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A rough four percent of the world’s population experience a sort of neurological cross-circuit in which two senses are sparked at once. This phenomenon is known as synesthesia, a term deriving form the Greek words for ‘sensation’ and ‘together’, and it can manifest itself in many different ways: some people hear music and at the same time they taste it on their tongue, others feel smells on their skins, or see shapes in association to certain sounds. Science used to call it a disease, art calls it a blessing. _Well-known synesthetes include Vladimir Nabokov, Wassily Kandinsky, Duke Ellington, Lorde, and Pharrell Williams. Dawn Goldworm is an internationally recognized olfactive expert and the nose behind several successful fragrances. She has five different kinds of synesthesia and she sees the colors of smells. Together with her sister, Samantha Goldworm, she founded 12 29 agency, a company specializing in olfactive branding.

Olfactive branding, also known as scent branding, is a form of marketing and communication based on the translation of a brand’s DNA into a fragrance. Smell being our most archaic and visceral sense, this form of branding has the power to create immediate and long-lasting emotional connections with customers, which on the long term can influence their behavior. The hospitality industry has been quick to understand the power of olfactive branding and since long has been adopting scent as a mean of encouraging consumer loyalty. Since its inception in 2007, Hyatt Place has been enhancing the elegance of its interiors and its prime service by welcoming guests into the enveloping mist of its signature scent, Seamless – a blend of fresh blueberries and light florals with a musky base. The scent has proven such a brand asset that today Seamless can be found in almost 300 hotels across the U.S. As reported on the Harvard Business Review, internal surveys and public online comments confirm that the fragrance has enhanced the visit experience and increased brand memorability for thousands of guests. 

Retailers have not been as responsive. They are only now starting to introduce scent among their branding guidelines. There have been pioneers, especially in fashion: “Colette used to spray clothes with its own perfume – Goldworm narrates – and people would choose to buy a Margiela gown in the Parisian concept store instead of in one of the many Margiela flagships, just because it ‘smelled like Colette’”. Another pioneer was Abercrombie & Fitch, who was already breaking boundaries by not having window displays and by casting shop attendants because of their image rather than selecting them according to their skills. In 2010 Abercrombie & Fitch’s idea of olfactive branding backfired when its in-store scent – ironically named Fierce – started drawing protests: the store employees had become desensitized to the smell and, as a result, they had increased the amount of fragrance which was being diffused in the store, eventually going over the top. While store managers, marketing managers and visual merchandisers put in a lot of effort in triggering consumers’ other senses such as sight (with the visual layout) and hearing (with background music), they often forget about scenting the environment. Some brands spray their stores with their newest perfumes, but this usually results in nothing more than an increased interest for that specific fragrance and it has not much to do with the precise branding process of the creation and strategic diffusion of a signature, timeless scent. 

Things are changing quickly, an increasingly large number of businesses – Bloomingdale, Corto Moltedo, Hugo Boss, Jimmy Choo, Calvin Klein, H&M and Mango just to name a few – are now introducing fragrance as a part of their brand identity. There is now a range of companies offering bespoke service to brands in order to take them through the delicate process of scent branding, from marketing giants such as ScentAir to niche players like 12 29, which counts among its clients Tiffany & Co, Helmut Lang, Prabal Gurung, established hospitality brands such as Hilton Grand Vacations and, most recently, Christie’s. The well-known auction house commissioned a fragrance that would transform Classic Week at the Rockfeller Galleries into a sensory experience, consequently changing the traditional perception of art.

“Because of all the challenge that retail is facing, retailers are now perfectly positioned to take advantage of olfactive branding”, says Dawn Goldworm. People now shop online, but it is rather hard, if not impossible, to trigger emotions through an e-commerce. The use of fragrance takes both retailers and consumers back to the old concept of retail – therapy, much discussed in the Nineties, which aimed at turning the act of shopping into an experience and cannot possibly be offered online. There is more: Elizabeth Musmanno, former president of The Fragrance Foundation, reported to The Business of Fashion that smell can entice consumers to stay longer, shop longer and purchase more (August 2013). BOF backed up Musmanno’s statement by reporting a 1990 study conducted by neurologist and psychiatrist Dr Alan Hirsch: Hirsch placed identical pairs of sneakers in two identical rooms with one relevant difference: one was scented with mixed floral scents, one was unscented. Astonishingly, Hirsch’s research found that, in the scented environment, 84 percent of consumers felt more desire for the same pair of shoes, which they deemed to be worth on average $10.33 more

Not only does scent seduce customers into lingering more in a shop, people actually feel more drawn to an object – and willing to pay more for it – within a perfumed environment. Goldworm gives a scientific explanation to this: “There is a part of the human brain known as the Limbic System that deals with both emotions and memories. This area of the brain predates birth and keeps in store memories of comfort, safety and pleasure – the first olfactory memories of our lives. The only other thing that happens in the Limbic System is smell, all other senses are regulated elsewhere. When you are a baby and your mother picks you up you feel the pleasure of  calm and safety, her perfume will be stored by your Limbic System as soothing olfactory memory. During childhood, other scents gradually add to your olfactory memories – for example the smell of sea-breeze and sun-screen might bring back the sense of freedom experienced in a sunny day on the beach. Fast forward to us being adults, an environment perfumed in a way which is perfumed in a way that makes us feel comfortable will trigger the desire to gratify ourselves and, fortunately or unfortunately, one of the main ways in which adults gratify themselves is by spending money on something they like”.

Among 12 29’s creations there is the famed Harrods holiday season scent, Fireside Memories, diffused during the festive period on the Harrods Christmas floor. The fragrance was inspired by sitting in front of a fireplace, wrapped in a cashmere blanket, sipping on cognac. No need to say that if a customer didn’t like the smell he would have walked out and Harrods would have lost a potential client. Olfactive branding must translate into something unique, not only because the brand’s identity has to differ from the one of its competitors, but also because otherwise people might transfer to some pre-existant olfactory memory which could be related to some other emotion: the challenge is to create an entirely new fragrance that triggers that same soothing memory into a very large quantity of people. In order to be able to work the magic, Goldworm spent years studying olfactive preferences, conducting global testings on the olfactory memories which build up during the first ten years of life in all sorts of different cultures, countries, generations and environments. Once she had all the data, she combined them together: “It is like a Monet. You have lots of colors and strokes blended together in a specific way. You can look at it from different perspectives and points of view, according to who you are and where you come from, but it will still trigger the same emotional response.”

ScentAir works with businesses worldwide to develop scent marketing strategies, it has developed scents specifically designed to enhance themed rides at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Although the scents that the company creates for fashion retailers do not aim directly at increasing revenues, they still enhance customer experience by triggering emotions: For Bloomingdale’s, ScentAir created different scents for different departments — coconut in swimwear, lilac in lingerie and powdery scents in baby products (which are among the most recognized and recognizable olfactive memories worldwide). For Hugo Boss, they used a smooth, woody fragrance to match the brand’s minimal store design, de facto elevating retail into a multi-sensory experience. In general, in order to create a successful scent that will truly represent a brand’s DNA while at the same time putting the customer on an emotional journey, the brand itself has to go through a long and complex process. 

When Goldworm is assigned a scent branding, she settles down to learn everything about the commissioning the company – its history, its background, its mission, its goals, but also more subtle information like its colors and its textures, which not every company is aware of: “ When I was writing my thesis on what would later on become known as olfactive branding, I assumed every company would know its color and its texture. In fact they don’t, so I often have to help decipher them. When I’m done collecting information (a work that may last several months) I create the fragrance based on all I have. For corporate brands I usually work with the CMO or with the general manager, whereas for fashion brands I speak directly to the creative director”. In 2014 Goldworm collaborated with Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, back then both creative directors of Valentino before Chiuri left to take over the same position at Dior, in order to develop Effortless Grace – Valentino’s scent identity. Today Effortless Grace is present in all of the Valentino boutiques globally. It is also diffused during the bi-annual Haute Couture and Ready to Wear Fashion Shows in Paris, Rome and New York. During the sales season, the scent transforms the showroom spaces in Paris and Milan. The perfume was constructed like a couture gown, with top notes of delicate rose, sparkling citrus and opulent jasmine, and subtle details such as black leather contrasting the sparkling green, balsam notes enhancing the florals and earthy woods and raisins creating a sensual undertone. 

Olfactive branding doesn’t just apply to fashion, design and luxury hospitality: every experience can be enhanced by fragrance and every brand who wishes to reinforce its identity through marketing and communication can benefit from an olfactory strategy. There are three different moments in which companies usually turn to olfactive branding: when they are entirely new, when they wish to reposition and differentiate themselves from their competitors, and when they are going through a rebranding. The latter was the case for Cadillac, which in 2016 was working on evolving an old and slightly dusty brand into a modern luxury icon. If fashion brands don’t require to much literacy in their custom fragrances, allowing dreams and fantasies to step in, cars have their own distinct smells which have to be considered in the process of olfactive branding. 12 29 created Dare Greatly, a fragrance which conveys all the boldness, confidence and optimism which the brand stands for through a blend of nutty coffee, dark leather and resinous amber notes which enhance the sophistication of the car itself, combined with all sorts of evocatively American smells which  translate into a sense of freedom and opportunity (dare greatly).The Cadillac Scent is now diffused in the Cadillac House headquarters in New York City, Cadillac dealerships, activations and auto shows around the world. Signature Cadillac Dare Greatly scented candles are also being developed.

Bureau Betak has been staging spectacular fashion shows for almost thirty years, with clients as diverse as Christian Dior and Victoria’s Secret. In 2009, Alexandre de Betak asked a newly graduated Dawn Goldworm to scent the Rodarte fashion show. The collection was inspired by the dark side of nature and the interiors of the Gagosian Gallery had been turned into an unsettling, smokey environment which perfectly matched the Mulleavy sisters’ obsession for the wild and for all things creepy. Dawn asked her sister Samantha to join her. The fragrance thrilled the label and  mesmerized the crowd, and a few months later 12 29 was born.