The Power of Sensory Customer Experience

From customer-centred service design to sensory thinking

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Did you know you could smell the world already six months before you were born? Starting from the twelfth week of pregnancy, the olfactory brain processes gigabytes of information every day, receiving input about our surroundings with every breath, even in our sleep. Let’s look at some basic data: every human has approximately ten million smell receptors of 350 varieties. Linked directly to the emotional centre of the brain, the olfactory bulb transmits signals that create vivid, multidimensional memories, instantly retrievable every time we come in contact with the scent. What does it tell us? Scent has the power to build lasting impressions—if there is a scent accompanying an event, it will make the event more memorable. Scent triggers emotions—if there is an emotion evoked during the event, the scent will bring it back every time it is smelled.

Having said that, one may feel tempted to simply install a scent diffuser in an interior and wait for a surge of excited clients—however, it is now about two decades too late for such solutions. Aroma marketing, a concept born in the 1990s, is rapidly becoming obsolete. It is no longer enough to just scent a room—implementing sensory projects in architecture must be a well-designed, carefully crafted process based on data from a variety of sources and focused on a holistic customer experience: a senseperience. Why design it when the market offers so many ready-made scented products? Don’t we all enjoy more or less the same? Certainly, the scent of orange peel is pleasant. Yet, it will evoke a different reaction from a Gen Xer born in Eastern Europe than an adolescent Latino. Rose is a familiar, if not generic, scent in the Middle East and an exotic, oriental aroma for an average Northern European. Pine needles denote “a clean house” in Norway, but not in France.

It is no longer enough to just scent a room—implementing sensory projects in archi-tecture
© Notabene studio

It is crucial to map out the customers’ sensorial experiences, associations and aversions. A sensory designer also goes way beyond the type of business they create solutions for. There is no such thing as a “good scent for a hotel,” as there are many hotels offering basically the same services. But what are the values that make this particular hotel different? Is it the light that comes through the panoramic windows? Is it the atmosphere of warm hospitality, this feel-at-home approach of the personnel? Or is it the spirit of innovation that is associated with the venue, as the hotel regularly hosts a prestigious conference in the field of AI? All the factors are important discriminants that play a vital role in sensory creation.

In designing for the senses it is also crucial to follow the sensory interplay between the materials used in the interior design. Here, scent can have a magical effect. Using a sheer citrus fragrance, we can make a room seem bigger, brighter, more spacious. Conversely, smoky notes will make it seem darker and smaller. Warm, amber accords draw attention to wool, cashmere or velvet used on curtains or pillows. We can make eco-friendly faux leather furniture smell expensive and sophisticated. It is possible to evoke the presence of a wooden floor in a room where no wood has been used. There are scents that have the ability to highlight certain elements of the interior or—if necessary—hide others. The possibilities are innumerable, including the use of functional scents with active ingredients that influence people’s mood, combat fatigue or enhance sleep.

The idea of sensorial design is still fresh. This gives architects, brand managers and interior designers a vast arena to experiment with and go well beyond the usual choices. Here is a brief look at two projects that embraced the ideas of 360° sensory solutions. The first one is Showfields, a multi-concept store based in NY, advertised as “the most interesting store in the world.” It is an immersive retail concept, where people’s senses are engaged with every step they take, starting from an olfactory signature in each room, using fun slides to connect the floors instead of regular stairs and hypnotizing metallic origami walls that increase the overall euphoric experience.

There are scents that have the ability to highlight certain elements of the interior
© Notabene studio

Another project, implemented by the author and partner for Bukovina Therma & Spa in Poland, involved bringing the surrounding pine forest into the hotel, with the main notes of pine present not only in the air, but also in food, snacks, drinks, spa rituals and body care products. Moreover, the solutions included a series of functional scents to alleviate stress and shorten the perceived time while waiting for check-in, pillow mists to accelerate sleep, light herbal sprays to help restless children relax, sensual massage oils for couples and power scents to boost concentration in the conference rooms. By involving the sense of smell, taste and touch, a unique customer experience was created, based on the brand’s mission and vision.

In the world dominated by visual messages, constantly fuelled by social media, it is important to bear in mind, that people are 80% more likely to share information about an experience with others, if it involved a pleasant olfactory, tactile or gustatory impression. It seems that we are witnessing the transition from customer-centred service design to sensory thinking. People are sensation-seekers. Even newborns turn their heads more often towards people that smell pleasant. Just unleash the potential of your senses and you will smell the future!

Main image: “The Secret of Scent, Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell,” Luca Turin. Photo © Notabene Studio

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