Scent goes beyond the perfume bottle. It is being employed in nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from the laundry detergent we use to the public spaces we frequent. But what is the process behind crafting these smells?
Geza Schoen’s experience with the medium goes back to his early apprentice days at Haarmann & Reimer, specifically a floor cleaner by the name of Omino Bianco. “It was an adaptation of Drakkar Noir. You could do that scent quite cheaply, but it still is very pleasant, fresh, and everyone will have smelled this scent at some point in their lives,” he recalls. Since then, Schoen has gone on to do olfactory installations for art exhibitions, as well as private commissions for banks, automotive producers, and telecommunications companies to name a few. “When you learn perfumery, you get to know all sorts of other applications,” he states. “Each requires an individual way of dealing with it: you need different raw materials, plus you are tied in by pricing, technical requirements, and deadlines.”
This knowledge skillset goes beyond simply knowing which perfume ingredients compliment each other and how to stay within a budget. “The cultural background is important,” Schoen adds. “Where is that product going to be launched? It’s totally different from country to country, their likings and olfactorial socialization has been different from each other and you need to adapt to those requirements.”
One aspect where this olfactorial socialization comes into play is scenting public spaces, where individual physiology and psychology pose a challenge. If certain individuals have traumatic experiences related to a certain smell, unwillingly subjecting them to this memory on a daily basis would be highly harmful. In Eleonora Edreva’s 2019 talk, “Olfactory Accountability in an Age of Chemical Sensitivities”, the artist and academic researcher discussed the ethics concerning scented spaces, including the impact they may have on the individual and the responsibility facing olfactory artists when taking limitations such as reactivity and allergies into consideration.
Context, such as scent memories, is another vital component. Although the smell of lemon has been shown to increase typing accuracy by 54%, what if one of your co-workers has a negative memory linked to it? While the Parisian Metro was given an olfactory overhaul over 20 years ago (a mix of spring flowers in the usual cleaning agents used at stations), adding a comforting scent to public transport may initially help Covid-stressed commuters feel more at ease, but then that scent will forever be tied to a pandemic. “Generalization or applying fragrance to the public in open spaces can be good if it’s done well, but can also be quite irritating and difficult,” Schoen explains. “You have to look at it individually.”
A more individual space that has been getting the olfactory treatment are car scents. While these ambient scents have been around for a long time, their application and production is becoming much more sophisticated, elevating the genre from the days of little plastic trees dangling off of a rear-view mirror. Electric car manufacturer HiPhi collaborated with Givaudan on two bespoke on-board fragrances which are set for release at the end of 2020. Mercedes Benz recently introduced four complex scents for customers to choose from (Freeside Mood, Sports Mood, Nightlife Mood, Downtown Mood), while other appliances such as CarBreeze place an emphasis on harnessing the aromatherapeutic powers of different essential oils.
When it comes to scenting spaces outside of our own four walls (or four-wheeler), Schoen notes that these applications need to be approached with more consideration and caution. “Some people wouldn’t dream of going somewhere and all of a sudden there is a fragrance other than from the materials they’re used to. In terms of public spaces like transport, it’s a good idea if it can be a humorous, cultural support of an environment. But then it has to smell good, that’s the problem. That’s always the subjective matter of taste at the end,” he comments.
Daily commute beautifications aside, these fragrant applications have contributed to the rise of scent marketing, an industry that lives by the motto “scent sells”. An experiment showed that gamblers spent 45% more when in a floral-scented casino than an unscented one, while a study by Washington State University found that shoppers exposed to a simple orange scent (as opposed to a more complex herbal citrus concoction) spent 20% more money. However, upon closer inspection, one could argue that it isn’t the scent itself having the effect, but rather a pleasant scent making a customer more likely to spend a longer period of time in the shop, thereby increasing their purchasing odds.
“Yes, some of these ingredients are reviving, make you happier or more loose with your pockets, and that has led into people being slightly more receptive and they bought more. But there is no such thing as a chemical or secret potion you send through the air and then people go crazy and spend tons more,” Schoen argues. “It doesn’t exist and you know what, it’s good that it doesn’t.”
Nonetheless, these scientific findings have prompted bespoke scents being devised for everything from grocery stores to luxury spas. Some of these can be more directly linked, such as diffusing the scent of popcorn in a cinema, and others more indirect, i.e. scenting a women’s fashion boutique with a floral fragrance. The luxury hotel chain Shangri-La has a signature scent (comprised of bergamot, lily, rose, lavender, sandalwood, and musk) which creates a unified olfactory signature amongst all its various outposts. “Corporate scents have just started happening. We will smell more scents in public spaces over the years because companies have realized if there is this leverage of a great environment, and if that can be enhanced and filled with fragrance then the company benefits from it because people will like it rather than dislike it,” Schoen says.
He pinpoints the finance sector as a specific area of growth for commissioned ambient fragrances. “Funnily enough, it’s banks or insurance companies who use these scents. They still have people coming in who spend time in their building and might appreciate a decent environment,” he states. For enterprises whose entire business model is built on consumer trust, offering an inviting space cocooned in a soothing scent is a decidedly smart business move, although not a vital one. “You’ve won a big step towards some business for sure, but I wouldn’t say you need to make an environmental fragrance, maybe this is overrated,” Schoen comments. “If it’s done well, that’s great, but there are lots of other sensual impressions which play a role in if we feel comfortable somewhere or not.”
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