Most would agree that vision and hearing play a big role in one’s career and professional success. Any person without the ability to either see or hear surely has a harder time dealing with phone calls, reading and responding to emails, interacting with clients, driving to meetings, visiting job sites, reviewing product quality, etc. Vision and hearing are fundamental sense for most jobs.
What about the sense of smell? Most people don’t put much importance on their ability to smell or think they use it much at work. While it is vitally important for a chef, fragrance chemist, sommelier, or florist to be able to smell with discernment, the sense of smell is not considered as important to the majority of business people in most industries. Yet, aromas are powerful influencers of human behavior and people can distinguish between smells with greater specificity than they realize. So just how important is the ability to smell to career success and how much does scent impact business?
The Nose Knows
One reason why the sense of smell is not valued as much as sight or hearing is possibly because it’s not as well-understood. And for good reason. We know the boundary of human vision is 390-750 nanometer wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum, and while there are three primary colors, a person can discern somewhere between 2.3 and 7.5 million color blends. The boundary of human hearing is 20-20,000 hertz, and we can break down sound into timbre, dynamic range, and frequency response. Scientists also have a pretty good understanding of the resolution of these senses—namely, how far apart two colors or frequencies have to be in order for human senses distinguish them.
However, discerning the boundaries of a person’s sense of smell is not as clear cut. While one study indicated that the average person can distinguish among at least 1 trillion different odors or aromas, that study was later found to be scientifically flawed. That’s because, unlike colors, smells can not be broken down into distinguishable ‘intervals.’ To estimate how many different colors the average human can detect, we only need to know two things:
- the range of visible wavelengths; and
- the minimum distance between two colors that our eyes can discriminate.
But whereas color varies progressively along a single dimension (wavelength), the intrinsic dimensionality of smell isn’t fully known.
In an attempt to organize smells into groups, ten main categories of scents have been identified. They are:
- Fragrant (e.g. florals and perfumes)
- Fruity (all non-citrus fruits)
- Citrus (e.g. lemon, lime, orange)
- Woody and resinous (e.g. pine or fresh cut grass)
- Chemical (e.g. ammonia, bleach)
- Sweet (e.g. chocolate, vanilla, caramel)
- Minty and peppermint (e.g. eucalyptus and camphor)
- Toasted and nutty (e.g popcorn, peanut butter, almonds)
- Pungent (e.g. blue cheese, cigar smoke)
- Decayed (e.g. rotting meat, sour milk)
But researchers know that most of the scents we encounter in nature are actually mixtures of tens to hundreds of different, odorous molecules from the various scent categories. The “scent” of a rose, for instance, is composed of over 275 distinct compounds.
Thus, the question of how well we can smell is better reframed by asking: how different do two scents need to be, in terms of their chemical makeup, for the human nose to tell them apart? The answer is that, to the human nose, mixtures containing more than half of the same compounds tend to smell the same, while mixtures that are more than 50% divergent smell different. But given that there are so many odorous molecule compounds that can mix together, and how much we can detect one is based on the degree to which it is different from another compound, the array of possible odors can potentially be in the hundreds of millions, if not trillions.
The Subjective but Powerful Sense of Smell
So how does the sense of smell actually work? A person’s sense of smell comes about through the stimulation of specialized cells in our nasal cavities — cells that are similar to the sensory cells of the antennae of invertebrates. The human olfactory system works when odorant molecules bind to specific sites on the olfactory receptors, which are used to detect the presence of smell. The body then transmits signals to the olfactory bulb — a part of the brain directly above the nasal cavity and below the frontal lobe. The end result is the subjective experience called smell. Each person experiences a smell differently, which complicates things even further.
Given that how we perceive scent is so subjective and that there are so many different scents, one might conclude that smells play a big part in our perception of the world. And that would be correct. However, until recently most people were unaware of the extent to which aromas and odors impacted interactions between people and affected human behavior. Even now, many would be surprised at how important the sense of smell plays in day-to-day decisions, emotions, and memories, and the powerful impact it can have on business and the customer experience.
A scent can be an instant reminder of a different person, place or time. The aroma in one’s first new car. A pie baking at grandmother’s house. The gardenia bush by the front door of one’s childhood home. The coconut-scented sunscreen used during summer vacation. That’s because scent is the sense most closely linked to memory. It is the only sense directly connected to the brain’s limbic system, which is also where the brain houses emotions and memories. Studies show that people can remember a scent with 65% accuracy after one year while visual memory sinks to 50% after just a few months. A distinctive scent sinks into the brain and stays there. Any business that wants to remain memorable in a positive way with clients might consider finding ways to anchor a pleasant scent with clients that they can relate to the business. Cinna-buns, for example, has been highly successful drawing customers to its stores in malls across the U.S. with its comforting cinnamon scent wafting from the ovens.
In addition to the strong link to memory, scent has also been found to affect a person’s perception of time. Dr. Alan Hirsch, a Neurologist and Psychiatrist, a Faculty Member in the Department of Medicine at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, has studied the effect that certain scents or aromas have on behavior, emotions, mood and on interactions between individuals. He has also looked at the way that smells can influence perception of time. In one study, 20 separate participants were exposed to a baby powder aroma, a coffee aroma, and no aroma at all. While the coffee aroma produced a reduced perception of time, the baby powder aroma produced a longer perception of time. For companies that want their employees to be more productive, the coffee aroma is found to make people work more quickly because they perceive that time is short.
Likewise, pleasurable fragrances have been shown to increase “dwell-time” in stores, augmenting the likelihood of customers making purchases. In the last 10-15 years, more studies have been examining the impact of scent on sales. As a result, industries as varied as retail, hospitality, auto dealers and financial services are now looking to scent as a way to better define their brands. Today, it is estimated that scent-marketing industry is growing at an annual rate of 15%, with revenue of about $300 million worldwide. Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the first brands to make scent a crucial part of its identity a decade ago. JW Marriot, which is slated to become the world’s largest hotel franchise next year, had a scent custom designed just for their properties.
Similarly, scents can be used to modify emotions and increase focus and productivity. For example, lavender fragrances have been used in nursing homes to calm residents and emergency rooms to calm worried visitors. Another study found that when lemon oil was diffused throughout a Japanese office building, productivity among data entry operators increased by 54%. Scents have also been used to ward off mid-afternoon brain fog by revving concentration levels.
Scents do subtly yet profoundly affect mood, memory, productivity and focus in important ways. It is the sense that is least appreciated but possibly has the strongest and most long-term impact, and has the opportunity to affect consumer behavior in ways that have only just begun to be tapped. While it is a sense that garners little attention, it can have a profound impact on professional and business success.
Quote of the Week
“The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking. Immediately at the moment of perception, you can feel the mind going to work, sending the odor around from place to place, setting off complex repertories through the brain, polling one center after another for signs of recognition, for old memories and old connection.” Lewis Thomas
© 2015, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.