Scented billboard entices with a whiff of grilled steak

The Charlotte ObserverJune 3, 2010 

— There's something in the air along a busy Iredell County road, and it's not just exhaust fumes: It's the smell of grilled steak, courtesy of what appears to be the nation's first-ever scented highway billboard.

The Bloom grocery chain, part of Salisbury-based Food Lion, hopes to catch shoppers by the nose by wafting black pepper and charcoal smells from the base of a sign on N.C. 150 in Mooresville.

Though businesses have been employing specialized aromas to boost sales and create ambiance for years, this, it appears, is a different frontier - one designed to cut through the clutter that commuters encounter every day.

After all, you can tune out noise. You can disregard other signs. But a new smell? "It will definitely catch your attention, because we have to breathe," notes Harald Vogt, founder of the Scent Marketing Institute, a New York-based independent consultancy.

Bloom fired up the grill-board last Friday to promote its new line of beef. The billboard will emit scents from 7 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. every day until June 18, spokeswoman Christy Phillips-Brown said. It shows a towering fork piercing a giant piece of meat and is visible to westbound traffic.

The company developed the idea with Charlotte advertising agency Birdsong Gregory and Charlotte-based ScentAir, which provides custom scents and fragrance delivery systems for businesses, including hotel lobbies, casino gambling floors and retail stores. A billboard is a bit outside of Scent Air's usual realm, but it appreciated the creative challenge, marketing director Murray Dameron said.

A high-powered fan attached to the bottom of the billboard pole disperses the aroma by blowing air over cartridges loaded with fragrance oil, Dameron said. ScentAir has used the system at outdoor events or large indoor spaces, including the 2008 World Series at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., which smelled like oranges.

For the billboard, he said, "it's basically a blend of black pepper and kind of a charcoal grilling smell," he said.

Cookies and milk

Such scented outdoor advertising has few precedents, said Jeff Golimowski, spokesman for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. ScentAir previously erected a fragrant street-level, mural-style sign in Israel, but the most famous example came in San Francisco in 2006, when the state's milk promotion board installed strips that gave bus shelters the smell of fresh chocolate chip cookies.

The campaign attracted plenty of publicity but crumbled after little more than a day, amid complaints from people with asthma or environmental allergies. Others questioned the tact of placing a tempting food smell in an area where poor and homeless people would encounter it.

The milk board said the smells were perfectly safe, and ScentAir says the same about the fragrances used in Mooresville.

"It's another way that out-of-home advertising is adapting to new technologies," Golimowski said. "You see digital billboards, Bluetooth-enabled bus shelters, mobile phone apps. Something like this that engages all of the consumer's senses and really evokes a sensation and memory is another very interesting step."

Scent marketing has been growing slowly because it's difficult for companies to measure the return on investment and justify the expenditure, especially in a recession, the Scent Marketing Institute's Vogt said. But, he noted, it has the potential to break out much more, given the powerful memory links that scent can form.

Scents can backfire

Still, companies have to be careful not to irritate the very consumers they're trying to win over. Some people are highly sensitive to scent, while others object to prominent scents in public spaces, Vogt noted.

Scented outdoor ads also remain rare simply because they're difficult to control, he said. Weather and wind patterns could thwart the scent diffusion.

That could be an issue with the Bloom billboard. Its fan is supposed to have a range of 30 to 50 yards, so someone could catch a whiff while driving by. But results this week suggested it was falling a bit short.

Located up an embankment next to a retention pond, the fan was pointed slightly downward Wednesday afternoon, ruffling the grass around it. Close up, a black peppery, grill-evocative smell was noticeable, particularly in a favorable breeze. Outside of about 15 feet away, however, it was difficult to perceive, and indistinguishable during a ride past with the windows down.

Keen nose needed

Mahesh Shah, owner of the Quick Mart Shell gas station next door, didn't even realize that the billboard was supposed to emit a smell.

"If nobody tells, you don't know," he said as traffic zoomed by. Not that he'd be tempted anyway: He doesn't eat meat. But at the angle the fan was pointed, he said, dogs would probably appreciate it more than humans.

Cheryl Reid, manager of the Storage Company, a mini-storage business on the other side of the sign, couldn't smell anything from her door this week. When she walked closer, about 30 feet from the fan, she caught a faint, charcoal-scented breeze that didn't smell strongly of steaks, she said, but also wasn't unpleasant. People might catch on more quickly, she said, if the billboard portrayed a grill.

"You might can smell it a little bit, but unless people are stopped out there or real close to the sign, I don't know that they're going to get the desired effect from it," she said.

She was unsure, she said, of whether it made her want a steak more.

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