The Sweet Smell of Success

The Science of Scent

By John Graham DDS, MD

The science behind scent has become an enormously profitable business. Smell is powerful, primal, and unforgettable. Nothing can trigger memories faster than smell and taste.

I’ve been on a quest over the past 4 years, a quest that has helped transform my office. The transformation has been about “feel”, the feel of the experience. You see, like most of us, I strive for clinical excellence. I’ve surrounded myself with clinicians whom I deem to be some of the greatest in the world. I’ve tirelessly worked, like all of us, to be an excellent clinician in every sense of the word. My hope has always been that if I can provide wonderful clinical results, then patients will talk, doctors will notice, and my practice will grow.

While that may have happened to some extent, we all know that there are many patients who cannot discern between good orthodontics and outstanding orthodontics. So, my quest has been to augment the patient “experience” in my office. I’ve done this by layering many little things, one on top of the other, like a tapestry. Mind you, I don’t have a showy office; I don’t have an over-the-top game room. What I do have, or at least what I strive for every day, is an environment that is different from most patients daily experiences. I want patients to look forward to their visits; I want them to recognize the “branding” of my office and my treatment. I’ve done this by doing many different things, but one in particular has helped put the icing on the cake.

This story goes back several years when my wife and I were at a meeting at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. As I was in the branding mood, I started noticing the subtleties that made me want to be there, that made me want to stay, all because of the total Wynn experience. The music was down tempo, hip and relaxing. I quickly found the artists that were a part of the hotel’s ambient sound track, and incorporated them into my office atmosphere. Less noticeable but arguably more powerful were the wispy fragrant wafts I would notice from time to time. The scents were amazing. They were energizing, exotic, sensual and clean. They really contributed to the entire experience in an unforgettable way. When I returned a year later for another meeting, instantly my nose recognized the smell of the hotel and my memories of my prior experience flooded back.

It turns out that the science behind scent has become an enormously profitable business. Smell is powerful, primal, and unforgettable. Nothing can trigger memories faster than smell and taste. In fact, many studies, like a report in the Journal of Marketing (Spangenberg, Crowley and Henderson, 1996) found that scents or aromas in the retail environment “improve a customer’s perception of the store, the environment and the products; and makes the customer want to revisit the store to buy something.”Casino’s know this, and they work hard at it.

The Mirage was the first casino in Las Vegas to install a hotel-wide aroma system by a company called AromaSys. Many hotels on the strip have now installed systems such as the Mirage’s, and many companies have brought competition to AromaSys.

Sensory branding has become an industry all to itself. Leading the charge is Martin Lindstrom who is the author of BRAND sense, a Fast Company Book of the Month, which explores what he calls 3D marketing. Lindstrom speaks about how the fresh smell of a new car, and the perfect sound of a closing car door, are all orchestrated by the manufacturers. That isn’t really new car you’re smelling, it’s a fabricated scent that imparts quality and freshness. It’s just like the smell that Singapore Airlines, or the Westin Hotels and Resorts have patented. In fact, you can buy the Westin smell for your home, but the Wynn’s scent? Forget it, it’s a secret.

I finally decided to pull the trigger on a scent system after having visited my brother’s incredible spa-like dental office in Salt Lake City, Utah. I had visited it on several occasions previously, but on one day in particular, the smell of his office as I opened the front door hit me. Not only because the smell was fabulous, it was also familiar. It was the smell of his office! He had done it, he had branded his office with a smell! Like my brother, I decided to move forward with scenting my office. This goes far beyond spraying Febreze in the clinic. This is carefully crafting a scent that fits the personality of your office, and metering it such that it is not overpowering. It must be subtle, yet noticeable. I chose to go with the company that my brother has been using for several years, and that is also used by Bloomingdale’s, the Madalay Bay Resort & Casino, the Hard Rock Hotel and others. The company is called ScentAir, and they take their business seriously.

My “consultation” with a ScentAir rep took nearly 2 hours. He first observed the square footage and layout of my office, and determined the number of units that I would need. For my setup, only one was necessary. Then the laborious process of choosing a scent commenced. This may sound easy but mind you, I was trying to brand my office, much like my brother did. I wanted this scent to speak my practice name every time a patient walked in the door. ScentAir has over 1600 scent combinations to choose from, so do your homework.

I researched the scents of hotels, spas and the like. I scoured message boards of marketing directors that were discussing scent branding. I took notes and started to develop a list of scents that seemed to recur commonly. Armed with this list my staff and I narrowed the scents down to about four. Then we took the scented oil soaked strips to the patients. I spent an entire morning shoving strips under patient’s noses, young and old. I kept a tally of responses, noting the scents that patents asked to smell again. You only need to smell a scent once that you don’t like, but if you ask to smell it again, you’re on to something.

Within an hour of having our machine installed, we were getting compliments. Patients were asking what the smell was, and where we got it. To them it smells clean, fresh and energizing. We plan to change the scent only around the holidays, where we will incorporate the smell of pine to enhance our Christmas in the desert. What this experience has demonstrated to me is that scent really matters, but only if we as doctors pay attention to it. Patients will notice, I promise. As for the scent I chose? Forget it, it’s a secret.


Dr. John Graham received his Bachelor of Science degree from Brigham Young University. He received his dental degree from Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas, TX, and then received his medical degree from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. After medical school, Dr. Graham completed an internship in general surgery at Parkland Memorial Hospital followed by training in oral and maxillofacial surgery. Following his surgical training, Dr. Graham received his certificate in orthodontics from the University of Rochester/Eastman Dental Center in Rochester, New York. Dr. Graham is one of only a handful of orthodontists in the United States who is also a physician. An innovator and educator, Dr. Graham lectures worldwide to both doctors and orthodontic staff on the most advanced orthodontic treatment philosophies available. Dr. Graham has several patents pending on orthodontic treatment devices, has co-authored several orthodontic textbook chapters, and has written many professional journal articles.

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