Scent: an overlooked, but powerful, brand element

Andrew Stanten


The most memorable of our five senses is scent. When I get a waft of something I’ve smelled before, it conjures up memories, often from years ago. The smell of a sizzling sausage and pepper sandwich takes me back to my first trip to Fenway Park in Boston. Can’t shake it. I don’t remember the score, where I sat or the roar of the crowd, but I do remember the smell. This has been well-documented in medical literature. But this is a marketing blog, not a biology blog so let’s continue about branding.

I had the pleasure of visiting a client – Copernicus Group IRB – in the Raleigh-Durham area. Arrangements were made for me to stay at the Doubletree in Research Triangle Park, largely as a matter of convenience given its close proximity to their offices. As we drove through the industrial park, I spotted the hotel. It looked typical, decent enough. But everything changed the moment I got out of the car.

I spotted a Doubletree airport transfer van with a HUGE chocolate chip cookie graphic on the side of it. I later learned that freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies were introduced at Doubletree in the 1980s. Synonymous with Doubletree’s brand of hospitality, the cookie was meant to differentiate the Doubletree brand from its competition – and it did.

Anyone can tell you that I absolutely melt for a good chocolate chip cookie. The smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies filled the air in the hotel when I walked in the lobby. It was amazing. The travel-related stresses left my body. The nerves about the meetings ahead of me were washed from my mind. I was in an entirely happy place. I was thrilled to be staying there.  If a hotel can do that, they certainly have a powerful brand in more ways than one.

Once check-in was complete, the clerk handed me two warm chocolate chip cookies. They tasted as good as the hotel smelled. One cookie was gone before I made it to my room. The other was consumed shortly thereafter.

It was a short stay in Durham so I only went in and out of the hotel two or three times. But each time that smell hit me, it permeated by soul and screamed “Doubletree.”

At check-out, I bought a tin of cookies for the office ($12 for 5 – a great money maker for the hotel!) and brought some home for my wife. While they appreciated the treats, to me this was about more than a cookie. This was about etching an attribute of a powerful brand in my brain forever. Every time I smell a chocolate chip cookie, I will, consciously or subconsciously, think of the Doubletree. They own that smell. And I experience that smell a lot.

And when my next trip comes up and I’m asked where I want to stay, I’ll have such a warm fuzzy feeling, taking me back to my childhood days and that most pleasant stay in Durham, I will ask if there’s a Doubletree.

All other things being equal – clean, spacious room, convenient, good value, and friendly staff – I will still choose Doubletree. And it has nothing to do with their logo. A brand is the visual, verbal and emotional attributes that define a business and set it apart from the competition.

Kudos to Doubletree for tapping the emotional side of things – which is one of the brand assets that is so often overlooked – and getting at it through the most powerful of all of our senses.

Andrew Stanten

Andrew Stanten co-founded Altitude Marketing in 2004. As CEO, he ensures the right people are on board, delivering world-class marketing services to Altitude’s global client base, and staying true to Altitude’s mission, vision and values.
Andrew possesses an innate ability to process, organize and summarize massive volumes of client and market information and turn it into actionable, strategic thinking. This enables Team Altitude to get smart about a company quickly—and develop winning, integrated approaches that vault clients into a position of prominence and strength.
Andrew graduated from Syracuse University and earned his MBA from Lehigh University.