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Scent of Coffee on Seoul Buses: What's the Marketing Secret?

Brian Tam, Special to CNBC.com
Wednesday, 15 Aug 2012 | 12:45 PM ET

Take a catchy jingle and mix it together with the scent of coffee and you get what Dunkin' Donuts says is a recipe for commercial success. Last spring the company launched a campaign in South Korea known as Flavor Radio to build brand awareness for their coffee.

Dunkin Donuts
Mario Tama | Getty Images
Dunkin Donuts

Devices that looked and operated like air fresheners were installed on commuter buses in Seoul to lure in customers to their stores.

These machines would release the aroma of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee into the air as the sound of the company’s advertisement was simultaneously played on the buses' speakers. When the radio advertisement ended, the bus conveniently stopped close to a Dunkin' Donuts store.

“In Seoul and South Korea, there is a lot of passion for Dunkin' Donuts, so this offered an opportunity to try something unique and different,” said Jessica Gioglio, public relations and social media manager at Dunkin' Brands.

More than 350,000 people in Seoul smelled the fragrant coffee scent on, let's face it, typically less-than-fragrant city buses. Apparently they liked what they smelled. Dunkin' Donuts reports that visitors to coffee shops in Seoul increased by 16 percent and sales of Dunkin Donuts by bus stops in Seoul increased by 29 percent.

Susan Gilbert, CEO of the online marketing agency Online Promotion Success, said combining the evocative advertising with the added convenience of a nearby store was a brilliant move by the company.

“We have so many messages that are coming at us all day long, whether its coming through email or television and we often tune a lot of them out,” she said. “You can't tune out your sense of smell.”

Gilbert said she used a similar technique when she was working as a small business owner in San Diego. She baked goods in her shop in the early afternoon as a way of driving traffic.

The pervasive scent of burnt toast and brewed coffee gathered the attention of many. Although burnt toast may not have the most appealing smell, its pungent odor did intrigue customers' curiosities to lead them to the bakery. Her quaint little store, Lil' Miss Muffins, soon expanded to open up in five locations scattered across San Diego.

Unlike the United States, South Korea has traditionally not been a coffee-craving nation, but more and more people in the country are drinking it, according to the International Coffee Organization.

In 2011, the country drank approximately 1,801,000 bags of coffee. The consumption growth rate for the last decade has increased by about 3.4 percent every year.

South Korea's newly emerging coffee market became an ideal starting point for their campaign, which proved successful in the end. However, the company does not plan on expanding this campaign in other countries anytime soon.

“As a global company, we believe it's important to take best practices from around the world, while keeping in mind guest preferences in each market,” Gioglio said.

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