Close your eyes and let me whisper “scent branding” into your waiting ear. What exactly does that phrase conjure? You might think of retailers diffusing scents in-store or selling their own branded perfume. You might imagine hotels, airlines and casinos, experience brands synonymous with an enveloping physical environment. You might also detect a whiff—as I did—of slightly cornball, subliminal gimmickry.
Gimmicks aside, scent branding encompasses all of these things and more. Scent branding now pervades many spaces: healthcare facilities or dental offices might calm nervous patients with blended scents of lavender and vanilla. Car showrooms (and the cars themselves) can amplify that ‘new-car’ smell so irresistible to American consumers—or delete that smell entirely for Chinese consumers who dislike it. Offices might pump in smells of lemon, jasmine, or rosemary, known to improve accuracy and promote productivity. In fact, scenting spaces is now standard to the point of commodification. Only a few high-end brands still invest in creating a custom scent; the others choose one or several smells from pre-mixed scent libraries.
Brands today recognize they’re inherently multi-sensory. In fact, multinational brands like MasterCard, Chase, Siemens, Samsung and many airlines now approach branding with a five-senses strategy. But scented branding—also known as “olfactory branding”— now goes well beyond physical environments or selling your own perfume. Scent branding is starting to infiltrate wearables, the metaverse, and VR platforms among many other arenas. You might not think technology has much to do with smell, but it’s that very distance that attracts branding execs. Smell can humanize and bring emotional warmth to practically any brand experience.
But how do olfactory brands get developed, and how does that process dovetail, or diverge, from visual brand development? What unique qualities can smell offer that enrich a brand experience? And what does the future of branding smell like? To learn more, I talked with Olivia Jezler, founder of the scent branding consultancy Future of Smell.
Jezler trained as a designer, graduating from Parsons School of Design in 2008, “right as the market crashed,” she says. “But I was super unmotivated by the visual world—the one-dimensionality of it, you know, just design on the screen. Something felt missing.” Jezler stumbled into working with smell and landed a job designing scents for personal-care products at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) in New York. She moved to Brazil in 2011 to develop olfactory strategies for fragrance company Symrise as head of marketing for personal care and then did corporate rebranding for Natura & Co in collaboration with Pentagram.
Through Natura she was able to visit the research groups at MIT Media Lab where she was exposed to the field of human computer interaction (HCI) and then pursued a research fellowship in olfactory experience at the SCHI Lab at the University of Sussex, England. Studying research on how smell can interpenetrate human psychology, design and engineering—the areas HCI encompasses—was “magical” to her. Now she helps Fortune 500 brands think about how scent can deepen a brand’s emotional connection to consumers.
“What’s unique about the olfactory branding process is that you have to go so deep into what you want the consumer to feel,” Jezler says. “That process enhances a brand’s awareness of who they are even if they don’t go on to develop a scent.” She starts by interviewing brand stakeholders—sales, marketing, product managers—about the consumer’s emotional journey with the product: “What do [customers] feel when they think of the brand? Use the product? What about after they use the product? Why do they come back for more?” She also probes the brand’s stakeholders for their own relationship to smell: what fragrances or body products they use, like and dislike in smells.
“In the olfactory branding process, you have to go so deep into what you want the consumer to feel.”
Jezler also factors in cultural and market contexts. “You also have to teach the client what sells in scents [in their market]; what this consumer likes to smell right now.” The branding team identifies what Jezler calls “benchmark” smells: real-world scented products the persona is likely to buy. Benchmark smells ground the client in a specific smell world and aids in that ever-difficult task of verbalizing smells.
“My goal here is to translate all this information into a brief for a perfumer to work on,” Jezler continues. (The first big difference between visual and scent branding: the olfactory brand consultant writes the brief for the client, not the other way around.) Jezler’s brief also includes a text-based fragrance description. This text helps Jezler confirm that “we’re speaking the same language. Because if this is not done very tightly, this process ends up being very difficult,” she says. “People don’t have a language for smell. If we don’t give them a basis [in adjectives, emotional effects, and smell notes] to anchor to, it’s just too abstract.” The description helps clients know exactly what they’ll be smelling in later stages and work with Jezler to fine-tune those smell notes to yield different emotional effects. For instance, peppermint, eucalyptus and rosemary are all energizing scents, while scents like chamomile, lavender, rose and marjoram promote relaxation and sleep.
Jezler counsels brands to think about the 4 C’s of scent branding, starting with the customer. The next C is concentration of smell—a little goes a long way with scent. The third C, course, can be physical (as in the path a customer travels through a store) or temporal, considering various points along the customer’s buying journey. Like well-chosen film music, adding scent at the right moment can amplify emotion. Think of a long airplane journey: boarding the plane, one feels excited, nervous, keyed-up. Sleeping across the ocean ushers in a different mood, as does the thrill of landing.
The final C is congruity, crucial for scent branding. “Smell is a support sense,” says Jezler. “We’re not the most aware of it, whereas we’re very aware of… visual and sound. If scent contradicts a visual or sound context, it just doesn’t work.” We recoil, often unconsciously. at incongruent smells. If you enter a ski shop, the space should smell like winter: resinous pine, woodsmoke—not like tropical fruit or coconuts. As Jezler notes: “It’s easy to create visual illusions, but it’s hard to falsify a scent.” Indeed the nose knows.
“Smell is a support sense. If scent contradicts a visual or sound context, it just doesn’t work.”
Where is scent branding headed in the future? Into neuroscience, AI, and, virtual reality among other frontiers. “Fragrance houses now have neuroscience R&D divisions where they prove through EEG, brain scans, heart rates, and pupil dilation, that specific smells create specific effects in people,” says Jezler. Although she cannot share specifics, Jezler is working on a future in which wearables can emit scents. Think products that deodorize or refresh themselves when you store them in their container; and where every ecommerce unboxing moment is crowned with the perfect scent wafting from the box. It brings a whiff of the smell-tech future recognizable from previous experiments like Harvard professor David Edward’s scent-sending device oPhone from 2015. Paired with its iPad app oNotes, this self-described “iTunes of scent” promised to augment movies, books, photos and music consumption with smells.
Adding smells to VR is a technical challenge. Not only should the smells themselves be precise, their diffusion must be controlled enough to sync with audio-visual elements. Cross-contamination, or lingering weird mixtures of smells, is another challenge. But, as Jezler notes, our sense of smell is highly contextual so we could also use one scent that can be experienced as multiple. “Imagine a complex scent composition with leather and rose notes in it,” she says. “When I smell it and look at a visual of leather, I’ll smell leather and won’t smell the rose. But then if I switch to a rose visual, I can no longer smell the leather note….By changing the visual stimuli, you can make a particular smell note pop.” By harnessing our brain’s natural processing, VR can expand the range of available smells in a headset.
Smell and AI represents another exciting frontier for scent branding. Swedish startup No Ordinary Scent (NOS) was founded in September 2020 to help consumers create AI-generated custom scents. Users upload three images of their choosing and No Ordinary Scent’s AI analyzes the images for qualities like color, seasonal cues, facial expressions and corresponding emotions. NOS created pleasing scent blends and tagged them with similar qualities. “When you upload your images, the AI combines your analysis result with different scent blends, which we then combine into a perfume, make it in-house and ship to you,” says NOS founder Sandra Kinnmark. Custom perfumes cost 650 Swedish krona (US $65) and currently ship only within Scandinavia; they hope to scale internationally in 2022. I tried it myself, uploading these three images to create a scent I dubbed Lava Pencil. The perfume I got in the mail a week later was bright and fruity, scintillating with notes of yuzu, tropical flowers, cedar, and balsam. Honestly I didn’t love it, but I like how it expands my growing perfume collection in an unexpected direction.
Almost immediately traditional brands approached NOS, seeking to scent themselves via AI. “We thought the D2C product would be the fastest-growing, but it’s actually scent branding because in Sweden, you have more astronauts than perfumers,” says Kinnmark. “This is a really scarce resource for brands.” NOS’ early brand partnerships have taken innovative forms. Nick’s, a Swedish-style light ice cream, tapped NOS for scented outdoor ads when they launched their new flavor, peanut butter-chocolate. The irresistible smell of roasting peanuts wafted over Stureplan, Stockholm’s business and luxury shopping district, while cheerful music played with free samples on offer. NOS has also helped brands scent themselves in partnership with XNomad, an international provider of pop-up retail space where brands present themselves in a physical, multi-dimensional way—critical in this late-pandemic period in which everyone craves IRL experiences.
Melding AI with scent branding offers intriguing possibilities. Like Future of Smell, NOS approaches scent branding with a questionnaire: asking about the brand’s values, heritage (if any), what the customer likes smell-wise, what kind of car the brand might be. Many brands want these inputs to generate a pure-AI scent of their brand, as a kind of cool tech-washing. But No Ordinary Scent can also use AI to crowd-source consumer preferences into scent branding directly. Sustainable eyewear brand EoE Eyewear invited their social followers to choose images they thought reflected the EoE brand best. NOS analyzed those images in turn, effectively co-created an AI scent with EoE customers. In other words, they took a crowd-sourced visual moodboard and turned it into a brand scent.
AI and machine learning create a virtuous loop of customization that consumer packaged good players are keen to harness. Imagine a company wants to “reach women 25 to 35 looking for adventure who want to feel secure yet free,” says Kinnmark. “We can backward-engineer from our data and say: these are the kinds of images you should use [to reach those women] because we know how this group rates those images” and which emotions they attach to which images. “It’s all about feedback,” she continues. “When you receive your [AI-generated] scent, we also send you a feedback questionnaire so you can tell us how it corresponded to your expectations” and how the scent made you feel. “Our first application is scents, and then we’ll see because what we’ve built is a personalization flow,” says Kinnmark. “When we have enough data, we can use [it] to personalize almost any other product.” During the pandemic Kinnmark fielded calls from international beauty brands seeking to partner with NOS on AI-enriched product personalization via smell.
For her part, Jezler hopes the future scent branding becomes less niche, and more integral, to the core brand development process. Even brands working with a five senses concept are usually employing five different vendors on separate tracks. “People want to do this work in silos, but there’s so much value if you could connect the dots to make sure all the senses work together,” says Jezler. “It doesn’t make sense to put it all together at the end.” Make room at the table for audio, haptic and olfactory designers at your next brand kick-off meeting.
Jude Stewart is author of three books, most recently Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell (Penguin Books, 2021). She has written about design, science and culture for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, The Believer, Fast Company and many other publications.