top of page
  • Writer's pictureDavid Finken

The Sweet Smell of Perseverance: Varun and Zach’s Journey

Updated: Jul 9

Written by David Finken, PostDoc at ETH Zurich, Switzerland

Seconds after starting our conversation. We hope this random snapshot puts some humoristic imagery on reader’s minds.

The saying "A picture is worth a thousand words" holds true in many contexts. A surprising new IJRM paper, "Seeing is Smelling: Pictures Improve Product Evaluations by Evoking Olfactory Imagery," showcases that pictures are particularly important when selling products focused on their scent. Consider purchasing a scented candle or a new shampoo. People often sniff these products before deciding to buy them. But how can pictures help? The paper shows that displaying a picture of a lavender flower on a lavender-scented detergent’s packaging, compared to packaging without such a picture, evokes the soothing and comforting smell of lavender in the consumers’ minds. The unexpected advantage of adding images to scent-centric products significantly enhances the product's evaluation—an easy and effective solution for marketers (see The Guardian). I had the pleasure of chatting with both Prof. Varun Sharma (Carnegie Mellon University Qatar) and Prof. Zachary Estes (Bayes Business School) to dive into the nuances of "Seeing is Smelling."

A Short Glance Into Seeing is Smelling

Varun and Zach conducted over ten experiments to investigate a seemingly simple effect. Participants viewed pictures of a product, such as those shown in advertisements, either with or without an accompanying image of the product's scent.

This was one of the stimuli to test for the effect.

Seeing the soap with a picture of clementines led to higher preferences for the soap compared to seeing it without the clementine image. This occurs because the additional visual input of the clementines prompts people to think more about how the soap actually smells. The positive effects are stronger for consumers whose olfactory senses are more central to their existence. For the effect to occur, the scent must be a central or typical attribute of the product (scent centrality). Consequently, the effect is less pronounced or nonexistent for products with little to no scent centrality.

Finding a Home for Seeing is...

Let’s jump back to the very beginning. Zach has been Varun’s Ph.D. advisor during their time at Bocconi University, and “Seeing is Smelling” happens to be Varun’s first Ph.D. project. As such, the project had almost turned 10 years old by the time it was published. So, what took that long? After an initial rejection at the Journal of Marketing Research and a risky revision of an earlier version at the Journal of Marketing – ultimately discontinued due to feasibility reasons – IJRM provided a home after four rounds of reviews.

“Our project started with a serendipitous finding in the literature. We weren't looking for olfactory imagery, but when we found it, we knew we had something special”

Varun Sharma

But again, what made it difficult to publish, given that the article’s story – putting an image on a packaging or an advertisement on products for which scent matters increases the extent to which people imagine the product’s smell and increases its evaluations – seems straightforward? Ultimately, publishing the paper had to overcome two critical challenges. First, they faced difficulties differentiating their work from existing seminal papers, particularly a prominent study on olfactory imagery by Krishna, Morrin, and Sayin (2014). Second, and most likely linked to the first challenge, both shared some special encounters with the review process including an unusual number of replications for theory testing.

Publishing in Psychology versus Publishing in Marketing

Zach (who was a professor in psychology for 10 years) noted that psychology journals generally have a higher tolerance for imperfection and incremental contributions. In contrast, marketing outlets tend to demand more comprehensive and flawless demonstrations of effects. This disparity in expectations significantly impacts review processes, requiring authors to address every potential critique. The extensive evidence required by marketing journals often prolongs the review process, making it an arduous journey.

In psychology, reviewers evaluate what you've done. In consumer behavior, they evaluate what you could do. It's a whole different ball game” 

Zachary Estes

Smelling the (Technology-Enhanced) Future?

Research on sensory marketing has been growing over the years. Given recent technological advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Mixed Realities (AR or VR), new questions are at the forefront of exploration. As such, will consumers perceive sensory attributes differently (e.g., a product’s smell or taste) when these products are developed wholly or partially through AI applications? Will sensory perceptions of products that appear in AR or VR differ from what people are accustomed to in the real or online worlds? Furthermore, an important area of inquiry is how various sensory perceptions might interact in contexts that necessitate a multisensory experience (i.e., in situations in which people smell and taste objects at the same time). The rapid evolution of technologies has thus prompted a multitude of new questions within the domain of sensory marketing.

Curious to read the paper?

Interested in reading all the details about how and why pictures can help you think about a product smells? Read the full paper Seeing is Smelling.

Cite the paper

Sharma, V., & Estes, Z. (2024) Seeing is Smelling: Pictures improve product evaluations by evoking olfactory imagery. International Journal of Research in Marketing. 


Meet the Authors

Varun Sharma

Assistant Teaching Professor of Marketing at the Carnegie Mellon University (Qatar)

What is your favorite smell?

Varun’s favorite smell is that of a traditional Indian summer drink made from vetiver, a cooling grass. He mentioned that this scent immediately cools him off and brings him a sense of refreshment.

What is important for you in starting a new research project?

For me, it starts with an idea that I really want to know the answer to. If I don't find it interesting, it's hard to stay motivated. Work on projects that genuinely excite you.


Zachary Estes

Full Professor of Marketing at Bayes Business School (UK)

What is your favorite smell?

Zach’s sense of smell is less strong, and as such, he does not have a particular scent he likes most, and he perceives strong scents as overwhelming. Instead, he humorously mentioned that he is more aware of scents he does not like rather than having a particular favorite. That said, Zach’s favorite scent is the "Scent of Varun," as he typically names his project folders after the main topic and the first author.

Can you share a fun and surprising fact people usually don’t know about you?

"Every time I work on this project, I open a folder called 'Scent of Varun.' It never fails to make me smile."

"At one point in my career, I had 18 consecutive manuscript rejections, but in the following year, I had eight publications. It's a testament to persistence."


This article was written by

PostDoc at ETH Zürich, Switzerland

156 views0 comments


Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page