Dollars & scents:
What is sensory marketing?

Article - Marketing
By Julia Belle|26th September 2023

In brief:

  • Marketers aim to entice customers to physical stores
  • Immersion and sensory experiences are key to modern retail
  • Scent plays a powerful role in creating emotional connections with consumers
  • Sound association – like a “sonic logo” – enhances brand recognition, bridging physical and digital worlds
  • Incorporating sound and scent together can increase purchase intent by 58%

What does your brand smell like?

Serious question! If you were to attribute a scent to it, what would it be? What about a sound?

“Perhaps it’s hold music… perhaps it’s frustration,” contemplated Karen Stanton, CMO & VP of Global Marketing & Insights at International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. Her keynote session at the recent GDS Group CMO Summit challenged our attendees to “sensorially connect” with their consumers.

In a post-covid environment, retailers and marketers have been asking themselves how to entice their customers back to the physical space. E-commerce isn’t going anywhere but Shopify found that 82% of businesses are confident physical stores will continue to play an important role in future commerce growth.

This was reflected at the recent GDS Group Retail Summit. The majority (75%) of retail executives in attendance said over half their consumers continue to seek out in-person experiences.

This begs the question, with so many customers set to jump in the car to visit your stores, how do you give them a reason to keep coming back?

Look (and feel free to touch)

IFF’s Karen Stanton stressed the importance of “immersion” in a modern physical retail experience. Throughout the pandemic, many customers were forced to abide by strict rules, keep a distance from each other and limit their sensory experiences. It was a period defined by what you “can’t” do.

This has created a craving for sensory freedom. Destinations such as the Museum of Ice Cream have captured the zeitgeist and built environments that empower visitors to touch whatever they like, roam freely, and – should they wish – jump into a bath of ice cream sprinkles.

She challenged the attendees to think about ways to connect with their customers outside of traditional methods, particularly in ways that make them feel autonomous rather than restricted.

What is your brand’s equivalent to a bath of sprinkles?

Think like a perfumer: What’s your brand’s scent?

Scent has a special power over us that is unmatched by any other sense: its close link with memory. Who can deny the formidable effect of a passer-by’s perfume, if a loved one wears the same brand?

And what about the smell of a heavy rainstorm bouncing off the warm ground in a hot climate? “There’s a word for that,” shared Karen Stanton excitedly, “it’s petrichor.”

Without getting overly technical, scent’s special power is rooted in the layout of your brain. Odors take a “direct route” to the areas of the brain related to emotion and memory.

“The other special thing about smell? We are utterly defenceless against it. You can turn away from a billboard, you can switch off an ad, but you have to keep breathing.”
-Karen Stanton, International Flavors and Fragrances Inc

Some industries have been harnessing this knowledge to connect with their consumers for as long as we can remember. Think of your local real estate agent laying out freshly baked cookies before an open house event. After all, what aroma makes you feel more at home?

Cosmetics giant Lush are an archetypal example of a brand who leans on sensorial marketing via scent. If you happen to turn onto a street where Lush occupies a property, you’ll know it before you see it. The overpowering fragrance of unpackaged bath bombs, soap bars and oils will no doubt reach your nostrils with or without your consent.

At the CMO summit, Stanton invited the delegation to consider their brand’s scent. What emotion do you want customers to experience when they step into your brick-and-mortar stores? “If you offer physical goods, what does the experience of unboxing your products smell like?” Or more importantly, what do you want it to smell like?

Think like a composer: What’s your brand’s sound?

Some brands have mastered the game of “sound association,” so much so that simply seeing their logo immediately summons an audio cue in your mind.

“That ‘dum dum’ sound when you open the Netflix app – it signifies that an episode binge is coming!” proclaimed Stanton, who also highlighted McDonalds, Mastercard and Intel as key examples of brands with highly effective auditory logos. Can you hear their sounds without looking them up? Try this quiz from reel2media to discover how many famous brands have impacted you.

Further exploring the impact of audio, fashion house Viktor & Rolf launched the world’s first “augmented fragrance,” Spice Bomb Infrared. The brand collaborated with IRCAM Amplify, as well as IFF, to create a sound that stimulates the same feeling as smelling the perfume itself.

Viktor & Rolf’s intention, shared Stanton, is to “turn up the heat,” increasing the consumer’s heart rate and giving them an overall sensorial reaction to the product and brand.

While much of Stanton’s keynote explored ways to stimulate shoppers in-person, Viktor & Rolf’s project paves the way to evoke a physical experience in someone on the other side of a screen, offering opportunities for brands to bridge the physical and digital retail worlds.

Not to mention, exploring a full sensorial approach pays off. IFF research found that brands who incorporate sound and scent together enjoy a 58% increase in purchase intent. Stanton calls on brands to consider the “riff” that would match their organizational identity. What feeling are you aiming to elicit when your consumer hears your sound?


It goes without question that consumers crave an emotional connection with brands. Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman famously said 95% of purchasing decisions “take place in the subconscious mind.”

In response, Stanton outlined two “hats” for marketers to try on as they explore new ways to connect with their customer base: the perfumer and the composer. But beyond this, she left our CMO delegation pondering the experiences they would offer their consumer if they were to think like a chef, an artist, and a dancer too.

“How are we transforming what we do at every touchpoint that we have with the humans that consume and engage with us?”

Our recent CMO North America digital summit had Karen as a speaker and ended with an impressive average content attendance of 96% and meeting completion rate of 128% against target.

Partnering with GDS Group can help you get in front of the right people at the right time.

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to attend one of our unforgettable event experiences that promise to leave you feeling inspired and empowered.

Check our calendar now and join us. We can’t wait to see you there!

Back to insights

Related content


Unlock your revenue powerhouse: Sales and marketing alignment

Dive deep into the findings of our newest infographic, where we unravel valuable insights derived from our RevGen and CMO Digital Summits.
Elysia Sibley
Find out more

How to accelerate ROI through events

Unlock the power of event marketing, learn how to accelerate your ROI through events, tailored content, deep connections and explore success stories.
Verena Fiebelmann
Find out more

Navigating the marketing landscape in 2023 and beyond: AI, personalisation, and community-centric strategies

The marketing world is a dynamic, ever-evolving landscape. Staying ahead of the curve is essential for success. Let’s take a deep dive into some of th
Stephanie Garey
Find out more

How to choose the right B2B event experience to drive pipeline

We help you to unpick which event experience is right for you based on your objectives and desired outcomes.
Sapphire Smith
Find out more

Mastering pipeline marketing: A comprehensive guide

A comprehensive guide to mastering pipeline marketing. From sales and marketing alignment through to attribution modeling.
Ben Roberts
Find out more

Demystifying the CMO Digital Summit: Unpacking the insights

Discover the promising future of senior marketing executives! Explore our latest blog highlighting data from the GDS CMO Digital Summit, revealing inc
Verena Fiebelmann
Find out more

Elon Musk’s Twitter changes to X: What marketers can learn from the app’s radical rebrand

Twitter has rebranded to X following Elon Musk’s takeover – but not everyone is a fan.
Alex Wood
Find out more

Get proactive with social commerce:Is it transformational or just a craze?

Social commerce is rapidly rising, but what is the business value, how can you capitalize on this opportunity and what are the challenges to consider?
Sapphire Smith
Find out more

The marketplace revolution: Why brands must embrace multiple online platforms

GDS Group spoke with Jorrit Steinz, the CEO and founder of Channel Engine, who gave us his insight into the marketplace revolution.
Find out more

Related events