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What Should a Bank Smell Like?

What Should a Bank Smell Like?

Photograph by Tom Nagy/Gallery Stock

All sorts of businesses—from hotels to car companies—use scent marketing to bolster their brand identities. Now financial institutions are getting in on the trend, creating their very own l’essences de bank.

Smells have been found to influence memory, impact perception, and even increase sales, so it’s no surprise that even stodgy, traditional industries are beginning to think about signature smells. “Relatively few banks use olfactory branding, but probably more than you might think,” says Jennifer Dublino, vice president of development for Scent World Events, which advises brands about scent marketing. “Some of the higher-end investment houses and brokerages do it because it lends a more luxury feel for their higher-end clients.”

So what should a bank smell like, you might ask? “It all depends on their branding,” says Dublino. “It might depend on where they’re located, what their colors are; for example, a bank that has in its logo orange might use an orange as part of its scent. If you have cooler colors, like yellow and blue, you might want fresher scents.”

Creating an effective bank scent depends largely on eliciting the right emotions. “You want to make people feel comfortable, safe, [and in some cases] very elegant,” says Dawn Goldworm, co-founder of the olfactory branding company 12.29. That’s what 12.29 did when it developed a signature scent for “one of the bigger banks,” says Goldworm, who would not disclose the company’s name.

The connection between scent and emotion is culturally dependent. “Americans like a lot of watery, salty smells—it reminds them of the beach, or open space and freedom,” says Goldworm. “[Americans] born before 1940 really like earthy wood notes; people born after 1940 associate their childhoods with more synthetic notes, fruit notes like Playdough, Crayons, and grass, so it also depends on the clientele.”

Here are some emotions produced by other scents: “Vanilla and amber induce warmth, comfort, and sometimes nostalgia,” says Dublino. “Citrus notes tend to make people feel upbeat and happy. Leather and tobacco call to mind luxury and trust. Rosemary and peppermint make people feel more alert and sharp and improve cognition and problem solving.”

Scent-marketing pioneers in the traditionally conservative financial world include Florida-based Ocean Bank and Helm Bank, National Australia Bank, China Merchant’s Bank, Bank Leumi, and Velocity Credit Union in Texas, says Dublino. Ocean Bank, for example, went for “a premium fragrance that begins with mouthwatering mandarin, fresh watery ozone, and green cardamom notes, supported by black pepper and musk,” says Dublino. Helm Bank’s l’essence, developed as part of a complete sensory rebranding, includes hints of chocolate, oakmoss, and peppermint. According to Dublino, Helm branches that added the scent, and also updated their logos, colors, and sound branding, doubled their revenue, as well as the number of new account openings. Customer satisfaction shot up 20 percent, to 99 percent.

Not all financial institutions go for subtle olfactory manipulation, of course. Decatur First Bank in Georgia reportedly installed popcorn machines in its branches to make customers feel more welcome.

Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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