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Connecting the Intangible to the Tangible

Valerie Jacobs

Since the beginning of time, fragrance has played a significant role in the spiritual traditions, healing practices and beauty regimens of humans. Anthropologists have even identified nomadic perfumeries as far back as 7000 B.C., indicating humans were experimenting with fragrance before language.

Today, fragrance continues to fascinate and influence thoughts, behaviors and emotions. The science of scent and its impact on human emotions is consistently revealing implications on brain processes and scent stimuli, and sensory science is generating new applications and delivery systems for scent that could change how we interact and leverage its power in the future. With this in mind, fragrance has emerged as a major area of innovation across many business categories with, of course, significant implications for the future of the beauty industry.

The psychophysics of sensory perception and the emotional effects of scent are relatively new areas of scientific understanding. The human limbic system—the area of the brain where scent is processed—is one of the oldest and most evolved systems in the human body. As scent is interpreted by the brain’s olfactory bulb, messages are sent to the areas of the brain that control emotions, behaviors and thought processes. Research by the Raymond Poincaré University Hospital in France, along with fragrance company IFF and trade organization CEW, found scent can help patients suffering from serious trauma, loss of memory and even speech by exposing them to smells connected to memory.

Science and Art

Recent innovations in scent harvesting highlight new opportunities for enhancing experiences through scent, and scent is being celebrated as an art form at museums and galleries throughout the world, with the public becoming more familiar with both the art and science of perfumery. New York’s Museum of Arts & Design recently added a department of olfactory art, drawing the connection between perfume and other mediums such as painting and music. Its exhibitions rely not on bottles and packaging but minimalist installations designed by architect Toshiko Mori featuring only scent and sound. Also, in March 2010, Parsons (which provides art and design education in New York), IFF, Coty, Seed Media Group and MoMA hosted the HeadSpace: On Scent as Design symposium to celebrate scent design and generate dialogue on how scent stimulates memory, as well as its implications for both designers and architects.

Identity Through Scent

In their 1999 book The Experience Economy, authors Joseph Pine and James Gilmore describe today as an era in which experiences are the economic offering in highest demand. As consumers search for authenticity, they also seek compelling experiences and want to feel emotionally connected to the experience of the purchase.

Scents are the newest frontier of immersive, multisensory experiences that engage consumers emotionally and, in time, build loyalty.

Fragrance can be an enhancer or delivery device for a brand story, helping brands connect the intangible to the tangible and providing the thing that resonates with consumers beyond the look and feel of a product. Across categories, brands from Samsung and Cadillac to Westin Hotel & Resorts are leveraging fragrance as a point of difference to transform and elevate an experience.

Also known as ambient scenting, scent branding has become an $80–100 million business globally, a figure that is expected to increase dramatically as more and more companies adopt this subtle yet powerful sensory identifier. First adopted by the casino industry in the early 2000s, the hospitality industry soon followed, with major hotel chains creating scents to evoke engaging, emotional responses to the environment.

Westin Hotels boasts a “mood-enhancing lobby” that includes Jane Parker botanicals, a White Tea by Westin signature scent and atmospheric lighting. This “sensory welcome” is a key trait across Westin brands, with its sister chain W Hotels scenting its public spaces with its own signature scent, Sicilian Fig. In 2009, both of Westin’s signature scents, White Tea and Sicilian Fig, became available as candles for customer purchase.

Ambient scenting is gaining respect in retail, as well. Pascal Gaurin, a French perfumer achieving prominence as an ambient scent marketer, recently helped to develop Samsung’s signature fragrance. In testing, Gaurin’s fragrance did well among consumers who, when exposed to the fragrance, spent an average of 20–30% more time browsing in-store offerings. Even more interestingly, these consumers also associated the scent with characteristics sought by the Samsung brand, including innovation and excellence. This trend is growing more all the time. According to Bloomberg’ Businessweek, companies leveraging ambient scent in retail now include Credit Suisse, De Beers and Sony, and retailers are beginning to include scent within advertising campaigns, as the first scented billboard was erected in summer 2010.

Lasting Impact

As beauty brands ingeniously blur boundaries between multiple categories, entirely new categories are being created—offering consumers value in the form of a new experience. Fragrance is a particularly effective tool to offer value this way, elevating brands to multisensory experiences and helping to differentiate products.

Physicians Formula Happy Booster makeup contains an endorphin-derived Euphoryl complex and a signature violet scent that claims to boost the wearer’s mood and promote “a feeling of joy each time you apply.” StrangeBeautiful’s nail polish color library has undertaken a new approach in the delivery of fragrance, combining a violet scent with leather undertones in each shade, and Redken’s Nature Rescue hair care collection positions itself as a sensorial escape from the normal hair routine. Its Time Touch fragrance capsules release an oceanic scent when the hair is touched, meaning Redken is employing scented promotional material to introduce the line, a new foray for the brand.

New Avenues

In recent years, the fine fragrance industry has suffered at both prestige and mass as brands struggle to resonate with consumers who avoid beauty counters and are unlikely to purchase fragrance online. However, niche product innovations are emerging, sparking new interest in the delivery and art of scent. As health and well-being continue to serve as a driving force across multiple categories of beauty, fragrances are also emerging with natural positioning.

While most fragrances are comprised of synthetic molecules meant to replicate their natural counterparts, new fragrances strike a return to historical connotations of fragrance and aromatherapy. L’Oeil du Vert is a fragrance studio headed by Haley Alexander van Oosten. With a background in ethnobotany, van Oosten travels to remote locations in search of rare, naturally occurring ingredients such as frankincense from Oman, black opal from Peru and yarrow from Alaska, which she then leverages to create her all-natural fragrance blends.

As society increasingly becomes consumed by the idea of living a healthy lifestyle and outsmarting aging and disease, fragrances inspired by vices and indulgences are emerging as countertrends.

U.K. mixologist Tony Conigliaro decided to create a cocktail inspired by the iconic Chanel No. 5 using the food-grade versions of the five primary compounds that scent the perfume: ylang-ylang, May rose, sandalwood and jasmine, combined with sugar cubes and champagne. Additionally, Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille, Christian Lacroix’s Absynthe, Fresh’s Citron de Vigne (with champagne and Pinot Noir notes) and Demeter’s Sex on the Beach are all bottled versions of some of people’s most insidious vices.

Another avenue fragrance brands are exploring is the genetics of scent, mirroring its tendency to vary for each individual who wears it. To that end, some new products leverage bodily fluids as a source of inspiration. For example, Blood Concept launched four unisex scents that feature metallic notes that smell like blood.

Consumers can choose their fragrance—A, B, AB or O—based on their blood type, which is then dispensed using medicinal droppers. Similarly, Lady Gaga has stated that her forthcoming fragrance will “smell and feel like me,” utilizing notes of various bodily fluids.

Provocative and Powerful

The future continues to evolve for fragrance, as the power of scent remains an elusive yet fascinating concept with powerful implications in art, design, retail and product innovation. Although fine fragrance has struggled to find resonance with the post-recession consumer, new innovations will continue to drive interest. As more studies are released reaffirming the critical role scent plays in human behavior, more consumers will look to fragrance as a strategy to further differentiate themselves from others. Fragrance will also benefit from its exclusivity, and remain a largely misunderstood—yet highly provocative and powerful—art form.

Valerie Jacobs is a group director for LPK Trends and a design forecaster focusing on the development of trend analysis for LPK client brands. Jacobs is also a professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, and is a guest lecturer for the In-Store Marketing Institute, Design Management Institute and the Industrial Designers Society of America.

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