The Major Brand Element You Ignore

Kmart can teach us an important lesson on branding.

Kmart? An important lesson in branding? Yes — absolutely. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say it can teach us about the strongest force in branding.

A “force,” I might add, that Kmart (and nearly every other company) wholly ignores.

And did I mention this force is completely invisible?

Kmart was founded in a suburb of Detroit, only a few miles from where I grew up. We used to go there. A lot. Before Target and WalMart and even malls, this was the store you’d meander for hours. I’m sure the local dimension is why I pay a little extra attention to the once-proud retailer. The romantic in me hopes it will one day retake from WalMart the market share it once dominated.

Admittedly, though, my last visit to a store was several year ago. Walking in the front door, it hit me: This place smells the same way it did 40 years ago!

For some, smells make for a nostalgic trip: the scent that reminds you of your grandmother’s house…the perfume/cologne your first girlfriend/boyfriend wore.

At that moment, the uniquely Kmart “smell” didn’t transport me back to a happier time. It punched me in the solar plexus with the totality of experiences there, over four decades, I’d come to associate as less-than-pleasant. It’s not a foul smell or offensive in any way. It’s just…Kmart’s smell.

A vintage logo to match the vintage aroma. And an empty parking lot.

Turns out all this makes perfect logic. Our olfactory sense dictates super strong subconscious connections and feelings. In fact, it’s said to be the most-powerful of our senses for memory. Since memory is the hypothalamus of what we call a brand, we should be paying close attention to smells. Perhaps more attention than everything else.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve experienced it.

What do you feel when you catch a whiff of antiseptics? Specifically, formocreasol, cresatin, and eugenol? And then mixed with acrylic monomer and the general aroma of burning human protein?

You may not know the names. But you certainly know the smells: Those of a dentist office.

How do you feel?

You associate the smells, on a very primal level, with the discomfort of having your teeth cleaned, drilled, and/or removed. They unlock your lifelong experiences spent in an uncomfortable chair, with people (and power tools) pressing your jaw into ever-wider contortions.

The smells may even make you nauseous.

It’s the same principle realtors use when hosting an open house: The aroma of freshly-baked bread or cookies will make your place seem more homey,┬áthereby increasing your chances of an offer or two.

And some companies — the very astute ones — actually deliver┬ásmells that heighten your experience. In fact, many high-end hotels actually use different smells for different areas: conference centers are filled with aromas to elevate your brain chemistry, keeping you alert during long meetings, while more relaxing smells are piped into rooms and spas.

A company I found called ScentAir designs custom scents for companies based on their industry and needs, and provides a scent “delivery system.”

My Kmart revelation suggests that, every time customers enter their stores, they too subconsciously relive anachronistic, unpleasant experiences.

Add to this the company’s other┬ábusiness problems (empty shelves, disenfranchised employees, stores so empty they’re scary) and you’ve got yourself…well, you’ve got yourself a retailer fighting for survival.

So, while Kmart fixes its other problems, it should take a whiff of its own reality.

What does your business smell like?