Despite the warnings of conventional wisdom, appearances count for a lot in the decision making progress. Up to 90% of snap judgments made about a product can be based on colour alone.
But we’re inundated with visual media. As anthropologist Dave Howes told Slate, ‘with so much competition for consumers’ attention, no sense should be left unturned’. We’re paying more attention to the sounds around us. And in the last few years we’ve seen the emergence of increasingly innovative scent marketing ploys.
The global scent marketing industry grossed an estimated $200 million in revenue in 2013. Getting a scent developed for your brand can cost up to $25,000 (plus a monthly maintenance fee). And it’s not just artificial baking smells; retailers want their scents to stimulate, whereas banks might use scents to shorten the time we feel we’ve been standing in a queue.
Tapping into primal urges
Scent plays an important role in definining certain cultures; the Ongee of the Andaman Islands base their calendar on the odours of seasonal flowers and academic Asifa Majid has done research into scent-specific languages. But, by and large, Westerners appear to have neglected it in their cultural vocabulary.
One hypothesis for this blames philosophers Plato and Kant for dividing the senses into intellectual and physical categories. Sight was deemed noble, smell primitive. But it’s this primal aspect of scent that makes it so potent. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, which is associated with memory and feeling. A recent study suggests that odour is a stronger trigger of vivid memories than music. It’s believed that we can smell 1 trillion scents – compare that with the eye’s ability to distinguish 2 to 7 million different colours.
The newly invented oPhone lets you send aromas to your friends: “we might be able to say things we couldn’t before”, the phone’s inventor told CNN. Lizzie Ostrom, founder of Odette Toilette, hosts immersive ‘olfactory adventures’; their bi-monthly Vintage Scent sessions explore fragrances from past decades.
Using scent to shape our environment
Scent is also being used for medical purposes. The BBC reports that odour might help obtain early diagnoses of breast cancer in the future. We might also start paying attention to our sense of smell as we age “in the same way that we might get eye or hearing check-ups,” Ostrom says.
We’re also starting to shape our environment with smells. Odette Toilette developed Ode with Rodd Design, which uses food fragrances in care homes to stimulate older people’s appetites ahead of mealtimes. The East Japan Railway Co. announced plans for ‘scent alerts’ in stations in 2014; each stop on the Yamanote, Tokyo’s central loop line, will have a unique scent – so you’ll know where to get off. An early trial of the project wafted a fresh peppermint-eucalyptus blend through train carriages in the morning, and a soothing lavender-based fragrance in the evening.
The future is bright – and it’s scented, too.