Scent Design: An Aromatic Approach to Interiors

Friday, September 4th, 2015
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Scent Design
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There’s a new question on the lips of interior designers: What should this space smell like?

Scent design is gaining mainstream market momentum with commercial, retail, hospitality and even residential clients opting for fragrant spaces.

It’s not as simple as a fragrance plug-in and unlike the strategy of supermarkets injecting bakery smells for sales or the popcorn aroma at the cinema, this new scent wave is known as olfactive branding.

In olfactive branding, a scent developed form the olfactive process is customised and is aligned to a brand strategy or a “feeling” a company may want consumers to evoke when they enter the space.

Today, a brand can have a Pantone colour and a scent.

In a society which is overwhelmed with visual branding, digital connectivity and messaging, scent offers an emotional connection to spaces which is in many ways more powerfully engaging.

Toronto-based Tracy Pepe is a pioneer in the olfactive branding space and is founder and scent designer of Nose Knows Design – the design wing of her company Classic Aromatics.

While Pepe established her company in 1994, she believes the market remains in its infancy, though the rising trend is now being  supported by a global movement toward cooking and food.

“Society is now paying attention to scent,” she said.

Visual vs. Olfactive Branding

 “Olfactive branding is more powerful than visual branding… it has a completely different impact on the individual,” Pepe explained.

Visual branding is based on repetition of seeing a brand over time rather than an emotional recognition that can evoke a feeling about the brand.

“Individuals take in over (tens of thousands) of visual brands and marketing stimuli, not all make an impact in the brain, and it becomes more strategic and long-term,” said Pepe. “Olfactive branding is instant, once you smell a scent, you will stop, the brain will make a scent memory in the limbic system and it is there forever.

Visual branding is not capable of doing that; one is a logical process in the cortex and the other emotional in the limbic.”

Olfactive branding is regularly confused with scent marketing, where a smell is designed to drive a brand within a specific market, such as when a supermarket makes an area with baby products smell like baby powder in a bid to encourage sales.

“You can’t customise and properly scent that space…it’s not designed to be emotional, it’s instead trigger based,” she said, noting that consumers can’t  really tell the difference between a high-end or low-end baby powder smell.

Designing a Scent

Designing an olfactive brand is quite a sophisticated process based on science, art and a deep knowledge of how scent works in a space.

It’s very different to how scent is used in personal care products, for example.

The detailed process can be compared to the development of a logo, but instead of working with agencies or marketing companies, Pepe works closely with architects and interior designers. Like choosing lighting, or paint colour, scent becomes an extension of the design.

“We begin with the branding story, we understand who the demographics are, the colour palettes, the emotions, key messages, from there we have already begun to remove certain smells that would not impact or connect with the brand,” Pepe said. “The pallet becomes clear on what materials would work to create the olfactive message.”

From here, a scent map is created that is broken down into top, middle and base.

Pepe, who leans toward natural concepts with clients, will focus on a raw material as the hero for the blend.

One blend Pepe created for a developer in Canada is entitled “Remington.” Its signature ingredients are bergamot from Italy and fir needle from Canada and, as Pepe says, “this is the story, and we built around it.”

Scent Science

In it’s simplest form, scent is based on vibration.

“Scent molecules vibrate and the nose picks up and sends a message to the limbic system of the brain,” Pepe said. “The threshold or levels determine if people notice or recall the aroma, so strength is very important.

“The science on how scent impacts humans is endless from a diagnostic tool for autism, to adding perceived value within a retail location, to how scent can make you feel about you and the place you encounter it.

Scent Application

So once you have a scent, how do you apply it to a space?

While Pepe’s firm does not sell equipment, it works with equipment suppliers all over the world to create central systems to work on the HVAC.

At an airport, shopping centre or large space, equipment is attached to a HVAC system with the fragrance regulated and timed to align with shopping centre hours, when an airport is busiest, and so on.

“We also work with building codes,” said Pepe. “External companies will come in and check the fragrance threshold. We then match it.”

For older buildings where the HVAC systems are poor and costly to reinstall, Pepe uses diffuser systems or units integrated into store design in spaces such as the front entrance or change rooms.

Pepe cites one client, The Trump Hotel, housed in a 150-year-old building which had slabs of marble on the wall. Drilling holes into the marble to install systems was too big a cost for Pepe’s company.

“Instead, we used radiators at the front on a timer,” she said. “The large revolving doors would create a wind draft and circulate it in the lobby.”


“I use a lot of naturals,” said Pepe. “Inspirations from Aveda, teachings in the industry and a love of nature.”

Sustainability is also a priority for clients, with organics prioritised where possible. Pepe noted that sometimes naturals are banned because of allergies, while some come from animals, creating other ethical concerns. In these cases, Pepe and her team will use nature identicals.

“They are matched chemically in a lab for the highest perception,” she said.

Pepe compares scent to a fine wine – you can tell the difference between high and low quality.

“Quality of oils is huge; consumers have so much knowledge about quality, raw materials, why fillers and alcohols are not the best approach and why allergen free materials are required,” she said. “I love working with people who  know the difference of raw materials and appreciate wonderful oil quality.”

The Evolution of a Scent

Just like a visual brand, a scent becomes part of the storyline, and scents too can evolve.

The Trump Hotel, which houses both tourists and residents, saw residents requesting a scent in the lobby. The hotel wanted to maintain its branding, and so it placed the scent in a candle.

“We can even place them in linen sprays – once the fragrance is designed we can put it in anything,” said Pepe. “We work with chemists to have it approved so clients can use it as a line extension.”

Return on Investment

Olfactive branding is not a standalone strategy; Pepe’s clients understand it’s one part of the branding story, with studies showing that scent can certainly heighten the perception of the brand and help generate sales.

“They (clients) know the scent needs the same attention as the logo, message, colour and space when the brand is present,” Pepe said.

Cost and Regulations

It takes on average four to eight months to design and crate a scent, and the process can be lengthened by client requests for sound within spaces, design and marketing tools, and line extensions.

Development fees start at US$10,000 but can range between US$40,000 to US$50,000.

“Fragrance blends are very expensive because we use 100 per cent neat oils, mainly naturals and all the work goes through extensive regulatory, with IFRA (International Fragrance Regulatory Associate),” Pepe said. “We meet VOC compliance for the State of California and if we can, we work with organic based oils.”

A less-is-more approach also applies to Pepe’s process. Some blends can cost up to $US400 a pound for high quality materials, which have more staying power.

“So a property may only use five pounds a year versus other systems that use fillers and cut oils to consume more oil per month,” Pepe said. “I know some first who have to replace the oil every three weeks to a month.”

Market Forecast

Olfactive branding is becoming more competitive, but it remains an exclusive, intricate service.

While the demand is growing in commercial markets, there are many inexpensive ways to offer scents within a space, from candles to plug-in fragrances.

“The home fragrance market turns over $37 billon globally,” Pepe said. “People want their home to smell nice and want it to feel good.

“My industry is small and many have no training or understanding; we are the only firm globally that is run by a perfumer, all other firms buy fragrance from fragrance houses.”

Technology is adding to the movement, with products such as EXHALIA, which offers IScent Technology.

“All my clients can check their fragrance levels with a smartphone,” Pepe said.

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