‘Our forgotten sense’: Terry Jacobson on the rise of scent marketing in Asia

The founder and chief executive officer AllSense – who will be appearing at the Mumbrella360 Asia conference in November – talks to Eleanor Dickinson about his journey into scent marketing, its popularity in Asia and why Singapore’s retail landscape needs to move beyond shopping alone

So how did you get into scent marketing?

“I’ve always been an ideas person and drawn to things that are a bit different. I was actually in the United States for a friend’s wedding and missed my flight home. I remember reading USA Today on how retailers can engage people in their store environments; there was a three-line paragraph on scent and I thought it was a crazy enough idea for me. So I ripped out the article, took it back to Sydney and started doing some more research.

“I’ve always been drawn to experiences and events, whether it’s human or brand-related, so this idea ticked all those boxes. When I tried to sell it to clients though, especially in Australia, people were a bit like: ‘What is this?’. It has taken some time to kick off; the early trendsetters were hotels, but now, 10 years later, we work with anybody: offices, malls, hospitals and amusement parks.” 

Given that your background in creativity, did you have any knowledge of chemistry or scent-making prior to setting this up?

“Nope none whatsoever: I’m a writer. I’m not a perfumer by the strict definition, but I am a scent designer. One of my key skills is to work with brands and marketers to create an experience when they might not be able to use the terminology of fragrance – because many of us can’t. Our sense of smell is a right-brain function, which is a non-verbal function, so that’s why it’s so difficult for most to articulate what we’re smelling. And some of the best smells are just simply beyond words.”

That must make client meetings quite tricky. How do you normally start a conversation about scents when you first sit down together?

“Usually if a client has approached us, they will often have some indication of what they’re looking for. With FMCG clients, of course you’re starting with the basis that they have a product with its own smell. But for me, the fragrance is the emotion of that brand: it’s what you want you brand to feel like when your consumer walk through that door, and we try to distill that fragrance from there. We breath almost 20,000 times a day so that’s a lot of smells going in. But, we do try to create that multi-sensory experience: so the music, the colours of the space too, so it’s about the overall experience.”

And with something, as you said, so difficult to articulate – how do you get potential clients engaged with the idea of spending on scent?

“In the industry you have an aroma billboard, which is the most basic way of selling scent. You have a coffee-maker; they want the coffee smell, but when you go up the billboard, you have ambient fragrances – those which smell nice. Then you have thematic; so for example you have a swimwear brand that wants to smell like the beach and then you get a stronger connection to that brand. The final stage of that is your signature scent: a smell that becomes part of the DNA and the emotion of your brand.

“But we don’t really take into account just how powerful our sense of smell is; it can’t always be put into words. For years it has had a bad reputation: odour and smell are not words with good connotation. But, we still don’t know 100 per cent how our sense of smell works and it’s normally quite emotive because it has that connection to our memory. But as Helen Keller said, it’s our forgotten sense. 

“Some brands have been more quick to get on board. And there are definitely more coming on board now. Marketers are trying to be more experiential with their brands these days rather than simply transactional. With more and more people going online for shopping, having an in-the-flesh has become important because there is something very human about it. And smell is a crucial part of that experience.”

You’ve lived in Sydney previously, then moved to Hong Kong and now Singapore. Was that owing to a stronger market demand in Asia than Australia?

“I’m from South Africa originally and moved to Australia a number of years ago now. I ran the business there for about two years before [moving to Hong Kong]. I like to keep moving. I had one big shopping mall client there, but the majority of my work was coming from Singapore. The big opportunity in Singapore was with Capital Land to do Ion Orchard – and that established me over here. This was to do the whole mall and it was a massive project; and eight years on we’re still working together today. Then we started working for The Ritz Carlton and The Four Seasons: we still work together so fingers crossed we’re doing something ok.”

Does the usage of air-con make the setting-up more complicated in Singapore?

“No I’d say it actually helps as it does circulate the air. The humidity though does affect our sense of smell a bit though because it coats our nasal receptors, so we may not be able to smell so acutely. One project we do is for Changi Airport, including the air bridges, and that’s tricky because you can only access them between flights and after hours, which makes service hours crazy. But, fragrance is a key point of an arrival and a departure of a destination: it helps crystallise those moments you see or hear.”

What’s the most challenging brief a client has given you when it comes to designing a fragrance? Have you ever looked at one and said: “How do we do that?”

“No I’ve never done that, but that’s maybe because I like a challenge. For me it’s like painting on an invisible canvas where anything is possible. Because scent is such a powerful experience, it really helps you understand humans and their emotions. I suppose one of the challenges is taking something up all the layers of management.”

How has the rise of e-commerce and the supposed death of places like Orchard Road likely to affect the demand for services like yours?

“People have been talking about the death of retail for years. But things always come in cycles. The more we lock ourselves up in a room, ordering Uber Eats and Deliveroo, the more I think people will yearn to walk past other people, even if you’re not interacting with them; we are at the end of the day social creatures.

“There is a lot of doom and gloom though, and you do feel [retailers’] pain because they are physically paying for that space. If nobody comes in and buys something one day then that is a bit scary for them. Something that is bricks and mortar requires a lot more work than just refreshing a web page. But something has to change and maybe part of that is stores moving beyond being just transactional and being more experiential. Orchard Road is a shopping hub and a destination, but it has to be more than that. Part of that is linked to redesigning what a space is for – and being about more than just selling products. It’s all very exciting, but for some, possibly more scary than exciting.”

Is a device that can create scents for e-commerce shoppers something within the realms of possibility? And is that the next stage in recreating a shopping experience in someone’s bedroom?

“You could have something in the form of a printer that could emit smell or mix a few fragrances depending on what you were shopping. You have had people invent things like an alarm clock that emits the smell of bacon because apparently that’s what people need to wake up in the morning. But for me, given that smell is so driven by context and environment, it would feel gimmicky. It would lack that context of everything that comes with smell. Maybe it will happen but I am much more of an advocate for smells to match places and moods, rather than printing scents on-demand. But we’ll see.”

For tickets to Mumbrella360 Asia, including Terry Jacobson’s session on ‘The Unexpected Power of Smell and What it Means for Marketers’, visit the event website here. The three-day media and marketing conference will take place at Marina Bay Sands on November 7-9. 



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