The Behind-The-Scenes Marketing Tricks That Make Food Irresistible (Hint: You Can’t See It!)

The Behind-The-Scenes Marketing Tricks That Make Food Irresistible (Hint: You Can’t See It!)
By Food Babe


There’s a somewhat insidious form of marketing that you may not be aware of that’s being used everyday in restaurants, hotels and retail stores. It’s not something obvious that you’ll see on their signs or advertising. They are using a powerful technique to quietly lure you in without overtly selling you anything – and the food industry is taking full advantage of this tactic. They are pulling out all the stops to tempt us with irresistible smells that are hard to resist. Whether you’re at the mall, the airport, your office break room, or walking at an amusement park…You are being manipulated by this very subtle technique…

We are being inundated with fake chemical scents designed to get us to buy!
The Hard Rock Café Hotel in Orlando pumps out artificial scents of sugar cookies and waffle cones that act as “aroma billboards” to draw people to their ice cream shop in the basement (increasing sales by 45%). The marketing company ScentAndrea attached chocolate artificially-scented strips to some vending machines in California, tripling Hershey’s sales. The Hershey’s store in Times Square uses artificial scent machines that blow the scent of chocolate into their store. Disney reportedly applies an artificial “grilled scent” to their frozen burgers to make them smell fresh, along with strategically placed scent machines in the bushes that disperse scents of cotton candy, popcorn, or caramel apples. According to the Scent Marketing Institute, when the smell of fresh baked bread was pumped into a grocery store, sales in the bakery department tripled. A grocery chain in New York (Net Cost) admittedly places scent machines that release scents of chocolate and baking bread to make customers hungry, and sales jumped.

Even subtle changes in operations can trick our noses and make a big impact on increasing food sales. For instance, Panera Bread recently moved its baking time to daytime hours so that customers smell the bread all day long and their New Haven, Connecticut location has a small “show oven” without a hood, so the smells vent into the restaurant. This is the same reason that Subway places their bread ovens up front in their restaurants, so that smell hits you when you walk in the door. Starbucks has an “aroma task force” to make sure their stores smell like coffee and not the cheese from their breakfast items.

Using scents to sell more products isn’t a new tactic by a long shot and is taken straight out of Monsanto’s playbook, as demonstrated by this vintage 1947 Monsanto ad:

“The principle of chemical attraction also defines the path to hidden sales…Used for years to contribute sales appeal to foods, candies, perfumes and cosmetics… Yes – Smells Sell! If you wish to know more about this proved sales strategy in your business, a contact with Monsanto may reward you with the right chemical answers”.

Clearly, using scent as a tool is super effective, and this marketing technique shows no signs of slowing down. It’s probably just a matter of time before the chip aisle at the grocery store will artificially smell like Doritos – so it’s a good time to arm ourselves with this knowledge now.

How “Scent Marketing” makes us want to eat something we shouldn’t…
Who hasn’t walked past a Cinnabon and could barely control the urge to buy one? I used to be guilty! I know that feeling all too well. It’s seriously hard to resist, but after I tell you what ingredients they use to make their treats you may find it easier next time. According to Adweek, food retailers realize that scents are very powerful because they can trigger emotions and motivations that are more “immediate and intense than those brought on by anything else, and it takes a while for our brains to rationalize why we want what our noses tell us”. Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago explains, “Unlike other senses, smell skips the rational filter in the brain. The olfactory system is a pure emotional sense”. So all those happy childhood memories you may have about eating warm cinnamon rolls come flooding back every time that Cinnabon smell hits you, and this emotional connection entices you to buy. Even if logic tells you it’s unhealthy or that you aren’t hungry, your emotions are very powerful.

Pro Tip: Plug your nose next time you walk near a Cinnabon!
This is what’s been called Cinnabon’s “greatest asset”. The President of Cinnabon, Kat Cole, agreed in a video interview that their aroma is all part of the “emotional experience” of Cinnabon, and that it can sway you into being “a little bit bad” to “treat” yourself on a whim. Here’s a few scent marketing tricks that Cinnabon uses to make it so hard to resist their treats:

Cinnabon franchisees are required to put their ovens near the front of its stores. When one Cinnabon location put their oven in the back of the restaurant, it hindered the smell and they suffered a “tremendous drop” in sales
Cinnamon rolls are baked at least every 30 minutes and they sometimes also heat additional sheets of brown sugar and cinnamon (without any rolls) just to keep the scent in the air.
Cinnabon franchisees are told to buy “the weakest hood possible” within local laws for their ovens – this keeps more of the smell inside, just where they want it. According to one franchisee, “In a perfect world I plant something within the structure of the oven, or just above it, that would pull out that smell”.
Cinnabons are intentionally located in malls or airports, and only in closed indoor locations that allow the smells to linger and not get watered down by the outside air.
They avoid competing smells by attempting to negotiate leases that allow for “normal food aromas”, in locations far from other scented establishments like Abercrombie & Fitch, and ideally on the ground floor near a stairwell that allows the scent to rise throughout the floors above.

The ingredients are chemically designed to smell good too.
After I received the complete list of ingredients in the Cinnabon Classic Cinnamon Rolls, I immediately noticed that they use two ingredients that are used to artificially add “aroma” to the flavors in a product. The “heliotropin” used in their vanilla frosting is also used in perfume and is described as “delectable, like a billowy dessert you can’t resist”. They also use the aroma ingredient “citral” that mimics the flavor and scent of lemons. You won’t find any actual vanilla extract or lemon juice in their frosting, it’s all artificial. The smell of food greatly affects its taste, so aroma ingredients are usually added to make fake flavors taste more realistic. You can’t just make something taste like vanilla, it needs to smell like it too. Usually these aroma ingredients aren’t listed on the label, as they’re a component of the proprietary “artificial flavor” or “natural flavor” ingredients used. Interestingly, Cinnabon shared the ingredients used within their artificial flavors in the frosting.

Why not just use real ingredients?
If real vanilla and lemons were used to flavor their frosting, the flavors and aroma would be natural just like when you cook at home – and it would taste a whole lot better too. The only problem is that it’s more expensive. Overall, the quality of ingredients used by Cinnabon are really poor and just goes to show that they are cutting corners when they choose ingredients, including some with blatant health hazards. They’ve already lured you in with irresistible smells – they’ve won you over before you know it. The actual taste and quality of ingredients used at this point are secondary. However, they could make some changes that would drastically improve their products. These are the biggies:

Trans Fat – Cinnabon uses the worst kind of fat in their Cinnamon Roll: partially hydrogenated oils. These oils are the primary source of artificial trans fat in the typical American diet, and have been shown to contribute to heart disease. In a huge move last year, the FDA made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is no longer “generally recognized as safe” – but it’s still allowed in food until their determination is made final. The CDC says that cutting these artificial trans fats from the diet could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks per year. In light of all this information, Cinnabon should remove these oils ASAP and use healthier fats instead such as coconut oil.

Yellow #5 – This artificial color requires a food warning label in Europe because it’s been shown to cause hyperactivity in children. It’s probably used to make their cinnamon roll look buttery, since real butter isn’t an ingredient. They should take a cue from Kraft and replace this with a safer color like beta-carotene – if it’s even necessary at all.

Preservatives – The preservative potassium sorbate may cause DNA damage when it’s combined with ascorbic acid – another Cinnabon roll ingredient. The other preservative used, sodium benzoate, has been linked to possible DNA damage and hyperactivity in children. Cinnabon’s President says that “we’re baking our rolls fresh all day long…today’s consumer, they actually do want to indulge, but they want to know that there’s authenticity to their food…so people are willing to indulge if there are freshness cues in the operating model and in the product itself”. If their products are really fresh, why add these preservatives?

Dough Conditioners – L-cysteine is just a really gross ingredient that’s commonly derived from human hair (yes, you heard me right), and sometimes hog hair, duck feathers, cow horns, pig bristles, or synthetic sources. Even if it’s not dangerous to eat, I think we can all agree that we’d rather eat a Cinnabon without it. Following my petition last February, Subway removed azodicarbonamide from their bread and several other bakeries have followed suit and removed this unnecessary ingredient without many consumers even realizing it. This ingredient is banned in other countries across the globe, linked to health issues and isn’t necessary, so why does Cinnabon use it?

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – Although the corn industry denies this, sucrose (cane sugar) and HFCS are not processed by your body in the same way. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, unlike sugar there is no chemical bond between the fructose and glucose molecules in HFCS, so they bypass digestion and are more rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream:

“Fructose goes right to the liver and triggers lipogenesis (the production of fats like triglycerides and cholesterol) this is why it is the major cause of liver damage in this country and causes a condition called “fatty liver” which affects 70 million people. The rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin–our body’s major fat storage hormone. Both these features of HFCS lead to increased metabolic disturbances that drive increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and more”.
Don’t be tempted into eating these ingredients! It’s not worth your health.
Until Cinnabon makes these ingredient changes (and a few more), I’ll be plugging my nose when I walk by. It’s clear that restaurants know smells induce cravings, and this is just one of the many tricks they’re taking full advantage of. It’s been shown that “many overweight and obese people are resistant to a hormone called leptin, which creates a sense of fullness, making sugary, salty and high-fat foods difficult to refuse. All of those things play into buying more foods and buying more of the wrong types of foods… it can be really hard to resist”. This can really sabotage any weight loss goals and good intentions you have about eating healthy. I wanted to equip you with this knowledge so that it would be easier for you to spot when your nose is tricking you into buying an unhealthy treat.

If you know someone who is tempted by these treats (aren’t we all?) – please share this post with them! The more we know the better we are off!



P.S. In my new book The Food Babe Way – I teach you even more ways you can break free from the hidden toxins in your food, lose weight, look years younger and get healthy in just 21 days. I know you are going to love it! It’s available everywhere books are sold. For a limited time, get an Ultimate Grocery Guide to help you navigate the aisles and healthy shopping lists for every major grocery store in America!

February 16, 2015
aroma, aroma task force, artificial flavor, artificial scents, Azodicarbonamide, cinnabon, citral, Dough Conditioners, fake scents, Food Babe Army, Food Babe Way, heliotropin, High Fructose Corn Syrup, l-cysteine, marketing trick, Panera Bread, preservatives, scent machines, scent marketing, scents, starbucks, subway, The Food Babe Way, Trans Fat, Vani Hari, Yellow #5
Posts may contain affiliate links for products Food Babe has approved and researched herself. If you purchase a product through an affiliate link, your cost will be the same (or at a discount if a special code is offered) and Food Babe will automatically receive a small referral fee. Your support is crucial because it helps fund this blog and helps us continue to spread the word. Thank you.


One thought on “The Behind-The-Scenes Marketing Tricks That Make Food Irresistible (Hint: You Can’t See It!)

  1. radiosong94 says:

    The town where I live also does this at christmas time along the sidewalks. I spent an extra 10 minutes trying to find out where the smell was coming from walking back to my parking space downtown, there were no evergreens anywhere except in buildings and entertainment areas. Really annoying.


Comments are closed.