For more than 40 years, I’ve been making the pilgrimage to the greenhouses on the campus of Wellesley College. Named for the eminent Horticulturist Margaret Ferguson, the 16 interconnected greenhouses contain some 1500 different types of plants. The Brooklyn and Bronx Botanical Gardens may be bigger in size, but they cannot match the solitude and accessibility of this facility. It is as fast and inexpensive a world tour of nature as you can pack into 7200 square feet. As a troubled teenager in Massachusetts, I’d visit the “tropics” on a cold winter afternoon and experience the rich smells of my youth spent living in Asia. It was as close to the sentiments of The Mamas & the Papas in California Dreaming as I could get.
The greenhouses, then and now, contain rare collections of caudiciforms, mangroves, floating aquatics and my favorite, carnivorous plants. The Desert, Tropic, Hydrophytes and Fern greenhouses are distinctly different climate zones where the look, scent, feel and touch are as sensual and distinctive as any environment I’ve ever experienced. Each is a temple to the synergy of contemplation and botany.
The creation and recreational use of sensual experiences is at the nexus of modern design. The palette of choices and the sophistication of their application are directly related to the success of the modern merchant. For the luxury goods purveyor, it is the context of the store and brand that provides the permission to consume. Walk into the Ralph Lauren Store on 72nd Street and Madison Avenue and you will observe the light, sound, smell, touch and even taste of the space has been carefully programmed to facilitate the love affair between people and products. It the essence of the subtle art of the courtesan, personified in a commercial retail form. The world of luxury in particular thrives with such trappings. New money (its rapid proliferation notwithstanding) is not informed by the same history and knowledge as old money. Expectations are different; demands are more obvious. Even 15 years ago, the dressing rooms in the couture department at Saks could be slightly shabby, but not today. The old guard was not impressed by seemingly superficial trifles. Things have changed. The new face of affluence expects that the purchase of discretionary goods involves a decorative reverence for the environment where it’s found. Enter sensory experiences.
At New York City’s Museum of Art and Design last winter, there was a powerful exhibit on the history of fragrance, not surprisingly sponsored by Estee Lauder. The success of the show was its ability to showcase so many distinctive smells within the confines of the gallery space while no one scent at one time overwhelmed you. Remember Crabtree & Evelyn, or the Yankee Candle store? Modern fragrance presentation is sensitive to the human element, facilitating the wonder of sensory experiences, while minimizing the migraines. But does art bridge commerce? The question is, how many people experienced Dakar Noir at the gallery, and then made the beeline across Columbus Circle to Sephora to make a purchase?
The idea of branded scents and sounds is not new. Over the past 50 or more years, advertising jingle writers recognized that any familiar three bars of music—no matter how silly or amateurish– synapsed into our brains with finality. Right before she passed away last month, my mother still smiled at the renditions of the radio commercials of her own childhood; the smell of Ivory soap; the sound of a cold Coca Cola being poured; and the sweet taste of Juicy Fruit gum.
For the purveyors and stores offering teen fashion, the sound selection is tribal. It is designed both to attract and repel. If you don’t like the sound or the volume, you don’t belong. Our playbook for most big-box merchants has been to match the in-store playlist with the dominant demographic profile for that given day part, thus what you hear on Monday morning and what you hear Friday night are often wildly different. Our sensory tools are continuing to evolve. What has changed is our ability to manage a variety of sounds and scents in a limited space and calibrate for each. For example, the music can vary by department and we have the technology to calibrate each selection so that it doesn’t interfere or compete with another. Debussy in the home department; Rihanna in the teen section.
We can step away from the music and transition toward the subliminal.
Part of the subliminal is the obvious. I visited a liquor store in Canada recently where the products had been merchandised based on demographics, thus the section for imbibers in their 20’s was filled with flavored vodka, tequilas and fruit-flavored schnapps; the smell was sweet. In the white wine section, a light floral scent filled the aisle; while, not surprisingly, in the single malt area, the smell was peaty and smoky.
In our own backyard, former jingle composer and Environmental Artist Charlie Morrow has constructed the soundscape for the new Marimekko Store on 5th Avenue and 23rd Street, one of the hipper crossroads of the world. The loop included not only music, but also cafeteria noises, a playground, running horses, and rain on the roof. The sounds both dominate and rotate through sections of the store. It is wallpaper noise, yet a calming part of the conspiracy to hold you in the store and provide a sonic oasis and ideal purchase environment.
As marketers and merchants become more aware of the nuances and impact that the right scent and smell can have on a purchase decision, we are still struggling to measure the impact of branded smells and sounds. So we are left with the question: what is an environmental sensory experience and could it improve our bottom line? Who has researched and implemented fragrance branding to reinforce the seduction of products, places and spaces? And who is investing in sonic branding?
The greenhouses at Wellesley College give us some of the answer. We have the ability to reconstruct the total experience. Not that the greenhouses are going to start selling Tommy Bahamas, but that we can pick and choose pieces of this evolution to apply to our own work. It will probably start in a hotel restaurant in Vegas, called Summer in Cannes. The air will be moist with a slightly salty tang. You’ll hear the sound of the delicate Mediterranean waves lapping against an aging pier, and the pleasing sound of the halyards on the masts. The waiter will be handsome and dark, and when he looks down at you sitting at the table, he smiles. You are hooked. You are powerless not to enter into this three-dimensional sensory experience and not only purchase a great dinner, but also an indelible memory. That’s what they are banking on.