The smell of success

A year after the first-ever international conference on the psychology and biology of fragrance and its ties to emotion took place in 1986 at the University of Warwick in England, Mark Peltier, CEO and co-founder of AromaSys, Inc., began approaching a variety of industry leaders with the suggestion that a pleasant fragrance piped into their venues might be good for business.


But the idea that came to him in 1976, while savoring the rich sensory experience in a lush redwood forest, prompting him to investigate how that captivating emotional experience could be infused into commercial buildings, was received with incredulity and the implication that his concept was laughable.

Perhaps those he approached early in his effort to market his idea would have been more likely to take it seriously had they been aware of the findings revealed at the 1986 conference in England, where researchers presented solid scientific evidence that fragrance can, indeed, modify mood, emotions and behavior, confirming what was intuitively obvious to Peltier, whose customers today include Marriott Hotels and Resorts, Hyatt Regency, Intercontinental Group and RitzCarlton Resorts, along with numerous Las Vegas casinos like Bellagio and MGM Grand.

“When I tried to start this in 1987, nobody would even look at me properly. It was like I was completely nuts and I couldn’t believe it. I went to 3M, Pillsbury, General Mills and then, finally in 1990, I said, “That’s it. I’m doing this and I don’t care how crazy people think I am,” said Peltier, whose business focuses solely on premier hotels, resorts, casinos and spas. “That’s all we do,” he said, emphasizing that his company is “hyper-focused” on those sectors and has no plans to enter the multifamily arena, a fact that is clearly spelled out on his Website, where every page includes the polite request that residential companies refrain from contacting AromaSys.

However, as with the revenue management systems that were initially designed for the hospitality, car rental and airline industries and later were adapted for the multifamily sector, much can be learned from the hospitality industry’s aroma marketing history, experience and innovations.

“To the best of my knowledge, the very first hotel in America that had an HVAC aroma system was the Miami Marriott Dadeland and I put that in myself in July 1991. It was our prototype and it was an experiment between AromaSys and the general manager, who had been trying to do this for years,” said Peltier.

“That project got us in the Wall Street Journal and Steve Wynn read that article and called us, so our second customer was The Mirage,”

he said of the project that jump-started the business that now has clients not only in this country, but also in Europe and Asia.

In the beginning, AromaSys tried the revolutionary new marketing tool in just about every commercial application possible. “We used to do retail, we used to do furniture stores and conventions and museums and anything we could to stay in business and we just ended up getting into hotels and we’ve done the majority of the casinos in Las Vegas. We like the really high-end, prestigious properties,” said the scent marketing pioneer.

The company’s patented aroma systems use a building’s ventilation system to scent both very large and small indoor spaces with aromas that harmonize with the asset’s architectural themes and specific location features, using high-quality fragrance materials that are dispersed throughout the space in much the same way flowers, plants and trees release their essence into the air through a subtle electric charge. The electronic liquid vaporization method provides precise aroma level control, which may be adjusted from a barely noticeable one part per billion (PPB) to 500 PPB, depending on the aroma blend or application. AromaSys’s EAS 2000 system covers areas from 2,000 to 4,000 sq. ft. and the EAS 500 system has a coverage area of 5,000 to 15,000 sq. ft.

“We don’t have an appliance (that delivers an aroma into the desired space), so smaller areas aren’t practical for us. As we start to get into the 4,000, 5000 and 10,000 sq. ft., then our product is very cost effective. Below 2,000 sq. ft., we are not interested. It’s not practical for us, it’s not cost effective and it’s not a good value,” Peltier explained.

While creation of signature scents is one of AromaSys’ core competencies, the company doesn’t create brand-wide signature fragrances and Peltier is adamant about the importance of creating signature scents that are asset-specific.

“We have tried to promote the idea that, unless the property and locations are very, very similar, each property should smell differently. We are a big promoter of distinction and uniqueness and customization. Scent is not a logo. It’s not a visual image. Every property is a different person with its own personality,” he said, adding that an aroma that might work perfectly in a Miami property would be ridiculous in a ski resort in Vail, emphasizing that congruency is essential in scent creation, a fact that, while empirically obvious to most, was confirmed scientifically by Eric Spangenberg, who became dean of the college of business and economics at Washington State University in 2005, and his colleagues in a study they conducted in 2004, focusing on the combination of scent and music during the Christmas season.

“Perhaps the most important practical recommendation arising from the current work concerns the importance of congruency between music and scent when incorporated as environmental stimuli in retail settings,”

wrote Spangenberg, et al., who found that “shoppers” in mock stores where the music and scent didn’t evoke similar associations were less likely to evaluate the store and its merchandise positively and were more likely to spend less time there than subjects in the same mock store where scent and music were in harmony.

“Modern day retailers might do well to pay heed to Biblical wisdom drawn from the first Christmas,” the study concludes. “In heralding the birth of Jesus, angels sang and wise men provided fragrant gifts to the Child, thereby setting the stage for what would eventually constitute modern Christmas ambience. Our results suggest that wise retailers can act upon this lesson by blessing their customers with synchronized sound systems and scent diffusers and, in turn, receive the blessing of strong holiday sales.”

Just last year, Spangenberg’s findings were re-confirmed in A Sense of Desire, a book written by Peltier’s good friend Rachel Herz. “The take-home message is what we’ve learned in 19 years in the marketplace, that unless the aroma is congruent and relevant and qualitative, it does not have the impact in terms of enhanced memory and it can, in fact, be very annoying,” Peltier said.

Intensity also is important in the sensory match-up game, he continued. “You can take an absolutely fabulous perfect match and character and, if the intensity is too high, you get distortion in the character, as well as the scent, and it’s unacceptable and is the same as if you can’t smell it. You may say it’s subliminal, but that’s not quite true. People need to notice it at just the right threshold,” said the scent guru of the use of scent as a marketing tool.

And, following the introduction of ambient scent in the lobby at the Marriott in Miami, others in the hospitality and retail industries began to take note of the previously ignored power of aroma marketing that, like the science behind it, was just in its infancy. The trend caught on as other hoteliers and then retailers realized that the olfactory element of multi-sensory branding was a powerful, but, as yet underutilized, avenue into the hearts of their customers.

Today, Langham Hotels spritzes rooms with the essence of ginger flower and Sheraton’s signature fragrance has a jasmine base.

Starwood infuses its lobbies with a touch of cinnamon. At the Park Hyatt in Washington D.C., atomizers spritz the lobby with a warm woodsy scent that was custom-designed for the hotelier by Parisian perfumer Blaise Mautin.

Omni Hotels wafts a bouquet of lemongrass and green tea through its lobbies, gives coffee shop customers an olfactory preview and appetite enhancer with a whiff of mochaccino or sugar cookies and surrounds the hotels’ pools with the scent of coconut. Omni’s olfactory magic is thanks to ScentAir Technologies, Inc., which was incorporated in 2000.

Omni has created a sensory advisory board to provide input for its multi-sensory branding campaign that also includes lavender pillow spray, a calming CD to lull guests to sleep, a “Sensation Bar” in every guest room that offers bath salts, mojito-flavored jelly beans and pomegranate lip balm, and blueberry-scented stickers on the newspapers distributed to guests. The hotel group plans to infuse its meeting spaces with scent this year, including an energizing citrus scent and stress-reducing aromas of lavender and sandalwood.

At the Bellagio in Las Vegas, a lavender sage aroma floats through the lobby, and a spicy citrus blend seduces guests at the Phoenician in upscale Scottsdale, Ariz.

Westin Hotels & Resorts greets its guests with an earthy, musky scent, highlighted with notes of geranium and freesia, dubbed White Tea and created by ScentAir. The scent that debuted two years ago as part of the hotel company’s multi-million dollar “This is How It Should Feel” campaign is intended to help guests feel renewed and relaxed as soon as they walk into the lobby. Requests for a take-home version of White Tea prompted the hotelier to offer it through the hotel chain’s retail arm in the form of a 100 percent soy candle, an all-natural potpourri and a home diffuser that features natural rattan reeds that absorb the scented oil and diffuse its calming blend of botanicals throughout the room. The first 10,000 units of White Tea sold out almost as soon as it became available last year, thanks to a waiting list of eager customers.

While it’s almost impossible to quantify how much value ambient scent adds to the bottom line, its positive effect is grounded in some pretty solid science.

Many of the reasons the use of ambient scent works so well as a marketing tool were revealed during that first psychology of perfumery conference 21 years ago in the UK. “For years, poets and philosophers have expounded on the emotional effects of fragrance, but scientific studies have come only recently,” wrote J.R. King in the paper he contributed to the book, Perfumery: The psychology and biology of fragrance that perfumer George H. Dodd and psychology professor Steven Van Toller, co-directors of the Warwick Olfaction Research Group, published following the 1986 conference they organized.

King notes that Van Toller and Dodd demonstrated in 1983 that an odor could be paired with an emotional state, so that the emotional state could be re-evoked when the odor was perceived later on. The emotional state involved was a negative one in Van Toller and Dodd’s experiment, produced in response to stress, but at around the same time, King’s preliminary studies suggested that a positive state of relaxation could be similarly conditioned. In both cases, the conditioning was unconscious, i.e. the subjects were unaware of the fragrance.

And D.M Stoddart, another contributor to Dodd and Van Toller’s collection of scholarly work on the subject, attributes that phenomenon to the fact that “…the neurons of the olfactory system terminate in the part of the brain which is now thought to be the seat of emotion. Hearing and vision are relatively newer senses than chemoreception and are analyzed by centres in the cerebral cortex.”

Van Toller concurred in his discussion of emotion and the brain that “in recent years it has become clear that an important and complex set of structures and their pathways in the brain relating to emotion is the limbic system. Interestingly, the limbic system was originally known as the rhinencephalon or the smell brain.”

“In other words,” King wrote, “there seems little doubt that the olfactory system has a direct input to that part of the brain concerned both with emotion and sex.” And, that’s always been a winning combination in the marketing game.