Communication Design,  Marketing Communication,  Marketing Design

What can we learn from smell and Starbucks?

“Life is short. Enjoy your coffee”  

Have you considered the power of Smell in your marketing communication strategies? Starbucks certainly does! This is what I have learned from their coffee smell as a key source of communicative information.

Element-focused Description.

I chose Starbucks because one of the reasons I feel attracted to get inside their stores is the aroma of fresh coffee, which is always inviting.

Guinevere Orvis mentions that “each Starbucks location has a similar design: dark greens and wooden décor, chalkboard menus, soft music, and the scent of rich coffee. “They sell food too, but you don’t smell it — that’s by design.”

This is a place where you need to stand in line to get your order and one type of communicative information that the company is using to stimulate the customers’ senses is the smell. The delicious smell of coffee wafts up from the espresso machines in diverse ways: earthy, spicy, floral and nutty. “These distinctive scents are directly related to the actual flavor of the coffee” ( The stores intentionally use steam as the main vehicle for the transfer of these aromas to the “audience’s nose” from hot coffee. It brings the aromas through the air to everyone in line, allowing them to smell the wonderful scents in the air.

New Food Magazine states that “among the various sensory modalities, the aroma, also known as the smell, is of the greatest importance to the consumer experience of a cup of coffee”.  Starbucks knows it well. The roasting process of Blonde roasts brings a lighter and subtler scent, while Medium roasts exhibit a smoother and more balanced, even floral smell and Dark roasts are an indication of a fuller, bolder and deeper aroma. According to Starbucks, “each coffee bean requires a unique balance of temperature and time to reach its individual peak of aroma”(

The whole routine of blending, roasting, grinding and extracting spark the coffee lovers’ sense of smell. It sends signals to the brain that caffeine is on the way, which provides stimulation and wakes customers up and revive those who are tired.

The design of this composition has a well-defined hierarchy as there is a coffee-centric atmosphere, which is a bold headline or a flashy illustration because constitutes the star product in the portfolio. The coffee beans scent compels the customers to smell there. Other products like baked foods are tidily placed in a transparent glass cabinet (Appendix 2) to avoid interfering with the coffee aroma. Additionally, Starbucks employees are requested to avoid wearing strong perfumes that might affect the coffee smell, and nearly all Starbucks around the world are non-smoking indoors.

There is some asymmetry in the coffee-atmosphere, as one can find a mix of diverse roasts smells (blonde, medium, and dark) arranged unevenly in the store. With so many variations of coffee being prepared, one may think that the “composition” of the Starbucks coffee shop may be chaotic, but since it is not heavily populated the amount of complexity of smells is about right. You can even sense some texture in the coffee aromas, because you may find subtle scents with delicate nuances of soft cocoa and lightly toasted nuts, while others display a rich dark cocoa texture.

Furthermore, we can distinguish visual and olfactory boundaries to the smell of coffee, which is the doors enclosing the coffee shops. These keep the coffee atmosphere within the premises, directing the audience’s attention to what’s going on inside the coffee shop. There is also an effective flow that encourages the nose to circulate among the different smells of coffee and where to find the favorite roast. Customers are attracted to critical areas of the composition, where the smell of coffee is coming from, where the baristas are preparing the drinks.

Element-focused Evaluation

Starbucks is one of those companies that strategically learned how to differentiate its brand with a unique aroma: the fresh-roasted whole bean coffee. I consider they have been effectively applying Scent Marketing strategies to connect with their target audience on an emotional level.

Taking into consideration that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory and emotions, this is a powerful tool to trigger happy memoirs associated with the experience with the brand. The vision of Starbucks is to be a place for conversation and a sense of community. In this case, the use of freshly brewed coffee aromas circulating the shop in an environment where there are similarity and consistency within the elements of its design supports the message of the brand to be perceived as a warm and a welcoming place to gather.

A study done in 2013 by the Global Journal of Commerce and Management Perspective said that ambient scent has the strongest impact when it comes to enhancing consumer behavior in terms of emotion, evaluation, willingness to return to a store and purchase intention.

The communication element of smell is then successful to increase the intent to purchase because the scents of the coffee varieties are associated with their flavors. Customers are more likely to look around and wait longer in lines when the room is scented with pleasant smells. In fact, scent can stimulate appetite and increases the sales of coffee but also the sales of snacks and baked goods.

On another positive note, the presence of hierarchy in the composition helps to improve customer experience with a main scent in the coffee shop. This olfactory hierarchy can increase sales, encourage guest loyalty and develop brand awareness.

Even though Starbucks started to sell Hot Breakfast, pastries, sandwiches and snacks, the company has taken measures to prevent the smell of these other products to overlap with the coffee distinctive aroma. The design of the composition changed to a more coffee-centric setting, in order to avoid an image of “diner” instead of a coffee shop. However, I feel that some stores are failing with this strategy because the composition hierarchy is diluting while the main coffee scent is fading, which may confuse some coffee aficionados.

Final thoughts 

Choosing a marketing strategy based on the sense of smell is smart and can differentiate Starbucks from its competitors. Scents have an instant and persuasive effect as they are directly linked to the brain’s limbic system, which is the part of the brain responsible for the customers’ memories and emotions.

Pleasant ambient scents can positively influence purchase behavior if the scent seems to match the products in the store. That is why I recommend that Starbucks does not shift its focus from coffee in order to increase revenue into other areas. Adding elements to this composition in a way that might jeopardize its olfactory unity may end up being ineffective for the correct communication of the brand message. Hence, the marketing team of Starbucks should consider expanding the offer to include only those food products that be cooked in a less aromatic way. As Alex White mentioned, “all the parts, no matter how disparate, must be reconciled so they support each other”. All the elements must convey harmony to generate the least resistance of the audience when communicating with the brand. Plus, food or drink scent choices need to make sense for the brand.

In order to enhance the stores’ atmosphere, Starbucks should continue to aim for the aromatic coffee smell because it has olfactory qualities that make customers feel comfortable and relaxed. This will reduce the noise in the communication channels and people will create an instant association in their minds that these coffee shops are all about premium coffee, but also a welcoming place to gather and hang out. Customers will remember the brand and use word of mouth to promote the coffee experience at Starbucks.

Referenced Elements

I learned concepts about aesthetics mostly in the book “Visual Design. Ninety-five things you need to know. Told in Helvetica and dingbats.” by Jim Krause.


One Comment

  • David Smith

    Great insights on this post Giselle! Who would’ve thought that the element of smell would be such a useful marketing technique!

    “Scents have an instant and persuasive effect as they are directly linked to the brain’s limbic system, which is the part of the brain responsible for the customers’ memories and emotions.”

    Love it!

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