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Scent communication – no language barriers apply!

Posted by Elena del Valle on June 11, 2010

By Harald H. Vogt
Founder and chief marketer, Scent Marketing Institute

Harald H. Vogt, founder and chief marketer, Scent Marketing Institute

Photo: Scent Marketing Institute

Information transported via our perception of scent does not require translation. There is no “Press 1 for English, 2 for Spanish” when it comes to recognizing the scent of fresh baked bread, ultimately drawing us to it’s source, the bakery on the corner or in the supermarket. Scent can be a guide, or it can create a desire, even an emotion without a word being spoken.

Scents are processed in the limbic system of our brain, which happens to be responsible for the decision-making process and for our emotions. With that “internal wiring” already in place it takes fairly little to trigger a person to react in a certain way. Not that there are any scents that can make us do anything against our will, hypnosis-style! But don’t we all perceive a bathroom as “clean” when it smells like fresh citrus? We tend not to look behind the toilet if our nose already tells us that. And, looking at a case of frozen pizza in the supermarket, wouldn’t we pick from the many choices we have the one that we can actually smell?

When you see a company-representative cooking sausages at your local Costco it is certainly not the taste that draws you, it’s the scent that you smell as soon as you get closer. It creates an anticipation of what you will taste, also called an appetite. Taste is just the reward. Thank your nose!

Research has shown that people who can’t smell are worse off than people that cannot see. They are not able to enjoy food because they cannot smell it (smell, by the way, is 80% of taste) and in many cases only feel it’s texture. They are not able to distinguish if the milk they are about to get from the fridge is fresh or has gone bad. Even worse, they would not be able to recognize the presence of natural gas which by itself is odorless. Only after a schoolhouse blew up in 1937 in New London, Texas, it became required by law to add the scent of rotten eggs as a “safety device”.

Our nose is a pretty amazing thing. It holds 350 different scents receptors and we can smell in two dozen perceptual categories. How many scents we can differentiate is not scientifically clear yet, but it’s around 10,000. For taste, in comparison, we only have five taste channels. Serious as it is, the loss of the sense of smell (Anosmia) is not categorized as a “disability” under Federal guidelines. If you lose an arm in an accident you are automatically entitled to compensation, if you lose your sense of smell you have to fight for it. A whole book (“The Scent of Desire” by Rachel Herz) has been written about the traumatic impact that Anosmia can have on the quality of life.

Needless to say that the commercial world has discovered ways to make our noses work for them. Enter any casino in Las Vegas and you will notice a delicate scent wafting through the halls, complementing the visual design themes, the music and the lighting. Since slot machines by design do not smell good and most the plants are fake it’s got to be something “artificial” that communicates to you “this is pleasant”, makes you want to stay and of course spend money. An international, multi-cultural clientele of gamblers requires a universal language.

Almost every hotel has a distinctive scent in the lobby – which not necessarily is generated by an enormous floral display. There are a number of ways to infuse scent into the HVAC system and make it travel throughout the public areas. Those scents are aptly called “Signature Scents”. They are unique to the place, the brand, the hotel and will be tattooed into your brain the more often you experience them. Fairly soon the recognition of the scent alone will remind you of the place and transport you back there. If only in your mind.

In a medical experiment, diabetes patients were given a scent to “sniff” every time they had an insulin injection. It only took five days and the experience of the scent alone caused a similar glucose drop as if they were injected with the insulin.

In a different experiment, people around the world were asked what their associations are with the description “fresh”. “A mountain river”, the “Alps”, “a forest” were some of the most common answers. Interestingly enough, this included people that have never lived above 1,000 feet and have never been to the Alps or lived near a forest. This is proof that some of the perceptions we have about certain scents is created by media, more precise, by marketing and advertising efforts of companies that enhance their products with scent.

Which brings us back to communication. The more “multisensory” the better we communicate. And scent is an important, universal part of that.

Harald H. Vogt is the founder of the Scent Marketing Institute, the world’s only independent resource on the use of scent for marketing and branding and an expert on multisensory communication.