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Selling smells

Russell Brumfield wrote <i>Whiff! The Revolution in Scent Communication in Technology</i>, a top-selling business book on in November.


Russell Brumfield wrote Whiff! The Revolution in Scent Communication in Technology, a top-selling business book on in November.

Russell Brumfield knows the power of a nose. The force behind Wizard Studios, which stages corporate events for Fortune 500 companies, Brumfield survived a midlife crisis and reinvented himself at 48 as a scent marketing expert, seminar speaker and author. Brumfield, who grew up in Largo and now lives on Sand Key, penned Whiff! The Revolution in Scent Communication in Technology, a top-selling business book on in November. His Whiff Solutions advises companies ranging from Harley-Davidson and Procter & Gamble to Starwood Hotels and Sony Style. The St. Petersburg Times sat down with him last week to talk about how smells sell and breakthroughs in aroma technology, including how scents could help authorities retrieve kidnapped children. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Using smell to create an emotional connection is not that new in marketing. Car companies spritz new car smells. Perfume sellers try to spritz passers by. What's changed?

Marketers need multisensory ways to get their messages out because advertising is losing its effectiveness. People are bombarded with 86,000 TV ads a year and hundreds of thousands of other commercial messages. They've fighting back to tune them out, TiVo them out, even text message to avoid e-mail spam.

Not only does caffeine give you a rush, it's proven just the scent of coffee does, too, by releasing mood-altering endorphins. The olfactory system is the only one of the senses hard-wired directly to the right side of the brain. The others are routed through the left side that interprets. So with scent, you can tattoo in people's brain a scent like (coffer maker) Maxwell House did that matches your brand and triggers an emotional response each time someone smells it.

Scents are being deployed through smaller and smaller media in stores. How does it work?

Little scent machines are deployed in remote spaces or connected to the air conditioning in virtually every hotel lobby and most stores in the mall, chains like Macy's, Hollister and Abercrombie and Fitch.

Studies show that the right scent can get shoppers to linger up to 40 percent longer. Every 1 percent increase in customer dwell time adds $1 in sales per square foot. We can do a mall store for $100 to $200 a month.

Just about every package these days is strategically scented. Samsung and Sony both have signature scents now. They even pumped orange citrus scent into Tropicana Field for the World Series, although I cannot understand if they were trying to brand the place as a ballpark or an air freshener.

What's next for hotels?

Candles once were about light, but the sales growth of scented candles shows people now want to manage smells to manage emotions in their homes and environment. We can do that with little machines, instead of the fire hazard of candles. We are talking with hotel chains about offering in each room a choice of six to eight scents that can be piped in through the air conditioning along with custom lighting and music. It only costs the hotel about 30 cents a day per room.

How about scratch-and-sniff ads?

Microencapsulation has improved to where any printing press can embed scent on any page or package that releases to just the touch.

Kraft Foods did ads in People that included touch release of products, mostly sweet ones. Recall was off the charts. Pepsi Jazz did one that included a caramel-ish scent in an ad that literally popped-up.

Some papers are accepting scented ads, but it's been up and down.

Why did you sell Wizard Studios a few years ago to live off royalties and disappear?

After staging 15,000 corporate events in less than 20 years, I was just burned out. I traveled to 60 countries, cut off my pony tail and got my weight down to 225 from 325 pounds. I used the hiatus to rethink my life and came back a new guy.

I'd always been interested in neurology and the science behind scent. We used scent a lot in setting the mood at events. Wizard did a lot of work with theme parks where I got connected with a Disney guy who invented a scent machine that pumped smells like fire, ruins and smoke into rides.

I was turned on by a Dutch science book on how smell works physiologically. There's even some evidence emerging that scent can treat disease and reduce pain. So I took the time to do the research and reorganized my life so my 11 businesses are run by 37 partners. I even hiked 500 miles on the St. James trail in Spain. I have a book coming on the experience.

Scent is tricky business. Marketing guru and author Martin Lindstrom writes in Buyology of putting people in an MRI and wiring them up to monitor blood flow in the brain to confirm the effectiveness of ad campaigns and scent marketing. He found the right scent does create an adrenaline rush that conjures up pleasant feelings of a store or product where you first sniffed it. What's the downside?

Not everybody likes the same scents. In one test the aromas Germans disliked most (cypress oil, fermented soybean and dried fish flakes) all were indigenous Japanese products. Smells most disliked by Japanese (church incense, sausage and blue cheese) were German in origin.

I've seen one scent increase apparel sales 50 percent while another caused them to drop that much. We've gotten 10,000 odors down to about 1,000 commonly pleasing scents.

The problem is, too many companies don't test to learn what works and many make the scent too overpowering.

You talk about a future for "skunk warnings," which so far have not gone much beyond natural gas companies injecting a distinctive scent as a leak detector in otherwise odorless fumes. What about for scents that create an adverse reaction?

Those bags that explode dye on bank robbers can also leave a scent that makes the bad guy really stand out.

You're about to see an anti-kidnapping alert bracelet for children. A phone call triggers a GPS signal and foul scent. People could smell a kidnapped child.

Fire safety alarms for the deaf in public buildings will use scents capable of waking you from a dead sleep.

I'm working on embedding a scent in tire treads, so you are reminded when they are worn too thin.

What about allergic reactions and critics who object to being manipulated?

Frankly, that's directed more at the perfume industry. Is it no more manipulating than a product placement on American Idol. These are all natural oils from a world that has always been full of smells.

People have always gone where it smells pleasant and stay away from where it smells bad.

Retailers and manufacturers are learning we're hard-wired: If you don't like the way someone smells, you find somebody else.

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.

Selling smells 01/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 2:25pm]
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