The heather grew thick in the downs near Heckfield Place, a Georgian mansion in the countryside near London. As he tramped through the woodlands near the estate’s lake, Maurice Joosten’s shoes kicked up the rich earth. A way off from the ancient house, beyond the orchard and bee hives, a walled garden bathed the air in the scent of lavender, wisteria, and English roses.
Joosten was not walking the 400 acres of property for a pleasure stroll, though he remembers that the walk was certainly pleasant. He was on a site visit for a client, who had spent several years restoring the estate into a luxury hotel. As he walked, he gathered botanicals and samples from the arboretum and the rose garden to take back to his laboratory. As an aroma space designer, Joosten’s role was part chemist, designer, brand expert, and potion master. His mission was to capture the unique identity of the elegant country house and gently wild grounds in one, encapsulating scent.
Joosten began his career as a visual artist, crafting planes and negative space through sculpture. Then, through a challenge to design a scent to complement a visual piece, he joined the Japanese company @aroma, which creates olfactory logos for companies from Lufthansa to Mercedes-Benz to Monocle Magazine. Because he is based in Berlin, Joosten acts as a sort of ambassador of the value of scent identity to Western companies, who are not as familiar with the process as Japanese organizations. “It was very normal to go to big companies [in Japan] to make a proposal. They really took you seriously,” recalls Joosten. “When I started in Germany, you have to convince people. It’s not in their culture. ‘Why would we do this? What is the benefit?’”
Curating aromatic environments has a longstanding tradition in Japan, where @aroma is founded on a thousand-year-old tradition of scenting personal rooms, temples, and meeting areas called kodo. Kodo is an incense ceremony—akin to the arts of flower arranging or tea ceremonies—where aromatic wood is burned to bridge aromatherapy and interior design. Joosten says fluency in the specifics of smell was once so important that aristocrats at the court in Kyoto used to play scent games with each other to guess at the kind of incense used. The tradition continues today, where scenting is used to set the mood of an environment. Safe to say, the language around smell is highly developed in Japan.
Joosten has a carefully designed process to get new clients up to speed. Especially for clients that don’t come with an intuitive rolling landscape of botanicals, Joosten makes sure to meet at the location where the smell will be—whether it’s a retail store, medical facility, or an office. Even when he’s doing a scent signature or logo versus a single space, he says, “It’s very important to put the experience central, not just the verbal, rational, or conceptual exercise.” Often, he sees that clients who are unfamiliar or unconvinced with the value of scent will keep their distance. But Joosten has a special weapon, a beautiful traveling toolkit which he opens in a special ceremony to connect with new clients. From this kit, he pulls out small glass bowls, and lights pieces of scented paper to waft the aroma in the air. “You see faces change and that’s amazing,” he says. “It becomes real. It’s not a concept. It’s something that relates to everyone’s experiences.” The ceremony is actually a masquerade for a workshop, where he gives clients a sense of agency and an awareness of their own taste and stakes in smell design. Often, he finds that newbies quickly discover they have strong opinions. “When we start the process of designing, it’s often the case that people know quite well what they want,” he says. “They respond quite clearly to scent. It’s not as subjective as most people think.” So even folks just starting out can develop their taste just as one would for wine or culinary skills.
After the opening meetings, Joosten heads back to his laboratory in Berlin. Unlike many scent companies, @aroma uses all natural materials. Trees, roots, citrus, and petals are sourced from all over the world, from Canada to Siberia. @aroma selects its materials carefully. A grapefruit from the Middle East, Joosten points out, will smell different than one from South America. On top of that, botanicals change season to season, so the final mixtures are always unique. Joosten says that DNA carries through in the final scent. “There’s a lot of energy of the sun and the plants,” he says. “You don’t see it, but nevertheless it has an incredible impact.” Whether a scent aims to calm or enliven a space, recall a childhood memory, or activate a certain emotion, these stimuli carry power, most of which remain untapped in Western brands.
Few Western organizations have dipped a toe in the perfumed pool to include a scent in their brand identity along with graphics and soundscapes. Exceptions include a M&M chocolate-infused store in London, Burger King’s meat body spray, and unforgettably and unforgivably: Abercrombie & Fitch’s retail stores.
“I hear that so often from clients, this Abercrombie & Fitch,” says Joosten, “That people don’t want that. It’s unbelievable how often people state it. I think most people have that experience in their retail stores where you’re overwhelmed and you try to get out as soon as possible. It’s not very sophisticated.” Joosten acknowledges the dark potential of aroma design—an overwhelming, aggressive experience from which it is impossible to escape, not least taking into consideration that companies using chemicals instead of natural components are creating an unhealthy experience. Smell branding, Joosten says, whether it’s for a fast car or an airport lounge should be subtle and consider that the experience of it is intimate, and the power of it as it connects to emotions, feelings and memories, all of which should be handled with care. “It should be hardly perceivable,” he says. “It’s just on a very subtle level. It’s not good that you enter somewhere and you think ‘Oh there’s scent here’ because then it’s already quite strong. It should be smoothly blending into the atmosphere, so it’s a whole story.”
In the last ten years Joosten has seen an uptick in attention given to scent marketing. He believes that’s driven by a larger trend toward focus on a total design experience and the physical places where a company interacts with their customers. Even scented candles, he notes, which have become much more widespread, are picking up on a thousand-year-old tradition to bring fragrance to personal spaces.
Joosten boils his craft down to the key awareness that one is not just creating a beautiful scent, but beautiful synergies for a richer experience of the environment. To get better at smell design, he suggests asking: What does this scent evoke? Does it fit what I see before me? Does it fit what I see in my mind?
The question the rest of us, who still haven’t explored using aroma design for our brands, should be asking is: what unexplored subtlety, craft, and value are we leaving on the table when we leave out aroma design?