Now, not everyone credits this correlation — and Yankee Candles supplied Rolling Stone with defensive tips for “the boldest fragrance,” including: “let your candle burn until the entire top layer becomes a pool of liquid wax from edge to edge before extinguishing it.”
But with millions suffering varying degrees of Covid-induced anosmia — temporary and persistent — one of the pandemic’s more curious consequences has been to focus attention on smell at a time when so many brands are attempting to conquer our olfactory bulbs.
The Cheap Smell of Excess
Eau de brand is at its most banal when expressed as limited-edition P.R. stunts.
The list of offenders is long and ignominious, but recent culprits include: General Mills, which released cereal-scented candles inspired by Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, Trix, Cocoa Puffs, and Honey Nut Cheerios; Shake Shack, which collaborated with Apotheke to create the candle duo, “Burger In The Park” and “Shake & Fries”; Campbell’s, which created candles smelling of “tomato soup and grilled cheese” and “chicken noodle soup”; and Velveeta, which teamed up with Nails.INC to create a “limited-edition, cheese-scented nail polish duo” — “La Dolce Velveeta” and “Finger Food.”
For wearisome reasons, marketers have a Ron Swansonian fascination with meat — especially bacon. And so in addition to brands selling bacon-scented dental floss and beard oil, the world has been graced by: Wright N°100, a bacon-inspired fragrance from Tyson Foods; bacon-scented shoelaces from Oscar Mayer; and a bacon-scented perfume from the vegan plant-based food brand, This.
These smoked offerings join McDonald’s quarter-pounder inspired candles (bun, ketchup, pickle, cheese, onion and beef); KFC’s “11 herbs and spices” firelog; and Ikea’s meatball-scented candle “Huvudroll.”
Non-food scent stunts are less ubiquitous, but no less irritating. The most egregious reek was recently emitted by Elon Musk, who claims to have pre-sold 30,000 $100 bottles of “Burnt Hair” — described with accidental self-awareness as “the essence of repugnant desire.”
The depressing reality is that such stunts work (witness their inclusion here). Like crazy collaborations and ugly festive merch, corporate smells prove cheap media catnip, and so long as consumers lap them up, brands will pump them out.Remembrance of Things Present
“75% of all emotions generated every day are due to smell.”
Notwithstanding rigorous scientific research into olfaction, scent marketing is awash with such broad-brush statements, many of which focus on memory. “We recall scents with 65% accuracy after a year,” is one widely quoted statistic, as is the claim “we remember just 1% of what we touch, 2% of what we hear, 5% of what we see, 15% of what we taste and 35% of what we smell.”
But despite these round-numbered assertions of perfume’s Proustian power to evoke the past, brands usually deploy scent to signal something new — whether we wake up and smell Starbucks aroma surreptitiously sprayed into supermarket aisles or are engulfed by a miasma of teen spirit whenever we happen past Abercrombie & Fitch. (The charm of olfactory unboxing leads also to novelty scents, such as Paper Passion’s new-book aroma perfume, or the candle that smells like fresh Apple Macs.)
Smell’s ability to herald a threshold explains why scent is an increasingly inescapable brand tactic for hotels, whose lobbies have become the “signature fragrance” front line.
Browsing just the Marriot Bonvoy collection, one comes across the Ritz-Carlton’s “50 Central Park” (“notes of elderflower, mountain mint and ripe strawberries”), St. Regis’s “Caroline’s Four Hundred” (“inspired by Mrs. Astor and her legendary gatherings”) and Westin’s inescapable “White Tea,” which “welcomes you as soon as you step into the lobby and energizes you throughout your hotel stay.” Naturally, the trick also works at the boutique end of the market, with highly distinctive scents that immediately conjure, say, the Hôtel Costes in Paris or the Petit Ermitage in West Hollywood.
In recent years, modern hotels have become less concerned with offering a reassuring “home away from home” than with monetizing an aspirational designer lifestyle. And so, at the Sofitel Boutique, you can not only purchase the hotel’s mattresses, pillows, duvets, sheets, robes, towels, washcloths and bathmats, but also subscribe to “Essence de Sofitel” room mist and “effortlessly create a charming mood at home” for $52 a month.
Of course hotels are just the wick of the scented candle, and industrial fragrance companies offer “olfactive solutions” for any number of commercial locations, including gyms, schools, care homes, airlines, cruise ships, car showrooms, banks, bars and nightclubs.
The claims made for such commercial scents are overwhelmingly optimistic. For example, the Spanish company Branded Smell states that
“scent marketing targets the olfactory sense as a way to approach consumers achieving unique sensorial experiences and helping brands:
· Increase brand value perception
· Encourage brand loyalty
· Encourage time consumers spend in your store
· Encourage satisfaction”
And Aroma360 claims that its new “Interactive Scenting Kiosk“ (capable of scenting up to 4,000 square feet) “can increase the intent to purchase by over 80 percent.” Which, if true, is not to be sniffed at.
But very little is said of the unwanted (and, as we shall see, unhealthy) impact of retail spaces being suffused with industrial scent. As ever-more shops, airlines, gyms and malls pump out competing perfumes, consumers may well turn up their nose. Researching the negative consumer effects of ambient scents, Renaud Lunardo observed that excessive scent marketing might have an impact similar to the abuse of “sale” and “discount” pricing which risks generating skepticism and distrust.
Scent also has a role in masking unwanted odors. It’s no surprise, for instance, that casinos pump out such pungent perfumes — from Aria’s “Asian Garden” to The Mirage’s “Tropical Coco Mango.” Inevitably, as with all casino gimmicks, claims abound of dark, ulterior motives. In 1992, an oft-quoted (if controversial) report by the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation suggested that gamblers at the Las Vegas Hilton spent 45.11% more at slot machines that had been suffused by a “pleasant odor.” But the reality is probably much more prosaic. As the “indoor air quality” company Casino Air notes:
“Imagine the thousands of cigarettes smoked daily on your casino floor then ask yourself where does all of this ash, smoke, tar, and nicotine end up? … As your property ages, the problem intensifies to a point where your casino floor stinks even when the casino is empty.”
Baby, You Can Smell My Car
In many ways automobiles are the ideal location to sell (and spray) scent: hermetic, controllable, personal spaces associated with sport, luxury and freedom. And the world of car fragrance has come a long way since 1952, when Julius Sämann invented Little Trees to mask the smell of spilled milk, or 1987, when Rolls-Royce inserted into Architectural Digest scent-strips suffused with the aroma of leather upholstery.
Nowadays, established perfume brands like Rituals, Jo Malone and Diptyque create “diffuseurs pour la voiture” …
And car marques like Jaguar, Bentley and Hummer offer fragrances that somehow reflect their brand …
Perfume’s lure as a mass-market trinket for a luxury marques finds its automotive apotheosis with Ferrari which, according to Fragrantica, has created no fewer than 37 scents ranging from “Red Power Intense” to “Noble Fig.” But the jig of hyping $400,000 sportscars with $30 spray may be up. In 2021, Reuters reported that “perfumes have since disappeared from the shelves of Ferrari’s existing stores … as have some low-end products with no real value beyond the logo.”
Which is not to say that car brands have abandoned “the fourth dimension of sensuality.” Mercedes-Benz offers an “air balance” package that “provides an individual fragrance in the interior, in line with your personal preference and mood,” and BMW has an “ambient air” system that apparently “contributes to well-being and relaxation”:
At the cheaper end of the market, Nissan employs a “smellmaster” to “tune that new car smell”:
The emergence of cars as a locus of consumer fragrance is ironic, since traffic pollution is a key driver of the “air care” trend — alongside industrial emissions, wood-burning stoves, wildfires and Covid.
According to Mintel’s 2022 Air Care China report:
“Air care products no longer merely serve as a household tool for freshening the air of the living environment. The pandemic has awakened consumers’ need for anti-bacterial solutions, making it an essential claim in many products.”
Such thinking is echoed by Lysol’s recent advertorial for Popsugar, where the cleaning brand suggests a “multisensory” approach to mixing decor with disinfection:
“This philosophy encourages you to consider how a space interacts with all of your senses — especially sight, touch, and smell — to create an experience. Take your cleaning routine, for example: incorporating sensory elements like Lysol® Brand New Day Disinfecting Wipes’ fruity and fresh fragrances not only leaves you with a clean, disinfected space, but also one that smells incredibly inviting.”
Perfume, then, has become a marker of purification: Not only must cleaning be done; it must also be smelled to be done. As a consequence, the home looms as an ever-more lucrative location for a bewildering range of scenting technologies.
Consider, for instance, Diptyque’s 34 Boulevard Saint Germain hourglass diffuser; Muji’s ultrasonic aroma diffuser; Só Soy’s bamboo milk and mandarin wax melt; Glade’s PlugIns scented oil warmer; Rituals’s “Perfume Genie 2.0”; Ormonde Jayne’s frangipani reed diffuser; Pura’s smart fragrance dispenser; and Yankee Candle’s clean cotton fragrance spheres. All of which make the humble scented candle seem positively antiquated.
Transcending home-scent technology is the olfactory quest for the meaning of home. For example, Homesick offers state, city and country-specific candles intended to evoke a sense of place — Kentucky (bourbon, cream, sugar), Las Vegas (basil, oakmoss, peppermint) and the United Kingdom (bergamot, Earl Grey tea, toffee).
And a more humbling homesickness was evoked last year by Earl of East, which teamed up with the non-profit Choose Love to create “Scents of Belonging” for World Refugee Day — a trio of candles reflecting a specific memory of a refugee living in Britain: Imad Alarnab, a kitchen in Damascus, Syria; Majid Adin, a rooftop in Mashhad, Iran; and Vanessa Nwosu, a garden in Imo State, Nigeria.
Perfume’s undeniable emotional impact has emboldened fragrance companies to surf the $1.5 trillion wave of consumer wellness and make often startling claims.
The Nue Co, for instance, in addition to its traditional ingestible and topical supplements, has created a range of “fragrance supplements” including the $95 “Functional Fragrance” which was:
“developed using data insight and research into the connection between cognitive function (the brain) and the olfactory system (sense of smell), mind-soothing notes of green cardamom, bergamot and cilantro offer a clean, woody, spicy scent that instantaneously impacts your emotional state.”
According to The Nue Co’s “independent consumer trial,” within 30 minutes of spritzing the spray, 96% of users felt instantly calmer and 89% felt more composed and less stressed. If you’re wondering how such stellar results are achieved …
“This is because our sense of smell has a direct connection to the 3 most important areas of the brain: the orbitofrontal cortex, which signifies awareness; the hippocampus, which is linked to memory; and the amygdala, which helps us categorize different smells in our mind, and is directly associated with our emotions and mood.”
Similarly impressive results are reported by This Works, whose “Deep Sleep Pillow Spray” (with lavender, chamomile and vetivert) apparently helped 89% of study users fall asleep faster than usual and left 98% of users feeling more refreshed in the morning. A bargain at $30.
Head, Shoulders, Knees and Nose
If you thought escaping online would offer respite from marketing’s smog of war, think again. Yet the challenge of scenting cyberspace is proving even trickier than Mark Zuckerberg’s quest to give his Meta “floating torso” legs.
The first recorded attempts to integrating commercial smells into immersive consumer experiences date back to at least 1864, when the entrepreneurial perfumer Eugène Rimmel spritzed London’s New Adelphi theatre with “Rimmel’s Vaporizer” during the “mistletoe glade” scene in H. J. Byron’s play “Lady Belle Belle.”
Since then, proprietary platforms have tried and failed to deepen entertainment’s olfactory impact. Remember Smell-O-Rama, Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama? Or perhaps Odorama, which John Waters offered to audiences of his 1981 movie “Polyester,” complete with scratch-and-sniff approximations of roses, pizza, gasoline, flatus and skunk.
Fast-forward four decades and the challenge remains, even if the technology has advanced.
Any number of companies are attempting to fragrance the virtual, notably OVR Technology whose “microtechnology produces nano-particles of scent tuned to activate in millisecond increments” and whose CEO, Aaron Wisniewski, states “the metaverse without scent would be like living life in black and white.”
OVR is developing virtual olfaction to assist not just with metaverse brand building and the experience economy but to aid mental health and integrative care and to empower more realistic training for “high-risk industries like defense, fire, oil and gas, and aviation.” Naturally, OVR has also a wellness product — “INHALE” — which “combines nature, breath, meditation, mindfulness, and scent to powerfully relax and destress, all in a proven, plug-and-play VR wellness bundle.”
In addition to more general skepticism about the metaverse, many doubt whether anything as sophisticated, complex and profoundly personal as smell can ever be generated at scale, or with the speed and subtlety to evoke, say, cherry blossom mixing with freshly-mown grass on a spring day in Kyoto — let alone the scent of a loved one.
Rest assured that the pornography industry — never far from technology’s vanguard — is on the case. As one “virtual-reality porn company” promises, its “aroma technology will take your VR porn perception to a whole new level.”
Even without the promised immersion of metaverse olfaction, we are surely at the foothills of branded scent.
It’s increasingly unremarkable for mundane consumer items — trash bags, toilet paper, duct tape — to be impregnated with chemical smells …
… and big brands are just getting started with marketing strategies as aggressively omnisensory as they are omnichannel.
According to Mastercard’s chief marketing and communications officer Raja Rajamannar:
“The future is going to afford different types of interactions that consumers are going to have with their other senses: with taste or smell or touch. And if a brand is able to appropriately connect with the consumers using those other senses as well, that’s going to be fantastic. You’ll really get into the minds and hearts of people through all of their five senses.”
But just as car ads depict entirely fictional driving conditions — empty cities and carless switchbacks — so does scent branding assume a sensory vacuum that rarely exists. Unlike their visual counterparts, “olfactory logos” instantly miasmatize with the odors around them, and a cocktail of commercial smells is likely to be obnoxious even where a solo branded scent is desirable.
Yet the data suggest that such solo scents are not desirable. According to 2020 research in “Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health,” across the US, the UK, Australia and Sweden at least twice as many people preferred workplaces, health care facilities, health care professionals, hotels and airplanes to be fragrance free.
Such preferences are not necessarily aesthetic. Within the general population, 32.2% of adults report “adverse health effects from exposure to fragranced consumer products,” and among “vulnerable sub-populations” this sensitivity is even higher: 57.8% of asthmatic individuals and 75.8% of autistic individuals report adverse health effects from fragranced products, which can range from migraines and asthma attacks to nausea and irregular heartbeats.
There are also wider environmental concerns. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for instance, air samples collected in New York City in 2018 “showed that fragrant personal care products generated about half of the volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that were generated by people but not produced by vehicle exhaust.”
So brands need to ask themselves, for whom the smell tolls.
Does the crop dusting of their signature scents really benefit consumers, or is their attempt to command and control every human sense just stinking up the room?
More on Brands From Bloomberg Opinion’s Ben Schott:
• Brands Are Discovering Their Animal Spirits
• Branding 101 from 007 — and ‘Dr. No’
• Vernacular Branding Scores Big by Aiming Low
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion’s advertising and brands columnist.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion