising. But they’re not alone – you can’t feel the rumble of a mustang while watching the Super Bowl commercial, you can’t taste the Skittles rainbow through your TV. So instead, these advertisements employ a feeling that lasts longer than hunger – aspirations.

Aspiration, Validation and Advertising

Are you a person who “takes control”? Well, sure, many of us are. But the promise, or the offer, seems to be, ‘if you want to take control, this can get you there.’ Or, ‘if you already take control, this proves it.’

This critically lauded Old Spice TV campaign has perhaps the most transparent offer yet; ladies, “your man can smell like me.”

It’s simple. And It’s effective (at least, for this writer). Because rather than a palate of perfunctory colors selling sex appeal, confidence and control, we’re left with an irreverent, unapologetic sales pitch: ‘Be Like Me.’

This approach is nothing new, as described in “The Erotic History of Advertising” by Tom Reichert. In this, he names the Be-Like-Me strategy the “desirable quarry” tactic which, when boiled down, says: use this to attract men and women.

How Do you Sell Smells - Smell Like a Man, Man

The Problem with Selling an Experience:

So, there’s more than one way to sell a smell, such as targeting aspirations or validations. And it’s a safe approach, because it’s a more tangible idea that we, the audience, can connect with. In fact, if you can connect this emotion with the product, you can begin to form an experience before the scent is even smelled.

Rachel Herz, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and the author of The Scent of Desire says,

Smells don’t have any meaning prior to being associated with an experience, then after they become experienced with something, that’s what they represent.”

This meaning, this derived meaning, influences our experience. And our experience defines the brands’ identity.

How do you sell smells - Old Spice


The Ideals Behind Identity

If we take another look at the Old Spice campaign, we’re offered an association between that Old Spice smell and rugged manliness; much like Jonze’s ad connects control with choice. It seems the secret is to link your brand with abstract ideals and inherent desires – stand out, take control, be yourself. Take it from the professionals, as perfume maker Serge Lutens maintains,

It is potentially a carrier for the imagination. Perfume is thick; it is poison and pure desire; it is eros in person.”

So, how do you sell smells? You don’t, because you’re not. You’re selling desire. You’re creating meaning.

You’re actually selling a version of me that I could be.

Let’s talk. Contact Taylor Dodds at Axiom.

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