Proust was a brand manager.
The French novelist, whose famed madeleine brought back a flood of memories, making selective quoting of his work a favored pastime for neuroscientists (and one discredited chronicler of their work), realized that there was something about a fragrance that could open floodgates of emotion.
Marcel Proust monetized that insight in his own way. Brands are monetizing it in another. They do so with the help of ScentAir, a company whose thesis is that branding should extend beyond the mere audio-visual, and into the realms of the olfactory. ScentAir works with hotels, casinos, and a wide range of brick-and-mortar outlets to help develop fragrances that help define each venue’s brand, and strengthen the connection forged with customers.
We caught up with ScentAir’s top smell guru (official title: “Director of Fragrance Development”), Mark Signorin, to learn more about the business value of the "cigar tree bean," citrus notes, and the smell of napalm in the morning.
FAST COMPANY: How’d you fall into this line of work?
MARK SIGNORIN: Twenty-some years ago, I got out of college with a chemistry degree, and I was looking for a job. I applied to a company that I thought was a chemical company. They called me into a large conference room. They give me 30 vials and say, “Smell these and tell us what you think.” It helped that I didn’t know what the job was. I just wrote what they smelled like. I had fun. You had your woody notes, floral notes, fruity notes, then some not-so-pleasant notes: musty, mildew, even feces. I just wrote what I thought they smelled like. I was very young, right out of college, and I was just having fun.
They called me back a month later. For one fragrance I had written it smelled like a “cigar tree bean.” They inquired what that was. I explained that my father had a tree with a big broad leaf and a real slender bean. He always claimed he had smoked the bean when he was young, so in my family we called it the “cigar tree.” I didn’t know the real name of the tree. I described the tree to them, and they said, “It’s called a catalpa tree. That’s exactly what the fragrance is supposed to smell like."
You worked at International Flavors and Fragrances and a few other companies before moving to ScentAir. What’s your job there?
I select and interpret the brand messaging from our customers, and translate that into what their fragrance should be. I talk to customers—sometimes they give me a big brand book, or sometimes they just send me a website—and recommend what I think would fit. I interpret what fragrance will work for their customers: Something traditional? Modern? Trendy? With a nice fragrance, customers may linger longer, and lingering longer can turn into brand loyalty.
There’s a particular vocabulary to the world of scent. I’ve heard you use the words “billboard,” “thematic,” “ambient,” and “branding” to describe different approaches. What do they mean?
“Billboard” means you put a fragrance into the air, and that’s something they’re specifically trying to sell. So a Ralph Lauren store sells a line of fragrances, and we might put that into the air. “Thematic” means, with a company like REI, for instance, they may have a mountainscape, and we’ll put a woody type fragrance. Or they may have camping equipment, and we’ll put a campfire smell. “Ambient” is when a business just wants their customers to come in and feel comfortable. Maybe they want to take away any musty odors in the store.
“Branding” is the most complex. If you think about JW Marriott, they have a very defined brand: luxury without pretense. They gave us a big brand book, and we had multiple meetings with them. I had to develop a scent that would work in their big, “great room” type lobbies that in some cases have restaurants. I had to develop something I thought was going to work, not clash, and hit home the brand message.
You’re the Don Draper of smell branding?
I have little vials of fragrance with blotter sticks. I start to describe the notes and how it works with the brand. I say, Let’s find the perfect fragrance for you: we’ll put a little vanilla in back here to get some more comfort, or some citrus on the top here to get some more energy. These types of discussions.
How do you deliver smells in the actual venues?
In a very large lobby, we may go with the HVAC system. Our base model for fragrancing a space is our “scent wave,” a felt-and-paper system that basically holds the fragrance. A fan blows across and picks up the fragrance, almost like wind over a lake will pick up rain.
Clients have also included entertainment and the military. What are some examples?
In Orlando, you might have a dinosaur ride. We had a fragrance called “dinosaur breath.” So when the dinosaur came out to scare you, you’d get this smell of bad breath. For training our troops, the government would ask for smells of things like dead bodies, burnt bodies, feces, raw sewage, gunpowder, cordite. They’d use these to in a way desensitize the troops, so if they walk into a warzone and they see these things, the training helped them to be better soldiers. We’ve also developed scents for flight simulators. Depending on the smell, the pilot knows it’s burning wires, or fuel. “Oh, I smell fuel: I have to do these things to keep myself alive.”
The value of scent tech in a case like that is obvious, but how do you sell corporate customers on the business case?
We don’t say, “Use this fragrance, and you’ll earn 10% more.” We don’t want to enter into that conversation. We’re providing an experience for customers. If it’s working right, you may get longer dwell times in a hotel, or linger times in a store or casino. That usually equates with higher revenue. It’s not, “If I spend $10 on fragrance, how much will I get back?” It’s more, “If I use scent, connect with customers emotionally, and give them a place they want to come back to, that turns into brand loyalty.”