How Manufactured Smells Are Making People Shop Longer And Kill Better

Scent marketers play with people's noses and minds in stores, hotels, and military simulations. All thanks to a former Disney Imagineer.

Next time you're at a hotel, chain store, large concert venue, or casino, stop and take a big sniff. It's not unlikely that you will smell a subtle, carefully concocted scent created by fragrance specialists at ScentAir, the nation's largest scent marketing and branding company. Their olfactory potions have an obvious purpose: to encourage customers to linger longer and return more often.

But it isn't all sugar and spice (and lemon balm and ocean mist). ScentAir's scientists also recreate — and sell — the odors of feces, blood, guts, and even burning flesh, for use in medical and military simulation training.

A former Disney Imagineer, David Martin, is the brains behind the company. At Disney, he helped introduce the use of different smells to amusement parks; Disney first utilized them at special events, then expanded their use to its indoor rides, stores, and hotels.

"Disney creates the happiest place on earth by engaging all the senses and thinking of every level of detail. They are the masters," ScentAir spokesperson Ed Burke told BuzzFeed. "We try to bring that to other types of businesses."

ScentAir's founder took his work to other amusement parks and entertainment venues; you can thank him for the dung smell at the dinosaur exhibit at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the Shrek fart on the Universal Studios ride, and the whiffs of cotton candy during Katy Perry's 2011 tour. But he also found steady business bringing smell to stores, hotels, casinos, bars, and restaurants.

ScentAir partners with Mood Media, a marketing company that acquired Muzak and its main competitor, DMX, last year. Mood creates custom-tailored soundtracks (much more sophisticated than the elevator music of yore) and helps clients engineer their venues in virtually every way: look and feel, music, visual decorations, color palettes, overhead announcement voices — and now scents.

"It's marketing, but you don't know you are being marketed to," says Mood salesperson Shirley Reynolds.

Smells create a brand association that is subtler than a jingle or logo but, according to the companies that make them, just as strong. "Smell is a direct line to your recall system," says Mood marketer Brian McKinley. "One month after we see something, we have a 40% recall. With smell, it is 60% for months and months."

"Sometimes our clients get caught up in, 'OK, what is the scent that makes customers buy more?'" says Burke. "We use the psychology and physiology, but when you peel it all back, all scent has a profound effect on emotions and memory. If you get it right, you ultimately get them to do what the business wants them to do, but we focus on the creativity of it."

The Hard Rock Café Hotel in Orlando added an "ocean" smell to its lobby so that "guests can imagine checking into a seaside resort," as ScentAir's website explains, even though the hotel is about an hour from the coast. It also draws people into the ice cream shop downstairs by putting the popular "sugar cookie" smell at the top of the stairs and "waffle cone" at the bottom. By the time you follow your nose, the hope is you'll be craving an ice cream. (In fact, sales jumped 45% in the first six months after the smells were employed.)*

The same tech that allows ScentAir to manipulate shoppers has graver utility. The company has, for example, created a scent of burning flesh and dead bodies, mixed with gasoline, gunpowder, sewage, burning trash, and exhaust, which the military uses during combat training simulations. If you're accustomed to the smell before you enter a combat zone, the thinking goes, it won't distract (or traumatize) you as severely as it would if you were experiencing it for the first time.

"The Department of Defense and the defense contractors spend so much money and effort training and preparing," says Burke. "Your sense of smell is so tied to how we perceive experiences and surroundings outside of ourselves. 'Improvise, adapt, and overcome' is one of [the military's] mantras. It's being able to navigate your environment and the situation you are in."

There are a wide range of uses for artificial smell in the military. In helicopter-pilot training simulators, for example, pilots learn to differentiate between the smells of burning wire, indicating an electrical fire, versus a gas-driven fire. ScentAir works closely with the military during the development and testing of new scents.

"Rotting flesh is a horrible, horrible smell, but it is amazing what they do with it," says Burke. "It's saving lives."

ScentAir has also branched out into medical training simulations for trauma, operating rooms, and birthing rooms. The newest versions of Resusci Anne CPR training dolls have realistic bodies filled with fluids — and now, to match, ScentAir offers the scents of blood and other bodily fluids.

"My favorite scent is vomit," says Burke. "We do a fantastic vomit."

Currently, the military and hospital market makes up just 10% of ScentAir's business. ScentAir has a library of over 2,000 more traditional scents, including "Flower Shoppe," coffee, birthday cake, vanilla bourbon, and, ironically, fresh air, breeze, and "Fresh Outdoors." They've played around with roasted meat, but savory smells are harder to manufacture than sweet ones. They also take plenty of custom orders. One small store, which ScentAir could not identify, requested the smell of marijuana.

Some scents are intended to set a mood — say, playful, upscale, and sophisticated, or exotic. Citrus notes energize; lavender ones relax. Others build on branding: The Hershey's Store in Times Square smells like chocolate, even though all the candy is wrapped. Other aromas, tailored to narrowly targeted demographics, pluck customers' nostalgic heartstrings. Parents, for instance, might respond to pink bubble gum at a toy store. Their kids, however, wouldn't even recognize it.

Bloomingdale's uses baby powder in the infant department and lilac in the lingerie section. When bathing suits go on sale during the fall or winter, stores set the mood with a light pina colada or coconut lime. At Christmas, a festive evergreen, often mixed with orange citrus, cinnamon, and spices, invigorates shoppers and improves their moods. Fragrances cycle just like styles do in the fashion world. Right now, fig is "way hot," according to Burke (who jokes about a Zoolander vibe at the office) but "Bamboo" — a soft, crisp, watery pond scent with a hint of pepper — is set to be the next big thing.

ScentAir's customers choose the scents by smelling paper dipped in small glass vials. Then the company works with fragrance houses, which deliver the perfume in barrels. ScentAir helps engineer delivery systems too. Large venues run the perfume through their HVAC. Mood sells smaller spaces dry system cartridge systems that last for 30 days and can fill about 300 square feet. They are strategically placed based on a room's air circulation and can be triggered by timers and motion sensors.

"Everywhere already has a scent," says McKinley. "If you don't manage it, something else will."

*ScentAir's spokesperson was able to dispel the myth that casinos pump oxygen onto the gambling floors to keep guests from getting tired. Casinos do turn over air at a high rate to keep the atmosphere from becoming stale (or smoky), but the oxygen ratio is the same.

Skip to footer