Aromas affect us on a subliminal level – which is one reason we often underestimate their power. But thanks to a mix of ancient knowledge, recent research and new technology, change is in the air. Smell after all has a mysterious ability to plug straight into our memories and emotions – and their discoveries look set to shape our lives in subtle but significant ways.
What makes smell so powerful? Humans can recognise close to 10,000 aromas, and we breathe about 30,000 times a day. Smells are processed by the limbic system, an old area of the brain relating to memory and emotion. While responses differ across individuals, cultures, genders and age groups, certain scents can spark vivid feelings and recollections
There are signs that we’re rediscovering our sense of smell. Supermarket aisles are packed with a growing array of air fresheners, home deodorisers and scent dispensers. US company Demeter sells a range of home fragrances, including Wet Garden, Never Lonely, Between the Sheets and the Christmas-themed Egg Nogg.
The ancient art of aromatherapy is also enjoying a boom, with essential oils being used in millions of homes. The typical blend names – relax, energise, focus, harmony, romance – suggest the moods we want to conjure up in our private realms. But it’s the retail world that’s leading the pack in the more sophisticated uses of aroma. Smell is a powerful hidden persuader, and many businesses are using “ambient scenting” to influence our shopping behaviour.
Recent studies show the careful use of scent, combined with lighting, music and store layout, can affect the way we shop. Pleasant smells shorten our perception of time, create positive associations, cheer up staff, and make us likely to browse longer, impulse buy, spend more and visit again.
While these aromatic discoveries are new, the basic principles are not. “Fragrance has been used for thousands of years to excite, arouse and tantalise,” says Mark Gordon, marketing manager of fragrance specialist Ecomist. “Bakers in the 1960s would place fans near the ovens to push the smell out into the street and entice people in. We’ve just advanced technologically on that idea
The company’s in-house Parisian perfumer, Yves Dombrowsky, has developed 180 fragrances which can be diffused through homes or shops with a small computerised dispenser. Gordon likens it to a high-tech offshoot of aromatherapy, minus the burning candles. Two of Ecomist’s niche scents – the floral/spice mix Ronan, and the seaspray/citrus blend Ozone – have proved popular in display homes; surf shops go for the Mango blend, while cafes prefer Blueberry Muffin.
Australia has been relatively slow on the uptake, but aroma marketing is gaining ground. Morrison has worked with fashion chain Supre to study the combined effects of music and scent. The conclusion? For Supre’s target market (teens and young women), a mix of vanilla-scented air and loud dance music does wonders at the till.
Globally, the profit power of smell has infiltrated the realms of gambling, education, pop culture, fashion, interior design and the internet. When a Las Vegas casino pumped a floral scent into its slot machine area, gamblers spent 45% more. A US children’s museum recently ordered a “dinosaur dung” aroma, and researchers are exploring the use of scent in schools and hospitals to improve learning, treat phobias and speed recovery. Singer Shania Twain has released a daffodil-scented “fragrance disk”, and you can buy alarm clocks that emit a coffee scent, curtain fabrics embedded with tiny perfume capsules, and a gadget that lets you sniff products online, or concoct and email your own scents.
Top 10 scents to make you …
– Feel safe, secure and nostalgic talcum powder
– Be more alert peppermint, citrus
– Relax lavender, vanilla, chamomile
– Perceive a room as smaller barbecue smoke
– Perceive a room as bigger apple, cucumber
– Buy expensive furniture leather, cedar
– Buy a home fresh baking
– Browse longer and spend more tailored floral/citrus scents
– Get road rage unpleasant smells rotting rubbish, air pollution
– Become sexually aroused a pumpkin pie/lavender blend (men); the sweat of nursing mothers (women)
Note: Individual memory plays a role. If you’ve had a traumatic experience involving vanilla, you probably won’t find that smell pleasant.