Companies are using ‘signature smells’ in a bid to win customers, writes Charmaine Chan
Simon Faure-Field talks brands. He tosses into conversation such terms as “brand extension”, “brand values”, “brand positioning”, “brand standards” and “brand- aligned experiences”. A nose for profit led the Singapore-based, British-born businessman initially to provide music and voice-recorded messages for clients wanting a “consistent” image. That led to music styling and, since 2005, the related field of scent branding.
So convinced is he of gaining customer loyalty by aural and olfactory means that he plans to open a sensory-brand consultancy this month in Hong Kong, his second after one in the Lion City. “We’re the only business in Asia that provides music and fragrance to businesses based upon scientific research and in a branding context,” he says.
Once was a time when branding meant searing a mark onto the rump of cattle. Then came trademarks, then jingles, mascots and slogans. With manufacturers recognising how consumers formed bonds with their products the practice turned quickly into shaping personality and building identity. What formerly revolved around backside burns thus came to shape the bottom lines of business.
This is where Faure-Field, 38, hopes to prove the power of, for one thing, our sense of smell. Hotels, supermarkets and even airports have started in recent years experimenting with fragrances, hoping to trigger emotions and affect customer behaviour. A leader in the hospitality industry was Westin Hotels & Resorts, whose custom-designed white-tea scent was so well-received the fragrance soon became part of its retail line. “They were doing quite well globally but they had an identity crisis because guests couldn’t remember why they chose Westin,” says Faure-Field, whose company, Equal Strategy, works with Westin and its parent company Starwood Hotels & Resorts. An emotional connection was needed, “and they wanted to achieve that through a multi-sensory approach to their brand”, he says.
The relationship between smells and emotions is well known, as is the ability of certain aromas to boost consumption. Avery Gilbert, author of What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, says: “Scents can speak of brand attributes like ‘luxury’ or ‘masculine’ and they can reinforce a message like ‘safe, nurturing and caring’. Because it is so richly evocative, scent is an excellent way to reinforce brand awareness and thereby build consumer loyalty.” It can also induce impulse buying, which is why supermarkets may position fans near their bakeries or infuse the air in the fruit section with the scent of green apples. “So many products are vacuum-sealed or frozen that supermarket shopping can be an exercise in smell deprivation,” says Gilbert. Some coffee shops now pull customers not with the real thing but with a facsimile scent.
Plucking “coffee” from a sleek briefcase full of small glass bottles, Faure-Field says, “When people smell this, it creates a craving.” He cites the case of BP, which apparently quadrupled sales of coffee at its petrol stations by spritizing the interiors with a freshly brewed scent.
That sensory branding can lift sales has won Equal Strategy clients not just in Asia but also in the Middle East and North America. Rather than imprinting an olfactory stamp, two hotels, Raffles Dubai and Pan Pacific in Seattle, had the company style their music to create different moods in different public spaces. “When I embark on a music project with a client, it isn’t ‘Tell me what music you want and I’ll give it to you,” says Faure-Field. “It’s ‘Tell me about the hotel, about the customers, about your brand and how you want people to behave and what sort of mood you want.’”
With the information he needs, Faure-Field then creates a palette of music from a library of five million tracks. For the Naumi, a boutique hotel in Singapore, he mixed chill-out, down-tempo playlists with a ginger and lime scent created from a collection of more than 3,500 fragrances.
“I worked with the owner before it was on the drawing board,” says Faure-Field. “When I saw the glass, chrome, very minimal, very uncluttered design I knew it had to be clean and fresh with an Asian dimension. This wasn’t going to be a family hotel. This was going to be for the 25 to mid-40s travelling businessman who wants personalised service.”
Faure-Field’s enthusiasm for his product is as heady as the ShangriLa fragrance that is part of his collection. A sometime DJ and an interior designer by training, he moved from Britain to Singapore in 1995 to work for a company providing telephone messaging. In 1998 he branched out on his own.
“Generally when you phoned a number, what you heard when you were put on hold wasn’t as impressive as the actual advertisement that made you call,” he says. “That didn’t make sense, so we started helping people get the right sort of music on the phone system and interlace messages. If everything was in a branded context, then callers’ time on hold would be more engaging and this would reduce the number of people abandoning the call or calling someone else.”
Sending the right message persuaded a Singapore branch of DBS Bank to approach Faure-Field for an “environmental branding solution” that concentrated on music and scent. Shanghai Tang customers may swoon at its use of ginger lily, a distinctive scent that also wafts through Club Feather Boa, but some may wonder how appropriate it is for a bank to perfume its branches, in the case of DBS, with ginger flower.
Gilbert has no problem with the concept. “A bank scent might communicate starchy formality and security, or it might try to reinforce a friendly and relaxed atmosphere,” he says, adding that banks could also consider impregnating their ATM cards with perfume. “Voila – a logo-scent that ties together every facet of a bank’s brand,” he says. While the ginger lily at Feather Boa “goes well with their most popular sweet drink, daiquiri”, according to in-house designer Vivien Fung there’s always the danger of over-egging the pudding.
In the sensitive world of scent that means introducing something that attracts attention to itself rather than to the products and services, says Gilbert. Then there are problems, say, with introducing low- arousal scents in an area that needs the opposite. Combinations, however, can produce the desired effect, according to Faure-Field, who whips out a vanilla/grapefruit vial for effect. The stimulating high- arousal citrus scent counters the calming qualities of vanilla, he says.
But the soothing effect of vanilla fragrance is not the only reason it is popular. Fung says of The Candle Company’s most popular scent, French vanilla, “It’s a nostalgic scent associated with childhood memories because it is used in the first foods we tasted, like baby formula, puddings and ice cream.”
The “safest” perfumes, however, are those “a consumer naturally associates with the imagery of the retail brand”, says Gilbert, citing feminine scents for boutiques, masculine ones for auto-parts shops or “abstract” smells for electronics stores. “It’s not so much about ingredients — it’s about how the consumer interprets the scent and whether it makes ‘sense’ in a given commercial environment,” he says.
Once an appropriate scent has been chosen to help brand a business it is probably wise to stick to it. The same applies to humans. Consistency is key, Faure-Field stresses, which is why he wears only Bulgari Soir cologne. “I am my own brand,” he says. Of course, the luxury Italian company might argue otherwise.