Something in the air

Apartment branding pioneer Post Properties is the first of the multifamily REITs to fully embrace all five senses in a portfolio- wide multisensory branding initiative that focuses on leasing office ambience. The most recent addition to the 37-year-old Atlanta-based apartment developer, owner and operator's buffet of sensory stimuli is the sense of smell. And the REIT may have saved the best for last, because a pleasant fragrance is the surest pathway into the hearts and minds of potential customers.

249

“Smells are surer than sounds or sights to make your heartstrings crack,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in his 1903 poem “Lichtenberg”, capturing in verse what scientists have learned over the past 20 or 30 years about how olfactory stimuli are processed in the most primitive part of the brain, which also governs emotions and short- and long-term memory.

In early 2007, Post Properties rolled out ScentAir Technologies Inc.’s scent delivery system across its 62-community, 22,400-unit portfolio, as part of the Branded Leasing Office Experience the company initiated a couple of years ago. That experience also includes taste and audio-visual impact in the overall program that is intended to strengthen the Post identity and brand by providing the REIT’s customers with a consistent, pleasant experience from community to community, said Post Properties Director of Branding and Advertising Terri Sherrod, who joined the Post team more than seven years ago.

Like many of the hotel chains, resorts and upscale retailers that have refined the process of multi-sensory branding over the past decade, Post has chosen to pipe a signature ambient scent, created exclusively for the company by ScentAir’s perfumers, into the REIT’s leasing offices.

Teamwork makes scents
“Petal is Post’s signature scent. We wanted something clean and crisp that would appeal to both men and women and would also be subtle,” said Sherrod, explaining that the REIT’s branding team and ScentAir collaborated to create the fragrance that took a while to pin down.

She also recruited a number of other Post employees as guinea pigs in the fragrance development effort, discovering in the process that people probably have even more opinions about scent than they do about color. “With every scent we tried, somebody would say the fragrance reminded them of something good and someone else would say the opposite,” confirming the scientifically proven fact that scent preference, like emotional reaction to environmental experience, is not hardwired into the brain at birth, but rather is a learned reaction, which is why it’s so difficult to find a universally pleasing fragrance.

And ScentAir Director of Marketing Murray Dameron agreed. “Scent is very subjective and you see regional trends, as well as age trends, and it’s hard to pick a fragrance that everyone loves,” he said.

“But, when you smell the right one, it’s just right,” said Sherrod, adding that she was impressed with the responsiveness of ScentAir’s team during the process of creating the REIT’s signature scent. “When you’re embarking on branding something like a leasing office, you need people who understand where you’re going with it and how important the subtleties are. And they got it,” she said.

The concept of creating a complete sensory marketing package for the REIT’s leasing offices was the brainchild of a team of around 15 people from different areas of the company that grew out of Post’s mid-management brainstorming workshops, where innovative ideas often are born. The team that was created nearly two years ago to conjure up a complete Post experience for prospects and residents who visit the company’s leasing offices had a Starbucks kind of goal for the tasty part of the branding bouquet. Today, there is a Flavia drink station in every leasing office, where visitors can individually brew a favorite flavor of coffee or tea. Bottled water that bears Post’s tulip logo is available to soothe a thirsty throat and the tongue is tempted by variously flavored squares of chocolate intended to inspire a prospective resident’s taste buds to say, “I love this place.”

Post addresses visual experience through a variety of eye-catching elements that range from decor to dress. Because tulips aren’t available year-round, a single orchid in a graceful container provides simple, sophisticated floral appeal in every leasing office.

A wide-screen TV cycles silently through the Post Story, looping through facts about the company to entertain a prospective renter who might be waiting to talk with one of the leasing agents, while carefully chosen music plays in the background. And leasing agents are expected to include Post’s coleur de jour in outfits they wear to work each day, chosen from a collection provided to Post by Hartmarx, a company that specializes in fashionable, high-quality clothing for men and women.

On any given day of the week, leasing consultants across the whole portfolio don the same color scheme. The women may choose from a menu of sweaters, blouses, pants and jackets, but the men, who might be unenthusiastic about wearing a salmon pink sweater on salmon pink day, generally use their ties to connect with the color calendar.

The REIT enhances the leasing experience for new residents with the promise of future rewards for lease renewals, ranging from a free carpet shampoo or a $50 restaurant gift certificate with the first renewal, followed by gifts that include painted accent walls and kitchen or bath fixture upgrades as the years go by. And, during the initial leasing process, select Post communities offer new residents the opportunity to choose upgrade options for a nominal fee, in order to really make their apartments their own. Upgrades available through Post’s Resident Design Center, include stainless appliances, hardwood floors, ceramic tile and granite counter tops.

Scent adds the top note
While every one of those elements is essential to the overall customer experience, the fragrance provided by ScentAir is the icing on the marketing cake, providing the best opportunity for true differentiation from competitors. Nowhere else but at a Post property will anyone ever be enveloped, however subliminally, in the company’s signature fragrance, which, if it is paired with an overall pleasant experience in the leasing office, will forever after lift the spirits of those who inhale its fresh, clean aroma because scent is a master memory trigger, hardwired into the very heart of human emotions.

Throughout recorded human history, perfume has been used to propitiate the gods, drive out demons, seduce an object of affection and advertise wealth and quality. But, in the multifamily world, fragrance has, until very recently, mainly been used to cover-up bad odors, rather than to introduce new ones for the pleasure of the customers, partly because an acceptable delivery method that didn’t require constant attention and present safety hazards, like burning incense or scented candles, wasn’t available and also because those traditional fragrance producers are prohibitively expensive for everyday use.

It took an actual rocket scientist to come up with the safe, efficient delivery system that ScentAir uses to infuse spaces of up to 2,000 sq. ft. with pleasant ambient scent. “Our system can be set to turn on in the mornings and off in the evenings, so you’re touching it only when you’re changing the cartridge or adjusting the output of the system. Otherwise, it’s just self-contained,” Dameron said of the system that was designed by inventor David Martin, who left Lockheed Martin in the early 1990s to become a Walt Disney Imagineer, assigned to the task of creating a scent delivery system for attractions and special events at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

Seeing the potential for the revolutionary new sensory enhancer in other applications, Martin started his own company, Fragrance Technologies, in 1994 in a garage in Windermere, Fla., designing scent systems for motion rides, military simulators and special theater exhibits. In 2000, he sold his patented system to a group of investors, who changed the name of the company to ScentAir Technologies Inc. and expanded its focus to include a vast universe of untapped potential customers like museums, upscale retail establishments and even an MRI center in Celebration, Fla., that saw troublesome, revenue-reducing same-day cancellations diminished by 50 percent when its name was changed to Seaside Imaging and the decor was transformed from clinical to beachy, with the fragrance of coconut topping off the experience.

“There are so many creative ways that people are using fragrance, not just to create a pleasant environment, but also to create a more realistic environment. When you walk into a place and see thematic elements like those at Seaside Imaging, you expect to smell the coconut beach, so it’s pretty powerful,” said Dameron, who left his position in the marketing department at Muzak to join the fragrance distributor when the company was purchased in April 2004 by its current investment partner, Alerion Partners, a Connecticut-based venture capital firm.

That investment in the company brought a whole raft of new members to ScentAir’s board of directors, including William Boyd, former Muzak CEO, foreshadowing the multi-year distribution partnership ScentAir signed six months later with the nation’s 70-year-old premier music and audio messaging provider, which agreed to deliver ScentAir’s innovative retail enhancement in conjunction with the music service.

Shortly thereafter, ScentAir’s headquarters relocated from Orlando to Charlotte, closer to Muzak’s headquarters in Fort Mill, S.C.

The wedding sound and scent
“When you talk about multi-sensory branding, that’s it right there.

Muzak can provide the music and also video for TV, as well as fragrance,” said Dameron.

And, thanks in part to that marriage of music and fragrance, ScentAir’s business has grown many times over since the delivery partnership was created, and now includes retail customers like Bloomingdale’s, Jimmy Choo Shoes and Sony Style; entertainment venues ranging from Bush Gardens to Paramount; spas and fitness centers like Curves; healthcare and assisted living communities; government and defense installations from General Dynamics to U.S. Army Urban War Training, and grocery stores, hotels and resorts and packaged goods like Coors, Coca Cola and Pepsi Co. More than a dozen single-family home builders, including giants like Beazer Homes, D.R. Horton, K.

Hovnanian, Shea Homes, Centex Homes and Toll Brothers have signed on with ScentAir to deliver pleasant fragrances to their model homes.

ScentAir today employs a variety of delivery systems from free- standing to HVAC integrated, to serve its wide variety of clients.

About 18 months ago, the company entered the multifamily arena and Dameron has been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm with which that sector has greeted the concept. Since early 2007, ScentAir has added regional apartment owners and managers like Riverstone Residential Group, which uses ScentAir in the 360-unit Sandpiper Apartments that the management company oversees in Westminster, Colo., to its roster of customers, as well as Post. Other larger national clients trying the product out on a regional level include Sunrise Senior Living, which signed on about six months ago, and Camden Property Trust, which began pilot testing the ScentAir system in Q3 2007 at properties in Dallas, Houston and Florida.

Camden’s pilot program
“We’ve tried it in different locations at the communities, but the communities now on the program are using it primarily in the leasing office, model apartments and the fitness center. We piloted it at a number of communities, but only our Houston region has committed to its use at this point,” said John Selindh, VP of marketing at Camden, which owns interests in and operates 181 properties totaling 62,918 units and was named to Fortune magazine’s 2007 roster of 100 best companies to work for, the first apartment REIT ever to be included on that prestigious list.

Currently, six of Camden’s larger communities–five in Houston, where the REIT is headquartered, and one in Austin–are piping ambient scent, chosen from ScentAir’s catalog of more than 1,500 fragrances, into common areas of those communities, using the delivery appliance provided free of charge and maintained by ScentAir over the life of the contract. About the size of a standard shoe box, or two-slot toaster, the appliance is easily concealed behind furniture or potted plants. The device pushes the air over a scent cylinder that costs around $100 and lasts for between two weeks and a month, depending on the intensity of fragrance the user prefers, air flow in the scented space and other asset-specific considerations.

“If we do roll out the program on a larger scale, we anticipate we would have a branded scent created,” Selindh said. “It is likely we’ll have more communities participate in the future, when they have budgeted the expense, but we’re still evaluating the overall benefit.”

While it’s hard to pin down the dollars-and-cents benefit of ambient scent use to the bottom line, Post Properties believes the results of customer satisfaction surveys provide plenty of proof that the complete branded customer experience, including the powerful sense of smell, will further enhance Post’s reputation as a leader in professionalism and customer service.

When residents recently were asked what most influenced their decision to choose a Post community, 22 percent of the respondents indicated brand reputation was a major factor, compared to only eight percent of renters nationwide who responded to a similar query in Kingsley Associates’ 2007 resident satisfaction survey.

The science behind it
Doubters who remain unconvinced by survey results, might be persuaded of the power of fragrance by the results of research conducted at Washington State University that took a look at the practical applications of ambient scent in a retail setting, right about the time the hospitality sector was beginning to embrace the concept.

“Marketing research grounded in environmental psychology has successfully linked environmental stimuli with evaluative responses,”

Eric R. Spangenberg and his colleagues, Ayn E. Crowley and Pamela Henderson, wrote when explaining the results of a study conducted in the mid-1990s that indicated the infusion of a pleasant or neutral ambient scent into a retail setting could substantially improve customers’ evaluations of both the store and its merchandise.

Specialty stores like bakeries and shops that sell coffee, tobacco, popcorn, nuts and candy and the like have long relied on the aroma of their products to entice customers, the researchers noted when they published their findings in a marketing journal in 1996, concluding that “ambient scent–scent that is not emanating from a particular object, but is present in the environment –may be of greater interest than product-specific scents, because it could affect perceptions of the store and all its products, including those products that are difficult to scent,” like office supplies and furniture. Just substitute the words “apartment community” for “store” and “services and amenities” for “products” and it turns into a multifamily maxim.

The researchers, who used ginger and lavender as their neutral scent and spearmint and orange in the affectively pleasing conditions, found that overall evaluations of the mock store they used in the experiments and of the store environment in particular were more positive when the store was scented than when it was not. Similarly, the students in the scented environment rated the merchandise selection as better, the products as more up-to-date and of higher quality than did the subjects in the unscented environment, regardless of whether the fragrance in the scented environment was one of those considered neutral or one of the pleasant smells.

Of even greater interest to those selling any product or service, is the fact that the student test subjects viewed the merchandise as less expensive in the scented “store” than did those who smelled no fragrance while “shopping,” and, even more surprising was that, while the length of time spent in the “store” varied not at all for those who had a fragrant experience and those who did not, the presence of a scent significantly altered the test subjects’ perception of the amount of time they had just spent in the fragrant room.

The researchers explained that this optimal state of experience, this distorted sense of time, is referred to as a state of flow, “when the clock no longer serves as a good analog of the temporal quality of experience,” and note that the finding indicates that “ambient scent may lead to an enhanced subjective experience for retail shoppers; the time consumers spend examining merchandise, waiting in lines or waiting for help may be made to seem shorter than it actually is by introducing ambient scent into the environment.” And that’s an ideal condition for an apartment community’s leasing office, where guests or residents may have to wait their turn for service, especially when that waiting time is made more enjoyable by the other sense pleasers that work in concert to combine business with pleasure.

“It’s been fun for us to discover this industry,” said Dameron of ScentAir’s entry into the multifamily realm. “We’re surprised every day at the different industries and different types of clients that we’re discovering and how people are using fragrance. We believe that it’s just beginning and, as people get more creative with their branding and the idea of multi-sensory marketing spreads, I think we’ll see a lot more of it.”