What’s That Smell? How Scent Impacts CX

air freshener in car

You’ve likely caught a smell that took you back to a memory, a time, or a place. Scent is powerful and our sense of smell is directly connected to our emotional brain. Have you ever wondered how scent could impact your customer experience?

Daniel Zimmon is the founder of NatScent, a company that uses scent to create a better customer experience. In this interview, he talks with Dan Gingiss about the power of the olfactory experience

Dan Gingiss: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your company.

Daniel Zimmon: Our company, NatScent is helping companies, beyond the traditional luxury brands, to use our most underutilized and most influential sense to create an experience for people and teams inside and outside of organizations. Our sense of smell is directly connected to our emotional brain. And up until now, it was almost exclusively luxury brands and luxury experiences that used it. We’re now doing it in health care, retail, fitness, and we’re bringing it to smaller, growing, and normal brands that serve everyone. It’s been fantastic.

Dan Gingiss: Let’s dig into that a little bit. Let’s say that I’m a gym owner, a fitness center owner, and I’m interested in working on a scent that is not a bunch of sweaty men, which is what you tend to smell when you walk into a gym. Walk me through your process. How does that discussion go?

Daniel Zimmon: When you think about it, most people are familiar with gyms smelling differently than just the generic smell or just the cleaning smell. One of the most famous brands in fitness is Equinox, and they’re defined by that eucalyptus mint smell that you get every time you go there. So at least in fitness, the people there are usually really receptive. A lot of them are coming to us and saying, “Hey, we want to do this, how do we do it?” So, the discussion’s about what scent are you going to use? Can we make it special to you? And how do we deliver it in a way that’s complimentary and perfect all the time? And that’s what we specialize in.

Dan Gingiss: I would imagine that the number of choices of a scent is almost limitless. So how does that fitness center owner decide on eucalyptus? Is there research behind it that says eucalyptus is a great smell for working out? And what if he had said grapefruit? How do we hone in on that when there are so many choices?

Daniel Zimmon: Well, grapefruit’s another famous one in fitness because a company called SoulCycle defined their whole brand with a particular grapefruit smell, which I particularly love. But that’s such a great question, and you’re kind of nailing it. There are so many smells, there are actually hundreds of thousands of smells, and our sense of smell is so developed, precise, exacting, that we can detect thousands and thousands of smells. So yeah, there are ballpark areas that people equate smells with, whether it’s clean and fresh or woody and earthy or high end and floral, so we usually guide them in directions. But having one that’s your own and the beautiful and amazing and powerful thing about scent and scent brand is once you get intentional about smell and consistent in your organization, your experience becomes linked to that scent experience.

Scent experience goes directly to your emotional brain. So that’s really the value of it. Yeah, there are families. We usually start there, but most of the time, you know, it’s about taking something that either our client loves already, or we go through our portfolio and find what’s great for them. The process is usually way easier than you think. Almost all the time, clients smell the different smells we bring, and they’re like, “Oh yes, it’s three.” There’s rarely a, “Well, should we do two, should we do five? No, it’s usually, “Oh yeah, three is us. Let’s do three.” And we also do test programs, too.

Dan Gingiss: OK. And then how do you know whether the scent is having the right impact? In other words, I would imagine that there is a delicate balance between wanting it to be subtle but effective and not wanting it to be too overpowering. And so how do you know when you’ve hit it right? Do customers comment? Or is it just that the client is happy? Do customers behave differently? How do you know when you’ve hit on something, and maybe the reverse question, how do you know when maybe “whoops, grapefruit wasn’t right, now we should try lime.”

Daniel Zimmon: Lots of our clients are working with analytics companies already, so they get the analytics feedback on case acceptance and spend per customer or time spent in the store. So, you get anecdotal and scientific hard numbers on it. The science behind it is kind of surprising, which is scent works at all levels and can be done in different ways. Some companies have been successful absolutely bombing you with it, and we have some clients that do that where you can smell it down the block. It’s not my preference. Scent has also been scientifically proven to work at an almost subliminal or subliminal level where you can’t necessarily smell it, but you can still have that memory sticking imprint. It’s kind of like, what’s it like going to your grandmother’s house? Can you remember what it smells like there? How you felt?

Dan Gingiss: It’s been a long time, unfortunately for me. But yes, I definitely can remember that smell for sure.

Daniel Zimmon: Yeah, my grandmother died like 35 years ago. I can still remember what her house smelled like and how I felt there. And that’s what it’s about. So that’s what we bring. That’s what we bring to the experience side. And Disney is famous for it, too. Have you ever been to Disney? I’m sure you have as an experience master.

Dan Gingiss: Many times, but I’m not sure that I have noticed the smell. So tell me a little bit about it.

Daniel Zimmon: Well, Disney has this really famous case study of their ice cream shop. They sent the different rides, they sent the different halls and experiences to match the experience, whether it’s jungle or outer space. But their famous case study was the ice cream area. Ice cream doesn’t smell. It’s frozen, it’s in a case, even when it’s out, you barely smell it. But they started scenting outside the ice cream shop with the smell of waffle cones, and their ice cream purchases went up by something like 95% instantly. Because people get that feeling as they walk by. It’s like walking by Starbucks.

Dan Gingiss: Yeah, I’m thinking like a Cinnabon or Auntie Anne’s when you’re in the airport. You can smell it from down the terminal, and you know you’re about to come upon it. I’m reminded of the old Tom and Jerry cartoons were like, they’re following the scent, you know? And you see the scent floating in the air. It reminds me of that. So, I’m just thinking, maybe somebody is watching, they’re saying, OK, this is great, but I’m not Auntie Anne’s or someplace that is known for a smell. I’m not even serving food. I’m not in that industry. So, how do I even decide that this is something that I should be investing in versus whatever else I should be investing in?

Daniel Zimmon: Great question again. Intentional and consistent scent is about brand experience and customer experience. So, great companies and great organizations have great cultures, and they extend that culture to their customer and their client experience and to each other. They spend massive amounts of money on it and it’s money well spent. It’s what really matters. So, scent is leverage on that.

Scent takes all the effort you put into culture and all the effort you put into client experience and customer experience and memorializes it makes us sticky in their minds. It’s something, you know, if you put a sign on the wall, you read it a few times and you tune it out. And because the way scent works in the way it connects to your mind, you can’t turn it out. It’s always there.

That’s why Sony, Apple, Nike, all of the airlines, all luxury brands have a consistent scent to make the most of what they’re paying attention to and what’s valuable in their company, which is the customer journey and the internal journey too. How people feel about where they work, and how they’re treated, how their teams work together. It’s memorialized and links that memory, links that impression. And that’s why it’s valuable all across the board. We work with law firms, we work with engineering companies, we work with health care companies. Distributed locations are amazing for it because you can take the experience of the home hospital and spread that out into all the regionals, instantly.

Dan Gingiss: I thought maybe you were going to hit on this, do companies also use this for employee experience?

Daniel Zimmon: Yeah, exactly. It memorializes everything that’s going on in your organization. Internally and externally. It’s kind of like going to your grandmother’s house on Thanksgiving. If it was a great time, that’s how I feel. If everyone’s fighting all the time, then when they smell turkey, they’re maybe on high alert. So, great brands, great organizations, people that care about other people, it’s incredibly valuable and powerful.

Dan Gingiss: All right, so let’s flip it on its end. Can this affect people negatively? Maybe I’m allergic, or maybe I have a particular sensitivity. And if so, what do we do about that?

Daniel Zimmon: Well, that’s a great question. It’s one of the reasons going pro works, right? So the pro-level scenting gear that we use and the perfumes that are designed in compliance with the governing body of scent, using flavors and compounds that are approved for that use and deemed safe internationally. Lots of companies, we go into there doing a whole bunch of deodorizing. So, getting rid of all of that and being able to do it exactly the way you want it all the time and super precisely is how you take care of that. Our systems distribute something in the range of less than 1/100th of the density of molecules that people experience just on the fragrance from someone’s hand cream. So it can be and is effective at super low levels. Sense of smell is our primal defense mechanism.

Dan Gingiss: Interesting. That’s so cool. I think that’s kind of where I was getting at, Daniel, was that the sense of smell can be something that brings people together, like Thanksgiving dinner. And it can be something that scurries people to the exits. So I think it’s fascinating to try to find that right balance. I like that you’re saying that it can be really subtle because I think that probably helps a lot.

Sometimes I get into an Uber the scent that the guy has hanging from his rearview mirror is so strong my eyes are watering. Even if I like the scent, that’s not the kind of experience that people want. So, it’s interesting that balance that you guys have to achieve. You mentioned before that you were working a lot of different verticals. I’d love it if you could just tell us about some of them and how they’re different. What’s the approach in a medical facility versus a retailer, for example?

Daniel Zimmon: You know, they kind of do it for the same reason they’re trying to cement the experience that they’re creating. And the way people receive their care, how they respond to it, how they feel about it has a gigantic impact on how and how well they do. It’s the placebo effect and also their compliance. So that’s one of the reasons we’re working with especially high choice health care like orthopedics and dental. What are they going to choose? They’re going to say, Yeah, we’re going to do with this doctor says. Are they going to believe in the doctor? It can help in those things.

Retail is a more direct experience, but I think in retail it’s the same thing. It’s a person-to-person connection. I love the store. It’s cool. Sounds great. It smells good. I feel positive. But when I interact with the people that are there and how they treat me is enormous and that’s where scent really comes in. So it’s similar stuff. They call it the retailization of health care because health care is a journey. And how much people comply with what organizations and doctors are trying to do for them is one of the biggest challenges of what they do and also for the value perception.

The doctors, and the dentists, and the companies we work with, they’re fabulous. But if their clients don’t feel that they’re getting that value, they’re going to be less compliant. They’re going to come back less frequently, and they’re going to do more poorly in their lives. So, it’s a component of giving them the best level of care.

There’s a famous case study on medical imaging for MRIs. Most people have had an MRI, and it can be scary. You have to go into this tube, and it’s close to your face, and it makes all these clicking and popping noises. So, they have lots of issues with people canceling or being unable to complete their scans because they’re anxious. And scent, along with the way people treat you as you go in and the imprint of that has been shown to reduce people freaking out or not wanting to come back. So, it’s similar.

It’s the same thing in retail. The thing about the words. So, the interesting thing about language is that language, and our perceptions and emotions, are very frequently tied to scent words. What do we say when we don’t like something or it’s bad? We say it stinks. Right? There are so many scent-linked expressions about experience. And that’s because of the way it connects to your brain, so everyone’s kind of using the same thing and it really fits experience discussions because it’s about cementing your experience. It has a different kind of influence on your experience, like a leveraging or a memory holding effect.


Source: NatScent

Dan Gingiss: Sure. So, I’m interested, particularly in some of the medical and dental offices, because the scent that I equate to a hospital or a dentist’s office is usually very antiseptic and chemically. And that seems to me it could go either way. On one hand, especially during a pandemic, maybe that makes me feel good because I feel like the place is clean. On the other hand, who like smelling cleaning chemicals, and so it’s not particularly pleasing. And then if they decide instead, we’re not going to smell like antiseptic, we’re going to smell like brownies. Does that even make sense to me and does it scramble my brain because it’s not what I’m expecting? Talk to me a little bit more about that.

Daniel Zimmon: You know a lot about the way scent works, so scents have to fit in order for your brain to feel comfortable. You’ll feel uncomfortable if they don’t and you don’t really know why. So, the thing about scent, there’s no such thing as covering over or turning something off. Your olfactory system detects it all. And yeah, we want to detect that it’s been cleaned. We want it to smell clean. And gyms serve as examples of people having super clean gyms, but they don’t smell good. So, people think they’re dirty and no one’s signing up for the gym. So, what we can do and the cool thing about scent is it can be in individual pieces.

We can give you a different first impression when you get there, and we help our clients with this. What other smells are you creating? How are you creating them? How and what effects are they having? So that’s all part of what we do. It’s not just about, “oh, here’s some scent stuff. It smells fantastic. Put it in and you’ll see an effect.” That’ll work, but if you get involved in everything, your culture, your experience, what other things you’re doing, you can make them all work together. And that’s kind of what it’s about. People have negative associations and connotations, especially people of my generation, with dental. Dental was way different 30 years ago. It was way different. And so when I smell that stuff, I’m kind of like, Oh, yikes. Dental now is way better.

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Dan Gingiss: It’s amazing how quickly a scent can bring you back to whatever that memory is. You maybe you haven’t even been to a dentist’s office or a dentist’s office that smells like that, in 30 years. And then you get in there and that very moment it brings you right back there. And we always talk about the classic scents like a homemade chocolate chip cookie that people can really relate to. But I do think it’s really interesting that it’s hard to come up with another sense that has that almost immediate impact on the brain, which I think is cool.

All right, so we’re coming up to the end of our discussion here, Daniel, how do people get in touch with you, and what’s the first step that a company should take if they want to start exploring scent?

Daniel Zimmon: We like to do pilots with people so they can try it and see what it’s like. We’re subscription so you can install it and see how it works. Just reach out to us at natscent.com.

It’s easy to set up and work and going pro with it is no harder than not going pro. Our subscriptions aren’t very expensive. It’s super cost-effective. People spend a lot of money on home solutions that don’t really accomplish what you want to do. And so that’s one of the reasons I got into it. For the dollar, nothing can help personal connections and reach people like scent can. The value when you have a positive experience to include scent in that is so great. And I love the idea of helping caring organizations and great people extend that and help grow that feeling.

Dan Gingiss: Awesome, really cool. Thank you, Daniel. I’ve got to admit it’s not something that I’ve thought about often, but as we talk about it, I realize that, yeah, this is a big part of the experience. It might not even be one, as consumers, that we always can identify as being a part of the experience. It may be more subtle than that. And yet, hey, I keep going back to this store or this hotel, because it just feels pleasant to me, and I’m not sure why it feels pleasant, but it’s probably having to do somewhat with the scent. Thanks so much for teaching us a little bit about olfactory experience today. I really appreciate it.

Daniel Zimmon: Well, thank you for having me. And you know, when you point that out, it makes me think of some famous brands that do it really subtly like Apple and Nike. You don’t really smell it there. But man, it does not smell like 250 people in the Apple Store. It smells like the box. So that’s what it’s all about. That’s what we bring.