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Scents and sensibility: Companies woo consumers with fragrant products

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Reebok has teamed up with Kool-Aid to make sneakers that are colored - and scented - like the sugary kids' beverage. (Courtesy of Reebok)

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Christophe Laudamiel, perfumer for International Flavors and Fragrances, scented the air at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (Courtesy of International Flavors and Fragrances)

When someone says your feet smell, it’s rarely meant as a compliment.

But sporting apparel manufacturer Reebok is trying to change that. In an unusual cross-promotion, Reebok recently teamed up with Kool-Aid to launch a line of sneakers that look and smell like the hyper-colored, super-sweet kids’ beverage.

The shoes, modeled after the Pro Legacy basketball sneaker, a Reebok classic, come in five colors and scents--grape, cherry, orange, lemon-lime and strawberry.

“It seemed logical to take one of the most popular drinks of all time and mix it with one of the best sneakers of all time,” said Reebok’s head of lifestyle marketing, Christian Stegmaier.

Logical or not, the result is a product that packs a multisensory punch. Like Reebok, a growing number of companies are marketing with scent, hoping consumers will follow their noses and develop a positive emotional connection--to a brand, a location, or even an idea.

Sound improbable? Not if you consider that humans are hard-wired to react strongly to smell.

“What emotions tell us is to approach and avoid,” said Dr. Rachel Herz, an expert in the psychology of smell and author of “The Scent of Desire.” “Smell does the same thing.”

The trick for companies is to find the right smell for their targeted consumer--a task made more difficult by the fact that each person’s reaction to a particular scent is totally subjective.

“There are classes of smells that are going to be more or less generally appealing or unappealing--but the basic responses to all smells are learned,” said Dr. Herz. “So if you had a terrible experience the first time you smelled rose, you wouldn’t like the smell of rose.”

That means children who grew up happily guzzling Kool-Aid are likely to have an affinity for the drink’s fruity scent throughout the rest of their lives--an affinity that Reebok hopes will pay off.

Reebok is not the only company blazing the scented textile trail. Target has peddled a line of socks scented to smell like “clean.” And it’s not just clothing that’s being doused. Buildings and retail stores have begun installing machines that scent the air, in an effort to stimulate sales and create positive associations with their products.

One company, ScentAir, designs “branded” scents for its clients and disperses them through machines called ScentWaves. The ScentWaves, which weigh about two pounds and resemble small space heaters, are loaded with replaceable fragrance cartridges and can waft smells throughout spaces as large as 4,000 square feet.

ScentAir’s client list includes Lexus, Bloomingdale’s and Westin hotels. The company recently designed a signature scent for Sony Style, a chain of consumer electronics boutiques with locations throughout the country.

“Electronics is more of a male-dominated market,” said Murray Dameron, ScentAir’s Director of Marketing. “They wanted to make women feel a little more comfortable in that environment, but at the same time not turn men away with a fragrance that smelled too feminine.”

The fragrance and its dispersal are designed to subtly enhance the shopping experience, rather than dominate it. On a recent weekday afternoon, most customers in the Manhattan branch of Sony Style seemed blissfully unaware of the store’s olfactory efforts.

Wander Montero, a male cafeteria employee who works nearby, said he had never noticed a particular odor during the many times he has been in the shop. Armed with new knowledge of the store’s scent schematics, he was able to detect hints of vanilla in the air.

“It smells really good,” said Montero. “It would make me want to come back even if I wasn’t shopping.”

Politicians and financiers aren't immune, either. Earlier this year, International Flavors and Fragrances perfumer Christophe Laudamiel scented the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Laudamiel, who calls his work “air sculpture,” designed a different fragrance for each global concept represented at the forum. Amongst them, a tribute to technology called “Gigabyte” and another titled “Glacier,” which Laudamiel deemed “an homage to the disappearing ice caps.”

So what exactly does a glacier smell like?

“It has to be quite abstract like ice and the blue sea, and it has to be cold,” said Laudamiel, a native of France with a background in chemistry. “It feels healthy if it’s done in a friendly way--feels like a big breath of fresh air. It is totally a physical and emotional sensation.”

Scenting the air is easy compared to scenting clothes. Figuring out how to make a smell stick presents a challenge for manufacturers. Reebok embeds the sock liners of its Kool-Aid sneaker line with special aromatic fibers that it says will keep the shoe smelling fruity for up to eight months. IFF has developed patented microcapsules that are woven into textiles and release fragrance over time as they break apart.

There are low-tech approaches as well. Artist and entrepreneur Monica Yocom created her own scented T-shirt line, which she sells through the Web site scentedclothing.com. To scent the shirts, Yocom designs each one with a hidden pocket into which scented papers can be slipped.

“We were experimenting with scratch and sniff,” said Yocom, who also sells scented necklaces and dolls. “Unfortunately, when you wash the article, it loses its sniff.”

Scented clothing and environments aren’t for everyone, especially those who are sensitive to fragrance. Scented products can cause allergic reactions when they come into contact with skin, and allergy-like reactions when inhaled.

“There’s no good evidence that just smell is going to promote histamine release,” says Dr. Pamela Dalton, an olfactory scientist at the Monell Center, a nonprofit institute dedicated to researching taste, smell, and chemosensory irritation. “What it can do is produce some of the same symptoms that people experience with an allergic response. Eyes might water, nose might run, they might sneeze--but it’s probably a very different mechanism.”

Fragrances can also exacerbate pre-existing conditions, like asthma, and some people simply find them unpleasant or annoying.

Nonetheless, the proliferation of scented products suggests that many people respond positively to olfactory enhancement, if only because it adds another dimension to their overall experience.

“No other sensory system is connected to the emotion center of the brain the way smell is,” says Dr. Herz. “Maybe we wouldn’t even have the experience of emotion if we didn’t have a sense of smell.”

E-mail: ald27@columbia.edu