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Can plans for branch upgrades pass the smell test?

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Step aside, Glade PlugIns – credit unions are going high tech as they alter a key component of the branch experience.

As foot traffic to branches declines, credit unions have worked to make these spaces more relevant by doing away with teller lines and adding in touches such as coffee bars and community spaces. However, a small but growing number of institutions are taking things to the next level by turning to ambient scenting – using a unique smell to enhance the experience inside a retail space – inside the branch.

But there’s more to this trend than just sticking an air freshener in a power outlet.

“More financial institutions are realizing that traditional teller lines and the old way of doing business is not working anymore,” said Cameron Dickey, president and CEO of Cy-Fair Federal Credit Union in Houston. “There are all of these efforts to evolve and remain relevant as we see what financial services looks like in the next 10 years. We are making branches more appealing to [visit] and that’s how we can create something that is unique.”

Hotels and other industries have long used ambient scenting to mask unpleasant odors like cleaning supplies and create a more pleasant environment for guests. And there is some evidence that the smell of a space will influence the customer.

For example, researchers found that olfactory cues created more positive feelings toward a brand than visual ones, according to an article published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior in 2012.

“The simple rule is that people like places that smell nice and don’t like places that don’t smell nice,” said Richard Weening, chairman and CEO at Prolitec, which provides systems for ambient scents. “A scent that is very subtle is an effective way to do that.”

Prolitec’s ambient scenting technique involves attaching a small piece of equipment to a business’s air handler to diffuse the scent throughout the space. Everything is monitored remotely, Weening said, and the fragrance is dispersed through the air at a low enough concentration that it shouldn’t trigger any allergies.

Canvas Credit Union in Lone Tree, Colo., deployed an ambient scent last year in two of its branches following a rebranding – it was formerly known as Public Service Credit Union – and getting the suggestion from an employee, said Tansley Stearns, chief people and strategy officer.

After a group of five employees, including the CEO, did a blind smell test of potential scents, the $2.6 billion-asset Canvas selected something that was “really fresh with a hint of citrus,” Stearns said. So far member feedback has been mostly positive, and the institution now plans to add the scent, which it calls “Canvas Crush,” to its more than two dozen locations by the end of 2019.

The $253 million-asset Cy-Fair developed its ambient scent after an employee asked about what management was doing in terms of how a branch smells during a branch remodel, Dickey said.

“Our branches smell like carpet glue, upholstery cleaner, some employee’s lunch that was just microwaved, maybe popcorn if we did a popcorn day,” Dickey said. “The idea of having an intentional scent to meet this other sense was interesting to me.”

Cy-Fair initially tested a scent reminiscent of apples at one location and now has plans to include it at all of its branches by the end of the year.

“It’s the softest, mildest hint of apple,” Dickey said. “We feel like it is walking into someone’s home and they are making a pie. It’s a very clean and crisp and pleasant smell without being overly sweet.”

To scent or not to scent?

Adding an ambient scent makes sense if the credit union is already undergoing a redesign of its branches, said Doug Strickler, founder and CEO of Hot Inc., a brand strategy and communications firm. And trying it out in a few locations to start with is a good idea so that management has a chance to receive feedback.

“Not that banks and credit unions smell like high school locker rooms, but I would lean toward having that added scent in a branch instead of it not smelling so good,” Strickler said. “You will never find a scent that is appealing to everyone. But you want to find that experience that pleases more than it turns off more.”

Ambient scenting can help the credit union differentiate itself from the competition by making the overall branch experience better, experts said. Enhancing customer service was a top three priority for almost half of banks, according to the PwC Retail Banking 2020 report.

But it is also best to pick a scent that comes across as authentic, recognizable and fits in with the credit union’s overall brand. It must also be subtle and something that most people will appreciate.

All of that can be difficult to accomplish given that the sense of smell can be deeply personal, said Paul Seibert, owner of Paul Seibert Consulting, which provides design and business planning to financial institutions.

“Every time people think about evolving their branch, they should be thinking about all of the senses and tying it back to the brand,” Seibert said. “They should think about the fragrance because it leads to, Do we need one?”

But implementing an ambient scent won’t drastically change how members engage with the institution, Seibert cautioned, noting that how staff interact with visitors to the branch is far more important than any new smells.

There is also still a danger of a scent being a turn off to employees or members, said Kent Dicken, CEO of iDiz, a strategic marketing and branding firm that works with credit unions.

“It can be overwhelming,” Dicken said. “It gets down to the basic human level of whether it is worth the risk to make a deeper connection with some while maybe offending others.”

Including an ambient scent also comes with an ongoing expense without clearly adding to the bottom line. Prolitec’s systems cost from $50 to several thousands of dollars each month depending on the size of the space, Weening said.

Even though Canvas isn’t able to directly measure its ambient scent’s impact on earnings, Stearns says it contributes.

“We believe our brand is absolutely a way to drive business,” Stearns said. “This is a way for us to elevate our brand. We want the brand to be something that people feel and smell and touch. This is just another way to bring that to life.”

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