Book Review: Whiff! The Revolution of Scent Communication in the Information Age

C. Russell Brumfield, author of Whiff! The Revolution of Scent Communication in the Information Age, along with co-authors James Goldney and Stephanie Gunning, is bullish on scent. Whiff! is full of examples of how smells affect humans and how people have used aromas to accomplish business, personal, and other objectives. If there’s one theme that pervades the volume, though, it’s that whatever has been accomplished to date will pale by comparison with what the future holds.

According to Brumfield, we are on the verge of an age in which almost every product and environment is imbued with an appropriate scent. That scent might be designed to evoke a particular emotion, or send a branding message. He even thinks scent could provide directional cues to help shoppers navigate complex mall environments.

This might seem a bit outlandish, but Brumfield and his co-authors provide plenty of research data that supports their basic premises, if not their entire vision of future applications.

Sexy Pumpkins

While there’s neuromarketing fodder galore in Whiff! (products that smell better perform better, for example), there is also a great deal of information about the behavioral effects of aromas that is just plain fascinating. Want to arouse a guy? Don’t bother with expensive perfumes. The Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation measured male sexual arousal produced by a variety of aromas, and found that a mixture of lavendar and pumpkin pie increased arousal by 40%, while a runner-up combination of doughnut and black licorice aromas produced boosted arousal by 31%. Not exactly the stuff of Chanel or Jean Patou… Why pay hundreds of dollars per ounce when a Krispy Kreme and Twizzler (black, of course) will do the trick?

Lest we leave out the guys, Whiff! also reports that most colognes for men decrease female arousal, with the exception being natural scents. What’s the real turn-on for women? Research shows that the combination clean male skin, a little fresh sweat, and any fresh fruity scent produces the highest levels of arousal. Put THAT in a bottle, Ralph Lauren…

That New Car Smell

In Sensory Branding and Does Your Marketing Smell, I wrote about how automakers strive to make their new cars smell like, well, new cars. Whiff! offers a few more data points, notably that Detroit automakers spend $2 million per year on “liquid leather” aroma. The authors also suggest that the resurgence of the Cadillac brand in the mid-1990s may have been due in part to the development of their signature fragrance, Nuance.

I could go on, but if this is the kind of stuff you find interesting, read the book.

And what of the authors’ predictions of virtually all products and environments making smell part of their persona? I think it a bit unlikely. We have the technology now to make almost any product talk or play music (think greeting cards), but nobody wants to walk into a room and trigger a cacophony of talking furniture and decorations. And a cacophony of scents might be no less annoying. A single perfume insert in a magazine can be almost overwhelming – having many scent-emitting items in one area might well produce an annoying muddle. I believe we will definitely see more use of environmental scents for both branding and mood alteration. Scented products, though, will probably be used more selectively where there is a direct consumer benefit or where there is an expectation of a scent (new cars, leather sofas, etc.)

Whatever you believe about the future of scent-based marketing, Whiff! is an enjoyable and accessible exploration of what we know about smell and provides a provocative vision of future scent innovations.

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