Richard Weening was in the back of a cab in Las Vegas when he realized had a problem. He had just presented the Mirage with his latest pitch—a chocolate chip cookie fragrance that would linger in the air of its hotel—and now he was heading back to the airport with the scent machine that would emit the smell itself.
But the machine hadn’t been sealed properly, and it began to drip concentrated chocolate chip cookies everywhere. On the seat. On the floor. On his pants. He apologized to the driver, exchanged cards, and promised to pay for a thorough cleaning. One can only imagine how strongly that cab stunk of cookies, as during the plane ride home, the flight attendants came onto the intercom, assuring passengers that there were no fresh baked cookies on the plane.
Months later, the cabbie finally gave Weening a call. But he didn’t want money for cleaning the cab. He wanted more of that cookie smell that his passengers loved.
"I never got the Mirage interested in using that scent," Weening tells me, "but there may be a chocolate chip cookie with four wheels running around Las Vegas."
Weening is the CEO of Prolitec, an "ambient scenting" company that releases signature smells into the air of hotels and retail stores—110,000 in countries around the world—ranging from the Starwood hotels to Aveda to Petco. The company estimates that 25 million people smell its fragrances today in a ~$200 million industry. Weening believes scenting is still in the early adopter phase for companies and is on pace for a strong 10-year growth. "It’s about to, I won’t say explode, but become a lot more meaningful," he says.
But it’s a weird industry! Smell! So I asked Weening to give us an insider view of how the whole thing works.
Even though Prolitec works with master perfumers, Weening calls it a technology company since it installs small scent emitters into a business’s HVAC system and carefully titrates the amount of a fragrance in the air based upon factors like heat and humidity. These patented "AirQ" units don't look like much—white or black boxes that resemble a chunky Wi-Fi router, loaded with a plastic bottle of concentrate.
The unit doesn't need to be very large because what you actually smell doesn’t require much of what the company calls "scent material." The air is filled with less than 10 parts per million of this scent-stuff, which puts it below levels that would incite allergic reactions "unless your allergy is psychosomatically induced," Weening says, "which are real allergies, too."
Companies like Prolitec produce smells that are a lot better than, say, those air freshener trees that hang from cabs' rearview mirrors. It all comes down to the volatility of chemicals. If it takes several chemicals to produce any particular smell, they all need to vaporize into the air at the same rate for that smell to be consistent (and consistently good). A few days into an air freshener, and the smells can go sour because they’re thrown out of chemical balance. Prolitec ensures perfect, controlled vaporization, and fine-tunes levels by starting out in a few test stores before scaling a branded smell globally.
"A lot of people think it’s as simple as getting a fragrance and blowing it into the air," says Weening. "That’s why we don't let our clients mess around with it. They’ll get it too strong, too weak."
The chief problem of designing the smell of a place comes down the invasiveness of scent. Unlike something we may see that we don’t particularly like, smell enters your body on a physical level—and you can't turn away from it. You more or less taste it. "The bar is very high to putting scent in a public space. People coming into that space have not chosen to experience scent. It’s not like your house where you [might light a candle]," says Weening. "You walk into a hotel lobby and you haven't chosen it. What it means is the scent has to be really good, subtle, the same all the time, very uniform. All of those are significant technical challenges."
Prolitec’s least frequent requests are for what Weening calls "gourmand" scents. "Food smells. Like vanilla. Apple pie. Chocolate chip cookies. The customer thinks that’d be really cool—let’s smell like vanilla!" says Weening. "In fact, it runs to a very important part of the scenting business. Whatever scent you put in has to be livable. You have to smell it all day long. If you’re smelling vanilla all day long I guarantee that you’re going to hate it by 6 p.m. And it’s going to put you to sleep. It smells like grandma’s kitchen."
That associative property of smell to memory is particularly powerful, Weening contends, and he points out that science is with him in this regard. Humans have been found to detect 1 trillion different smells, and despite juggling such an unfathomable number of scents, specific smells really can remind us of previous experiences. Scientists speculate this might be because the part of our brain that handles olfactory sensation is located next door to emotion and memory—while vision, sound, and touch are handled elsewhere.
Having said that, Weening has a relatively conservative view about just how far smell can drive consumer behavior. "It doesn’t drive you to take a direct action," he contends. "What it does is give you a positive thing in your head [related to] that experience and brand. That’s all it does."
Yet smell does more than create a pleasant experience, Weening concedes later. For some of his clients, smell actually solves very specific problems, or targets consumers in a strategized way. Weening didn’t break down exactly how they archetype a target consumer and pair them with certain scents, but he did admit that florals will often be used for females, while a play for men would include citrusy or ozonic smells—what you might think of as airy, watery, or even melony scents.
Sometimes, environmental scent is just a play to define your sense or interpretation of a brand. "Go into an Aveda. If it’s a corporate-owned store, you smell us," says Weening. "They are trying to associate that particular smell—which is, by the way, the smell of one of their products—with their brand." The Aveda store becomes the Aveda product, which becomes the Aveda brand, which becomes the Aveda store again. It’s a smell-tacular ouroboros.
Other retailers, predictably, use smells to distract from, or even mask unpleasant odors. "Go into a Bliss spa, they’re using a lot of chemicals that together don't smell very good," says Weening. "So we put a smell in the public areas that is really attractive. We’ve been doing that for years, and it’s a big part of their brand dialect." Similarly, Petco has been fitted with a scent that would appeal to Petco’s (unnamed) core demographic, all while mitigating the earthy smells of small mammals.
Finally, the smell may just be something that you want to buy. Retailers frequently vaporize their own perfumes into the air, Weening says, in the hope that you'll ask a clerk what you’re smelling and end up buying the answer. "It’s not just the 1% of people who walk into the fragrance counter who experience it—it’s 100% of people in the store."
Abercrombie & Fitch used to take this to extremes, pumping its Fierce cologne through the store with the confident musk of an overzealous frat boy. "When we started scenting Abercrombie stores years ago, the CEO, Mike Jeffries, wanted very strong scent. The machines are adjustable from 1 to 50. He made us put it at 40. It was so strong I couldn’t be in the store. But the kids didn’t seem to mind it," laughs Weening. "Now they’re trying to evolve and reinvent themselves. They have the scent turned down to five."