When You Think About Your Credit Card, Does a Fragrance Come to Mind?

Dora Baghriche grew up in Algiers, where the scents of jasmine, pine, orange blossom and Mediterranean salt spray swirled around her, wafting into her memory.

“Both of my grandmothers were chefs so I grew up in the kitchens and smelling the fields of flowers around our house,” she said from her home in Paris. Ms. Baghriche, a senior perfumer at the fragrance development company Firmenich, has since created scents for major fashion houses like Yves Saint Laurent and Estée Lauder.

But one of the most unusual challenges of her career came when an unexpected brand asked her to design a fragrance for new spaces they were building called “experience centers.”

The brand was Mastercard, befuddling Ms. Baghriche, 43. “When Mastercard told me what they wanted to do, my first question was, ‘Why?’” she said.

The mission behind the experience centers is to give the credit card giant a physical footprint for its brand and show off its newest technology. This was unexplored territory for Mastercard, and the company’s marketing team wanted to create a space that engaged all of a customer’s senses.

Companies using bespoke scents in their spaces are nothing new. Hotels that want to exude a sense of luxurious relaxation have been designing their own candles for decades, and no one who stepped into an Abercrombie & Fitch store in the 2000s will ever forget the olfactory sting of the brand’s musky cologne that fogged their retail stores.

But smell is increasingly becoming part of the brand strategy for companies in unexpected industries, as brands jostle for precious slivers of market share and especially as workers and clients begin to trickle back into office spaces. So the unlikeliest of companies are joining the scent trend.

“Traditionally, marketers have focused on creating mostly a visual identity for their brands. A logo, a design style, the kind of thing that makes it easy to say ‘that’s Apple’ or ‘that’s Mastercard.’ But one key thing that wasn’t appreciated is that we’re generally blessed with five senses,” said Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing officer at Mastercard.

Mr. Rajamannar, 61, spearheaded the “multisensory brand identity” effort for the credit card company, and commissioned Ms. Baghriche and Firmenich to create a dual set of complementary fragrances inspired by the interlocking red and orange circles from Mastercard’s logo and the abstract prompts “passion” and “optimism.”

Since you can’t smell a TV or internet ad — they’re working on that — fragrance hasn’t been much of a consideration for marketing departments in industries like insurance and financial services. But physical spaces are now doubling as unorthodox, semi-permanent marketing efforts. Luxury car brands like Genesis operate white-tablecloth restaurants with classically-trained chefs, and the travel search platform Kayak runs a hotel in Miami.

“We have customers that often ask about the scent and whether it’s for sale,” said Rachel Espersen, executive director of brand experience at Genesis House and Studios, a multipurpose space in the Meatpacking district operated by the luxury carmaker. The venue contains a restaurant, a library and a showroom, and the company designed three scents that are diffused in different spaces. “In our studio and showcase spaces, we either use a scent called ‘Down to Earth’ or ‘Coming Home,’ depending on the space’s specific design. The first floor showroom and cellar stage at Genesis House uses the ‘Down to Earth’ scent,” she said in an email.

Credit…Richard Turtletaub

Credit card companies have been especially active in this new arena: Mastercard has its “experience centers” in cities like Dubai, Mexico City, and New York. American Express has created a Centurion members club in a high-rise in New York, and has exclusive airport lounges. Automakers are extending their brand names to condominiums, especially in Miami.

How a place smells is now something that companies need to think about in the same way they pick out chairs or choose wallpaper.

They also need to budget for them. “A custom scent could be anywhere from $5,000 to $65,000, and we live on the higher end of that number,” said Dawn Goldworm, the co-founder of 12.29, a scent branding company that has worked with several large banks and car companies, including Cadillac.

Developing a bespoke scent is only the beginning as well, as companies have to pay for the creation of fragrance oil and a dedicated dispersal system that can sometimes be installed in a space’s HVAC system. “It can cost anywhere from $100 every month to thousands every month. You need the machinery, you need someone to install it, you need someone to service it, and you need the supply of fragrance oil on a regular basis,” Ms. Goldworm, 44, said.

Perfumers like Ms. Baghriche are typically tasked with creating scents that live on skin, where biochemical reactions can alter how a fragrance smells on different people. If delicate changes like a person’s skin pH level can change the iconic whiff of, say, Chanel No. 5 perfume, how do you create a stable scent for millions of square feet of commercial space?

Part of the answer is creating a fragrance that doesn’t make anyone run for the exits. “Universality was a really important factor. We didn’t want to design anything that would be shocking to a specific culture,” Ms. Baghriche said.

Some smells — fresh citrus, floral notes — hold a sweeping appeal, and Ms. Baghriche considered those scents when she was developing Mastercard’s scent. The twin scents she created — “Priceless Passion” and “Priceless Optimism” — have murmurs of rose, sweet grass and orange.

Smell and memory speak fluently to one another. Research has shown our olfactory senses develop more quickly than sight, and that the creation of memories associated with smell follows a more direct path than sound.

In a way, Ms. Baghriche’s job is to use the echoes of jasmine, orange blossom, and the Mediterranean salt spray from her own life to impress new memories on those who encounter her work. “Our house was in a pine forest and we lived just above the sea,” she said. “I grew up with all those Mediterranean smells. It was a really romantic childhood.”

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