In this interview, sensory design and fragrance expert Olivia Jezler shares her insight on the potential for scent, when integrated into retail design, to provide more meaningful and engaging experiences for consumers
The almighty olfactory sense is often overlooked when it comes to store and product design—and yet is extremely powerful and effective when used in conjunction with the typical visual and audio elements involved in curating the customer experience. This is why retailers are increasingly looking to incorporate select smells into their offerings, hoping to harness the influence of scent on consumers’ mood, feelings and awareness.
Olivia Jezler is an expert at marshaling scents to design experiences for retail and beyond, and explained in a podcast interview with PSFK founder Piers Fawkes how scent is poised to enable more engaging and immersive experiences than ever thanks to its intersection with the latest technology. Here Olivia describes what the future of scent could be for retailers and consumers alike.
Piers: Olivia, you are an expert when it comes to using scents at the intersection of technology to create experiences. How did you get into this?
Olivia: I have a design background from Parsons School of Design in New York. At the time, I was very immersed in the visual world, and I started hearing about smell being used. This was like 11 years ago. Then I just decided: I want to work with this invisible medium that can actually really change the way people feel and connect to things.Then I started working at IFF, which is International Flavors & Fragrances, doing projects that were very experiential. I looked at different things, but that’s how I started.
You’re trained to control and design the visual experience, and became motivated to explore something invisible?
Correct. Making them work together. Smell is essentially a very powerful tool, but it’s something that’s not our dominant sense, especially not today. It’s been kind of forgotten, but it still impacts us so much. How to use it together with visual and our other senses together to create more compelling, deeper experiences that are memorable is my work.
Explain how you use scent within an experience.
You can use scent in multiple ways. You can use it to make a big room feel warmer and feel cozier. You can use it to make things feel more expansive and wide. You can use it to enhance certain elements of an experience similar to the way that VR and mixed reality do. There, you can also see scent being used very explicitly. Oh, there’s a rose on the screen or in front of you, so you smell the rose. What about that soundtrack in the back that is like a crescendo or decrescendo? These are different ways you can use scent.
We’re starting to dig down into the research in cross-modal correspondences. There’s a lot of research happening in the U.K. actually on this. That’s how all of our senses are linked and have always been. We have these sensory connections formed: specific sounds with shapes, specific colors with smells, specific textures with smells. If you use these connections that our brain naturally already has to design an experience, it makes the experience that much better.
It’s a bit hard currently the way things are done because smell is often brought at the end of the process. It’s like, “Oh, just add in something here” to make it feel like this or that. If you’re working from the beginning with the sound designers and with the interior designers, you can work on creating the whole sensory branding, the brand guidebook of all the senses, materials and feelings. That is something that is definitely happening and is slowly reaching into the commercial space, so there’s more evidence-backed sensory experience design.
Where do you think we should see more experimentation with scent?
There’s experimentation in art right now. There are quite a few artists who are trying to make you feel the story that they’re telling more deeply so they’re using different scents. Scent now is becoming democratized because it’s easier to access through certain institutes. It’s easier for anybody to get these smells, so then people start experimenting.
There’s been a problem with regulatory issues, safety concerns and whatnot, because you’re mixing things that shouldn’t be mixed that could be potentially not the safest thing for people to smell. There’s experimentation in labs inside companies as well as in academics settings of the future car experience.
There are ambient displays that’s are being experimented with in the smell world—how to use smell for keeping people attentive? How to use smell as an ambient display, essentially, because humans are so visual? Even with cars, everything is very visual. How can we use scent to tell a different story or different things that are less urgent?
There’s a lot to look at. There are many potential applications—there’s smell emitting, but then there’s also smell detection, which is related to health and safety. People want to understand pollution, how the indoor air quality is.
Another experiment I’m working on is about scent for brainstorming and focus thinking, or memory retention. This would be for more of a work environment. It could be interesting if we find the right partnership to bring the concept out into the world and have evidence to support that if you smell this, you’ll start thinking in this way, or if you use this smell, you’ll be more focused.The smell doesn’t even have to be noticeable. It can be a very low threshold, and it still makes a big difference in the way it can direct our minds in different ways.This is more of a mind tacking sort of thing. We’re working a lot with meditation now. People are looking for tools. I think scent is a tool beyond aromatherapy like that.
I did a prototyping session yesterday with children. I gave them modeling material. I gave one a smell. One set of kids received a smell that was based on spices and lemon and was more acidic. The other smell was very musky, comforting and woodsy. I gave them modeling material. I said, “Look, smell the smell and make whatever you want.” Essentially, what we saw was that the kids who were smelling the very spicy, acidic, lemony things were making spicy, longer, more dispersed shapes. The kids who were smelling the more comforting smell were making bowls and round spheres. It was very obvious: You could see the way that the kids associate the smells differently and how you can use this even as a tool when you don’t know that there is a smell in the room or in a material. People will actually start designing in that way.
What do you think about the commercial use of scent?
I think that this is nothing new, kind of like using smell in the supermarket but for focus. Supermarket is difficult because you’re working with so many brands. They use the smell of bread, for example, in supermarkets for you to then go to the baking aisle all day long and buy things.
For advertising, I worked on a project where we used scent. We created a mixed-reality display with scent. It was supposed to eventually go into supermarket aisles. The idea was that smell is invisible. If you’re trying to promote a Unilever scent, like a body wash or something, what if you could create a visual display that is interactive, that you can smell? We did. We developed a scent for bubbles. We were using projection imaging on the bubble while it was moving in space.
You could have even different smells. You would have like one element of the fragrance as sandalwood, the other element as a flower. These would be in different bubbles projected in the air. You could then touch it. You could smell the different smells. It would pop. You could smell it and be synced to sounds as well. Smell alone is one thing, but when you use smell in a compelling way and make it touchable and engaging, then it speaks to people.
How does technology intersect with the use of scent?
Technology is going to be an enabler for scent—scent for us to have more compelling, exciting experiences in the home, at exhibitions, with food. Actually, there’s a cool device out of Japan. Smell usually disperses everywhere in a room. You have less control of it, but this device holds maybe eight different smells. It’s very directional. It will emit the smell. If you’re not in that line of smell, you don’t smell it. Imagine the use of something like that for enhancing a food experience or car experience. The possibilities are endless as a biorhythm device, or necklace, that emits smells only you can detect throughout the day that are synced with your calendar and that make you feel energized or connected.
There’s definitely a lot of potential. It’s going to be happening everywhere, but I think we can’t forget the odor-detection technologies that are coming out. This is going to be huge for illness detection, air quality assessment and even with identifying people. It’s actually more accurate to identify people based on body odor than on a retina scan, or a face scan, or a fingerprint.
Using scent to improve people’s everyday lives as well as expand how retailers can construct immersive and meaningful experiences for their customers is just one way that brands are transforming their retail offerings. For more from Olivia, listen to PSFK’s podcast.