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The surprising business advantage of training your sense of smell

Coffee buyer Dave Charleville of the United States smells a bowl of specialty coffee at Panama's annual coffee cupping contest in Boquete, 300 kms west of Panama City, Panama March 31, 2003. The contest, akin to wine tasting, aims to find the best 10 coffee's of Panama's 2002/03 crop, which will be sold to the highest bidders in an Internet auction at the end of May.
Reuters/Alberto Lowe
Nose training.
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter


It’s taken a deadly respiratory virus to teach us to value of our sense of smell. With anosmia being a common symptom of Covid-19, more people are realizing how handicapped we’d be without the ability to detect smells in our environments. Prior to the pandemic, perhaps few would have found it entirely surprising that a majority of youths would rather lose their olfactory sense than give up their tech gadgets.

Smell affects the quality of our lives in profound ways. Apart from known benefits like alerting us to danger or improving our appetites, paying attention to odors, it seems, also can bolster our creativity. Converts say developing our olfaction can make us think differently and even speak and write more vividly.

A new virtual workshop called “Scentsplorations” seeks to make these benefits tangible for businesses. Framed as a wellness and team-building activity, the hour-long session is conducted by Olivia Jezler, a scent researcher who runs the Instagram account Future of Smell. Jezler says she conceived of the workshop as a kind of tonic for the slate of problems Covid-19 has brought to remote teams.

“People have struggled to work due to the anxiety brought by Covid-19 and other recent world events. Studies have demonstrated the ability of scents to reduce anxiety, enhance alertness, and elevate moods,” she explains. “Creative activities also have been known to flood our brains with dopamine and increase motivation.”

Undiscovered country

Using everyday objects like books and fresh laundry, she guides a group through a series of “cross-sensory exercises” designed to get people talking. Smelling objects have a way of opening up people to speak candidly about their emotions or even share memories from their childhood, she observed. And because our vocabulary for describing smell is so limited, participants tend to use more evocative, sometimes more honest, language instead of lapsing into business-like jargon.

By devoting an hour to the nose, they were, in a way, giving their overstimulated visual and auditory senses a break.

Mark DiMassimo, founder and creative chief of the New York-based ad agency DiMassimo Goldstein, took Jezler’s workshop and attests to the power of delving into our most neglected sense. “Not only was the experience really grounding and relaxing, it was pretty shocking how quickly the exercises really fired up the imagination,” he says.

There was some skepticism among his team about attending a virtual smelling workshop, DiMassimo recalls. “We’ve done trivia contests and virtual cocktail parties and all of that, but a smell workshop? How would that work?” He pitched the session to his staff as one answer to Zoom fatigue. By devoting an hour to the nose, they were, in a way, giving their overstimulated visual and auditory senses a break.  “On the one hand, we wanted to help our team by giving them a wonderful sensory experience,” explains DiMassimo. “But we also wanted to awaken the creative people to this undiscovered country.”

How smell training can lead to better brainstorming

Indeed, the workshop has added a new dimension to the agency’s brainstorming sessions, says DiMassimo. “We all committed to not just think in words and pictures, but to try to think about other senses.” For branding exercises, he says, they try to define what a particular entity might smell like vis-a-vis its competitors.

DiMassimo says that thinking in terms of smell can improve writing too. “It helps even if you’re writing for the eye or the ear,” he asserts. For instance, DiMassimo now describes “being strategic” as operating like “a sharp knife cutting through through a cold lemon”. “It’s just a departure from how most business conversations happen, and different is really important,” he notes. “It definitely engages people in a more vivid way.”

DiMassimo describes the olfactory domain as a “blue ocean” where businesses can operate with relatively little competition. “For communicators, brand builders, creative people, artists, and entrepreneurial founders, this is a massive opportunity to extend to a whole new realm,” he says. “Talk about a place where everyone else is not already applying and competing. Well, that’s the nose.”

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