Dollars and scents

Roses, wormwood, oranges and mortgages. Why would Bank Leumi pull you by your nose?

leumi (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Does money stink in Israel? Bank Leumi seems to think it does. The bank has become the nation's first to introduce a new form of marketing called "scent branding" into all of its customer branches nationwide. One could say Leumi is giving new meaning to the word "sniff," which is, coincidentally, identical to the Hebrew word for "branch." Like supermarkets and movie theaters hoping to get customers to open their wallets by allowing the aroma of fresh bakery croissants to waft through the aisles or that of hot, buttered popcorn to fill the lobby, the marketing team at Leumi hopes that its own unique smell - a commercial concoction of green tea and wormwood - will increase customer loyalty. Currently, some 100 Leumi banks are infused with the scent, which was formulated by the US company Scentair. By 2008, the company reports, all its branches will feature the scent. The bank began testing it this past December, and like your mom's cooking, it is - they say - a smell you won't find anywhere else. The bank also intends to start playing background music at its branches. This is the first report of scent branding or "sensory marketing" in Israel. It is a new concept and has just started to surface in the US and in Europe, where used-car salesmen can buy an engineered "new car smell" and spray it onto jalopies to "prove" that their cars aren't really old. Other scents, such as pungent honey and vanilla, are being used in clothing stores and hotels from Paris to New York to lure customers inside and improve their buying experience once there. Berry-scented stickers advertising Starbucks coffee are being affixed to morning newspapers, and even posters at bus stops in the US are getting spritzed with smells. Scent-sensitive citizens, however, are not happy. They think that marketers have gone too far by infiltrating the public space. Some have complained about allergies. Bank Leumi's public relations head, Yoav Poles, had no detailed information on which branches are currently using the bank's signature scent, or about its effect thus far on business. A sampling of people questioned by In Jerusalem had never heard about the bank's new campaign. Poles did say, however, that he thinks people don't pay enough attention to smells. "Our point of view is that we want to make people feel more comfortable in the bank. People normally come into the bank with some kind of apprehension. We want them to come in feeling relaxed, and don't think it's the same thing as a supermarket opening its ovens to get buyers to spend more money." It is important to note, he says, that the current use of scent is just a trial. "If it's more comfortable to be at the bank, then more people will come. We want to give the feeling of being at home." Bank Leumi spokesman Aviram Cohen told IJ, "It's not an experiment. We checked polling [on the issue] and now [the scent] is part of some branches. People that work at the bank know about it and they tell each customer. They [are instructed] to ask them what they think. We want them to be with us. We are proud of it." And how has the reaction been thus far? "I think they like it very much," Cohen replied. "We want them to feel better in the sniff," he continued, "we call it the sniff of tomorrow. We haven't had a case of allergies." According to a Bank Leumi press release, research has shown that adding a scent "element" helps a business retain customers and can ensure repeat visits. SMELL MARKETING is turning into big business in some parts of the world. But what exactly formulates each specific scent is usually a trade secret. One question consumers should be asking regards the strength of the scent being used. Is it strong enough to trigger allergies? Some chemicals used to create synthetic scents and added to common products such as household cleaners today are known carcinogens. In addition to any adverse physical effects, smells have been proven to trigger psychological responses as well. While pleasant smells can certainly be used to mask less-than-pleasant odors in shops - like plastic packaging or even cat urine - is it ethical? Does a bank or a clothing shop have any right to play with our senses? What do Israeli experts have to say about the business of smell? Prof. Mel Rosenberg, a breath and smell expert, runs a breath research lab at Tel Aviv University. He thinks it's "kosher" to use smells in a "direct" way, such as supermarket bakeries letting customers get a whiff of fresh bread or cookies. What's not kosher, he says, is to use scents subliminally. It is known that odors have an effect on how our brain works, explains Rosenberg, pointing to a study on women whose blood pressure and brain activity changed after smelling men's body odors. "We smell things, even without knowing that they are there, and when done subliminally, it's like advertising for a brief instant, something that flashes in front of your eyes. This is misleading and unethical," Rosenberg says. However, Rosenberg sees nothing wrong with Bank Leumi's scent marketing, "if [it's] done in an open way and the customers know." If done subliminally, however, and the customers don't know how, when, or why they're being exposed to the scent, it's not right, he says. He points out that ever since the ancient Egyptians, people have been using smells to "market" themselves. "If you don't have a nice smell, you are less likely to succeed in life," he says. "For better or for worse, people also market false odors when they are wearing perfume or aftershave." Still, he thinks that people should draw a moral distinction between what they do personally and what they do while conducting business. "On a business level, it should be up front. When I get a mortgage, I don't want someone tinkering with my brain," he says. "Caveat emptor," is Rosenberg's final advice. The Latin phrase means, "Let the buyer beware." Prof. Yehuda Shoenfeld, head of Sheba Medical Center's B Medical Unit, has conducted autoimmune research on lupus and depression - research that has led him to investigate humans' sense of smell. Shoenfeld, who recently read about scent marketing in Time magazine, says that the phenomenon was gaining a foothold in Israel. As for Bank Leumi's use of scents, he says he thinks it's a "wonderful idea." "I have since put the smell of oranges in my [office], and people come in smiling from ear to ear," he says. The Environmental Protection Ministry has a whiff patrol, charged with the task of making sure our urban environment stays stench-free. The patrol has been operating for the past 30 years and has about 300 highly trained noses at its disposal. Many work in Haifa's industrial area, where they report on odor-emitting factories. A ministry spokesman had not heard about scent marketing in Israel. The Israel Consumer Council, the organization charged with protecting the nation's consumers, like the ministry, had not heard of selling through scent. When approached by IJ regarding Bank Leumi's scent campaign, an ICC spokesperson promised to find out more, but no response was received by press time. The next stop was Itzhak Kimchi, commissioner of consumer protection at the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. He hadn't heard about scent marketing in Israel, either, and suspected that no one else had. "I'm not aware of this concept," he said. "If it's ethical or not, I can't say. What I can say, is that all businesses are putting more efforts into improving the buyer's experience these days. If it's done in a subliminal way, then there are ethical issues. If it affects the rhythm of the mind, or the free will of the consumer, for example, then I am against it." The ultimate test will be to wait and see what happens over the next year. Will we find Israelis walking like zombies toward Bank Leumi, asking for large mortgages? Will NGOs like Green Action start fighting scent marketing in court? Will other companies and banks follow in Leumi's footsteps and begin diffusing their own custom-blended scents in an effort to attract customers? Follow your nose. The scent may tell.