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Wiring scents: online culture and the sense of smell

The sense of smell is based on proximity. It is the traditional idea of stationary perfumeries: you are experiencing smells at the POS. You need to smell a perfume in order to find out if you like it (or not) and whether you want to purchase it. However, the ways and means of getting informed about and hooked to a brand and its perfumes becomes increasingly diversified. Over the last couple of years, the emergence and growth of the Social Web led to the belief and trust by consumers in a plethora of blogs, boards, user communities, and larger media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest to get informed, bond with brands, and share knowledge. Also, online shops have made use of this trend and offer a lot of information beyond being a shopping environment. Thus, a specific group of consumers becomes more informed and intelligent about branded products.

However, two questions are challenging on how to transmit olfactive impressions online: first, how and to whom can emotionalities of scents be transported and, second, can the Internet ultimately become more than an information and communication tool? Accordingly, two examples of innovative answers are presented.

First, a multitude of information and communication channels in the area of perfumery exist online. Several formats are set up where consumers can inform themselves or participate in discussions about perfumes. There, consumers express their emotions about, impressions of, and relations to perfumes. Typically, the Social Web deconstructs perfumes according to their way of becoming, their overall standing in the market, the characters behind them, perfumers as stars, and the setup of notes and accords of a perfume, to name a few aspects. In general, the knowledge level of readers and participants is high; online users have an elaborated language and broad horizon when talking about perfume.

However, two circumstances challenge this approach of talking scents: first, a democratic and informed discussion about perfume amongst users is challenging as soon as the small group of aficionados is exceeded. Is the average consumer interested in this topic and knowledgeable of understanding and participating in an educated exchange? For instance, what does it mean to read about nuances of Rose, Vanilla, and Patchouli in a perfume and differences between Oud from Vietnam, Malaysia, or Indonesia? The wording and language use of aficionados is elaborate and often requires a pre-existing knowledge and vocabulary. Thus, traditional emotional writing is either for a knowledgeable group of already interested or attuned aficionados or for a group of brand followers who have been loyal to brands that they heard or make use of. Second, this inequality of information and communication skills hints to power differences. Usually, for the average consumer, the perfume brand and trusted retailers are the motors and mediators of information. Thus, consumers trust in what they are told and this information usually comes from marketing departments of brands and retailers.

How is innovation in this context enabled? One example of ICT-innovation in online perfumery is Scentury. This is a new platform that introduces an informed, personal, and accessible version of scent-talking. The sub-heading “perfume stories” hints to its focus: Scentury is about storytelling – and not storytelling by ‘usual suspects’, but storytelling of individuals who are considered as open towards scents and with basic knowledge about perfumes. In essence, these individuals act as gatekeepers and connectors between different artistic genres. They are opening up the field of perfumery for average consumers. As the founder of Scentury, Helder Suffenplan, defines, this platform is “a place that creative people can relate to because it’s all about them. It embeds fragrance into a wider cultural context by featuring fascinating personalities from the fields of art, design and entertainment. Scentury uses the art of storytelling to make the full richness of fragrance accessible to everyone.

Thus, Scentury is an online platform that presents interviews with creative individuals and industry professionals; a pick du jour with vintage perfumes; fragrance quotes; a linked Pinterest page with related images; a Facebook connection with the option to participate; and several links to thematically-related websites that highlight the platform character of Scentury. Consumers are attracted to understand the culture of perfume holistically. Interviews with creative personalities are key; they consist of a perfume blind-tasting and a Q&A part. During the blind-tasting, the interviewee is confronted with a ‘mystery perfume’ in an opaque, neutral vaporizer. She is asked to characterize the scent and connect it to ideas, associations, memories, feelings, and emotions that affect her when smelling it. The expressed language is accessible and non-lingo is prevalent – it is about stories that are told around scents and that help to conceive a scent more vividly. The Q&A part consists of a multitude of questions, all related to the topic of scents and perfumes.

Scentury represents the feelings and emotions of a perfume verbalized by one individual and her understanding of it. This approach is new: it contrasts online communities of perfume aficionados and their elaborated language on the one hand and the marketing and salesman language of the brands and retailers on the other. Two additional issues are related to that in terms of power and trust. First, the aspect of dialogue is stressed as key for selling premium and new beauty products. The type of dialogue on Scentury is novel: it is neither a grassroot democratic documentation of personal opinions nor a mediated communication by strategists and marketers of brands. It represents a tertium datur. Second, since the consumers’ first point of contact with new brands is increasingly moving online, the issue of trust-building is similarly going that direction. In this context, trust-building through recommendation and descriptions through stories that are considered as trustworthy and realistic are paving the way for a positive initial recognition at the ultimate POS – be it offline or online.

Second, is and will the Internet remain an ICT tool? Novel approaches of transmitting scents electronically are putting that view in perspective. In general, it has been a true challenge to add smell to the picture of sensorial stimulations. An example is the use of scents in movies. Already in the second part of the 20th century, inventors tried to promote and support movies by a stimulation through scents. The intention was to witness a situation in a movie more thoroughly. However, several technological challenges – those of production, quick progression, and ventilation of scents – let those projects fail.

However, new devices are reaching the market. This year, the Ophone, developed by Vapor Communications, was tested. The Ophone was initially designed to release bursts of coffee, caramel and chocolate scents. Tests were made with individuals in London and Paris which submitted scent messages that were sent from one location to the other; this worked out well. The Ophone is a device that connects a smartphone through Bluetooth with a handheld cylinder. This cylinder exudes scents. Through an app, connected smartphone users can send scents to cylinders elsewhere. Currently, up to 320 smells can be produced. The ultimate intention of The Ophone is still in the process of being invented to allow smartphone users to send scented messages instantaneously.

The founder of Vapor Communications, David Edwards, stresses that „by empowering the rapid exchange and manipulation of olfactory information, the visual and auditory foundation of global communications today might tomorrow be intriguingly expanded by a third communication mode“ – that of smell. This technology highlights that, for the moment, comparatively simple smell structures can be submitted to distant places. Technology in the form of particular devices helps to promote sensual experiences at a distance.

However, over the longer term it might be a challenging idea to think about even more complex scent structures such as in perfumes that can be sent somewhere. This could possibly revolutionize social, commercial, and technological structures that we have been accustomed for a very long time. Researchers of online media stress, that the lines between offline and online are continuously blurring. The same might be true for scents: it works a lot according to the determinant of proximity, but not only.