A human being can recognize approximately 10,000 unique scents. But when it comes to the five senses, the sense of smell gets a bad rap. With an abundance of research on smell – topics range from mate selection to immunity to depression – it’s amazing how little businesses actually consider smell as a part of the customer experience.
Over time, taste and smell evolved into two separate pathways in the brain. Unlike taste, which requires additional processing, anatomical studies show that signals from the olfactory cells in the nose reach the olfactory area of the cortex after only a single relay in the olfactory bulb. The olfactory cortex, in turn, connects directly with the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland.
What does this all mean? In short, the sense of smell offers a direct pathway to a customer’s emotional epicenter. The hypothalamus controls sexual and maternal behavior, and the pituitary gland regulates release of hormones that affect our appetite, nervous system, body temperature, stress levels, and concentration. Considered from the opposite extreme, individuals without a sense of smell typically experience a loss of appetite, libido and depression linked to smell memories.
Social pressure to prioritize sight and vision doesn’t mean that the sense of smell isn’t an extremely active part of lived experience. In fact, because we are not consciously aware of our olfactory sense as it guides us through life, we have all the more reason to closely monitor how smell affects the customer.
The findings of Prof. Dr. Markus Heinrichs, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Freiburg, offer one of the most promising benefits of smell. In the lab, Heinrichs showed that oxytocin administered as a nasal spray increases subjects’ trust and empathy while reducing their anxiety and stress. Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a pivotal role in reproductive success, social bonding behavior and in the reduction of stress and anxiety in social situations.
While I certainly don’t advocate dosing your customers with oxytocin, one of the takeaways from Heinrich’s research is that smell can regulate the defining parts of our lives. Design your customer experience accordingly…