Marketing the ‘city of smells’

Place marketing activity is heavily concentrated upon the projection of positive visual images. However, when we experience places we process all sorts of other stimuli, including smells. In a new study recently published in Marketing Theory, the authors Victoria Henshaw, Dominic Medway, Gary Warnaby and Chris Perkins explore how smell might contribute to urban identity, building on the strong links between smell, limbic processing and emotion.

Whilst the role of smell and perfume are more widely understood in retail and service environments, such as hotels; city marketers, the authors argue, are fairly ignorant of the dominance of the olfactory response. For example, the paper references a book by Martin Lindstrom (Brand Sense: Sensory Secrets Behind the Stuff We Buy), which reports that over 75% of emotions are generated by smell. People respond to smell on a subconscious level, reflecting the fact that smell is received and processed in the limbic part of the brain, the most primitive area, which has strong connections with automatic responses like 'fight or flight'.

Of course, like so much of the place 'product' smell is outside the control of the place marketer. Nevertheless, it is a powerful stimulus that can add a great deal to the visitor experience. A good example is a recent guide produced for the city of York in the United Kingdom, which, according to The Daily Telegraph, "aims to give visitors a 'scents of the city’, and is infused with a range of smells, from horse hair, hoof oil, grass and fruit punch (to depict a day at the York Racecourse) to loose leaf tea and spiced cake (to represent afternoon tea)”.

The study moves on to discuss the ethical and technological challenges associated with artificially manipulating smell in the city, concluding that marketing activity should "emphasize or celebrate those ambient smells that already exist within urban space (as a result of some form of urban activity or manufacturing process) through various marketing communication tools and channels, rather than trying to create or replicate an urban olfactory experience".

Of course, not all ambient smells can be treated in this way. Bad smells that come from sources that may be dangerous to our health (e.g. sewerage) should just be eradicated (e.g. through more effective sanitation). Nevertheless, by building a theoretical argument as to why smell is an important component of the place experience, city marketers should now be concerned with all smells, good and bad, and help lobby or influence other city management functions when/if there are serious public health problems, rather than not seeing these as their concern.

The authors end by looking at how smell is such a very personal experience, and how smell helps both residents feel that they belong to a place, as well as helping visitors have a much more rewarding and powerful experience. They set up an interesting research agenda for future work  - including the use of more innovative methodologies, such as smell walks and smell mapping.

The article can be accessed in full through the DOI here: 10.1177/1470593115619970

The full citation is:

Henshaw, V., Medway, D., Warnaby, G. and Perkins, C., 2015. Marketing the ‘city of smells’. Marketing Theory, DOI 1470593115619970

Member biographies:

The late Victoria Henshaw was an inspiration to many members of the IPM and we were very saddened by her untimely death in 2014. 

Victoria was a former town centre manager and she turned to academia with a desire to investigate the role of the senses in the experiences, perceptions and design of urban space. With this research agenda, the role of smell and olfaction within cities became a passion. As well as conducting smellwalks in cities around the world, she was author of the blog ‘Smell and the City’ and the book Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments, published by Routledge in 2014. Her work has featured in electronic, print and broadcast media around the world, including mainland Europe and the UK, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Her academic legacy will undoubtedly be the impact of her work on the way planners and architects think about the olfactory design elements of urban space.  You can read more about Victoria's life and legacy in the Guardian's obiturary for her here.

Dominic Medway is a Fellow of the Institute of Place Management and Professor of Marketing at Alliance Manchester Business School. His research focuses on issues of space and place in all aspects of marketing activity, reflecting an academic training in geography. He has published exstensively in variety of leading journals, including Environment & Planning A, Tourism Management, European Journal of Marketing and Marketing Theory.

Illustration: 'Smell receptors', from the book Beginning Psychology (v. 1.0)