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You think your credit smells? Cards with aromas issued

Like that new card smell? Pick from orange, mint, cinnamon or coffee

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Excuse me, may I smell your credit card?

OK, that may not be the current pickup line of choice at your local Whole Foods, but it could be coming soon to an arugula section near you. 

Any day now, fresh-baked credit cards impregnated with mouthwatering fragrances may waft this way from overseas, where they are already freshening pocketbooks and tickling taste buds from Hamburg to Hong Kong.

Last week, German banking giant Commerzbank unveiled a new line of Visa and MasterCard branded credit cards available in four fashion-forward fragrances: cinnamon, orange, coffee and mint. No word yet if eau de bratwurst, pretzels and heifeweisen will follow.

And they're not the first. Two years ago, Tokyo-based JCB, the largest credit card issuer in Japan, launched the women-oriented LINDA Sweet card with its intoxicating bouquet of lemon, grapefruit and mandarin orange. JCB estimates LINDA will retain her sweetness for three years, roughly the life expectancy of a credit card today.

JCB issuers in Taiwan and the Philippines are said to be sniffing around for their own custom fragrances.

Could we soon be smelling what other countries are selling? Allen Weinberg, a former Visa vice president and managing partner of Glenbrook, a payments consulting and research firm, says, who nose?

"Issuers are clearly looking for ways to differentiate themselves. For all intents and purposes, there is no growth in receivables these days, so if it costs them a few more bucks to put a bell and whistle on it that will appeal to some people, great."

Scents and sensibilities
Why has plastic suddenly become so darned pungent?

It's a great way to draw attention to the card, to remind people about it and get a kick out of using it.

-- Avery Gilbert    
Smell scientist    

Avery Gilbert, a smell scientist and author of "What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life," says smell plays well with credit cards.

"Credit cards are all numbers and verbal, all very left-hemisphere," he explains. "Throwing a little curve in there, a smell -- a little more emotional, a little less verbal -- is a nice complement to numbers and signing your name and reviewing the bill."

"It's a great way to draw attention to the card, to remind people about it and get a kick out of using it. It's definitely a conversation opener at the checkout." Or the produce aisle.

Marketing gurus have long known that smell sells.

For decades, we've been nasally courted by everything from perfume inserts in magazines to that cloying fresh-baked cookie aroma at open houses to scratch-and-sniff panels on laundry soap, toothpaste, coffee beans and even vodka bottles.

Don't even get me started on that unavoidable section of major department stores I not-so-jokingly refer to as "stinky town."

Scented plastic is nothing new either, as any parent will tell you. Ever get a whiff of a Strawberry Shortcake doll?

Terry Molnar, executive director of the Sense of Smell Institute (you didn't know there was one, did you?) says high-end hoteliers such as W and Steve Wynn and retailers like Samsung have plunged nose-first into sensory branding.

When you enter their lobby or store, you're subconsciously greeted by a subtle signature or "logo" scent. You may encounter it again in other contexts, such as the hotel's bath products or the retailer's product packaging.

Considering your credit, if your credit cards had an aroma, what would it be?

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The effect is one of instant nostalgia.

"Science has established that memories that are queued by an odor are stronger and more emotional than visual or taste or touch because the part of our brain that handles smells is the same part that handles emotion and memory," says Molnar.

"Everybody has had the experience of smelling something they haven't smelled for a long time, but when you smell it, it takes you right back to the time and place where you first smelled it and you know exactly what it is and how you felt."

That's partly due to the fact that we process smells even before we identify them, Gilbert says.

"An early processing stage is called the amygdala; that's where an emotional evaluation is made very quickly. Before you even recognize what you're smelling, you're brain is telling you, 'Ickk!' or, 'Yeah!'"

Does smell affect buying behavior? You bet your raspberry beret it does, says Gilbert.

"Up in Washington State, a clothing store that sold both men's and women's clothes near campus did a study. One week, they scented the air with a masculine scent and it increased the sale of men's clothes, both dollar sales and number of items, but decreased women's sales. The next week, they put a feminine scent in the air and men's sales went down and women's sales went up."

That said, smell alone will not suddenly turn a miser into King Midas.

"Context matters," Gilbert says. "My favorite example is isovalaric acid; it's the smell of vomit or stinky feet or a really fine, expensive French cheese. It's the same molecule; it all depends on how you sell it. You want to get the commercial application in sync with the brand, like an outdoor scent for L.L. Bean or tire rubber for a NASCAR card. It reinforces the brand image."

That new card smell
So what's their verdict on the new card smells to date -- cinnamon, mint, orange, coffee and citrus?

They make people more alert and energized. Maybe they think if you're energized, you'll be more apt to shop.

-- Terry Molnar,
Executive director,  Sense of Smell Institute

"From an aromatherapy standpoint, they're all scents that are arousing; they'll energize you," says Molnar. "They make people more alert and energized. Maybe they think if you're energized, you'll be more apt to shop."

Gilbert says they also appeal equally to men and women.

"They're a safe choice from a fragrance design point of view because they're all food related, and those are very well known and liked. Banana would be another one. Food smells are the path of least resistance," he says.

He also likes the subtlety of the olfactory message.

"It's the level that's just about perfect because you're not experiencing this all the time, it's just when you whip the card out. And that's an emotional point, when you're actually checking out. If you can reinforce the brand at that point, that's a nice feature," he says.

That new card smell could one day play a major role in card loyalty programs. A cedar-scented Home Depot card? A Blockbuster card in buttered popcorn? How about a Cabela's card that smells of cordite?

Molnar suggests that once they've exhausted the air freshener scents, maybe cards should smell like what they actually represent.

"Hey, maybe the smell of money! Make the plastic smell like cold, hard cash!"

What's in your wallet? Soon, you may be able to identify your cards blindfolded.

See more CreditCards.com stories by Jay MacDonald: Top 10 credit card movies, 13 greatest credit card songs meld pop, plastic, Licking, plastic bagging and other credit card secrets, The short, unhappy life of a credit card,What's your sign? Zodiac credit cards, Are you smarter about credit cards than a 5th grader?, 5 sneaky credit card tricks, and how to beat the bank

Published: September 22, 2008



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