Stop and smell the roses
21 Jul 2022
This week: Aromatherapy isn’t just for yoga studios anymore. For brands, scented storytelling opens a new dimension.
When we talk to entrepreneurs about designing their spaces, there’s often discussion of colour palettes or mood boards used to create an ambience that’s pleasant and intriguing to visitors. What will visitors see? How will the shop furniture feel? Sometimes there’s talk of playlists or refreshments to make a space feel more like home.
But we hear less about small business owners’ plans for augmenting the sensory experience of scent in their shops. And science shows overlooking this could be a mistake.
• When it comes to creating emotional connection through the senses, our sense of smell reigns supreme. You may have experienced it yourself during what’s referred to as a Proustian moment: getting a whiff of a perfume your grandma once wore or the musky smell of the garden shed you played in as a kid, and you’re suddenly transported back to a particular moment in childhood. Scent, along with its sensory bedfellow, taste, is the sense most likely to trigger such memories. “Neuroscientists have suggested that this close physical connection between the regions of the brain linked to memory, emotion, and our sense of smell may explain why our brain learns to associate smells with certain emotional memories,” writes Sabrina Stierwalt in Scientific American.
• “It doesn’t take a postdoc in neurobiology to understand that smell is a crucial part of desire,” Leslie Jamison writes in Vogue in an essay about losing her sense of smell when she had Covid-19 in 2020. Pheromones play a crucial role in human biology, determining how a person chooses a romantic partner to the way a newborn first connects to their mother. Napoleon Bonaparte apparently requested that his wife Josephine refrain from bathing until he returned home from war so as not to dilute her signature smell. In Elizabethan England, women would soak apples known as “love apples,” in their underarm sweat to give their lovers the gift of l'eau de B.O. (Try this one next Valentine’s Day.) The long and short of it? We’re biologically hardwired to pay attention to olfactory cues.
• It’s no surprise then, that scent branding has become a hugely influential (and profitable) area of study. “Scented environments have been shown to reduce typos made by office workers; improve the perception of product quality; and increase purchase intent”, a group of Harvard Business Review researchers found. Scent branding is popular across a variety of industries, particularly in hospitality and retail. The Hyatt Place has been pumping its signature fragrance, “Seamless” (a calming blend of fresh blueberries and light florals) into its hotel rooms since 2007. The scent has become a central component of the hotel’s brand identity, used in over 300 hotels and incorporated into the brand’s style guide, along with other brand identifiers like a color palette, decor, lighting, and background music. “Regular internal surveys and public online comments reveal that the scent has enhanced the visit experience and increased brand memorability for thousands of guests,” the HBR report found.
It’s true that certain scents can make you more productive. But the Hyatt Place approach taps into a different kind of aromatherapy: the fall-into-a-hotel-pillow, melt-away-to-lists kind of scents (the ones that stay with you forever.)
Scent marketing — the practice of telling a brand story through fragrance — can create a lasting impression. Shopify found that visual recall of images sinks to about 50% after only three months, while people can recall smells with 65% accuracy after an entire year. And ambient scent improved recall of unfamiliar brands, and effective scent strategies helped shoppers perceive brands as more high-end.
• How to choose a signature scent, you ask? First, familiarise yourself with the scent families, recommends Birchbox Mag. Do you lean towards citrus, floral, woody, aromatic or aquatic scents? From there, it’s all about crafting a backstory for your collection of ingredients. See: 1 Hotels superb branding of their signature scent, “Kindling”. But just as important as choosing the right scent is choosing the appropriate amount of diffusion. (If you ever stepped into an Abercrombie & Fitch store circa 2008, you’ve known that too much fragrance can be an assault on the senses). Professor Spagenberg, of Washington State University’s scent research department has warned: “Scent should stay in the background—pleasant, but not distracting.”
• Sowvital, a plant care company based in London, has become something of a scent authority in our corner of the world. The brand integrated fragrance into its in-store experience from the start. “We conceived this idea to create a scent that represented Sowvital,” founder Jack Lewis told Appear Here. Bringing that scent into the shop was borne out of Lewis and his team asking, what’s the journey of the consumer in the shop? Lewis found that strategically placing their scent on the entrance mat with the door open, prompted passersby to ask about the smell. “Scent creates intrigue,” Lewis explained, “so it really worked at effectively bringing people to come and experience the overall store.”
• Helen Keller once called smell the “fallen angel” of the senses because of people’s tendency to underestimate its importance. Indeed, a 2019 survey cited by the New York Times found that scent was the one sense people would be most willing to lose. That thought experiment came to life in an all too real way in 2020, when Covid robbed thousands of people of their sense of smell. The consequences of this loss, also known as anosmia, were more wide-ranging and emotional than most of us knew, putting affected people at greater risk of depression, anxiety, and malnutrition. Some people turned to essential oils and other aromatherapy to get their noses back to health, sniffing oils of lemon, rose, eucalyptus, and clove.
As researcher Noam Sobel told the New York Times: “People are unaware smell is important until they lose it.”
That was true of so many things during the pandemic: smelling the garlic wafting from the kitchen of your favourite restaurant when indoor dining opened back up, dancing in a sweaty bar despite the sour smell of beer and too many people, and hugging your friends at long last, saying in the same breath: I’ll never take this for granted again.
Words by Nicola Pardy, a freelance writer and producer living in New York.