Uber, Odor, and Fresh Branding

Designer Ron Wong’s depiction of a particularly pungent Uber trip.

Designer Ron Wong’s depiction of a particularly pungent Uber trip.

“What’s it going to smell like this time?” That grim question skitters across my mind every time my Uber approaches. It’s become part of the routine — this olfactory worry.

Sometimes the scent’s more traditional: car wash pine or a synthetic vanilla — almost alluring if not for the artificial undertones — but it’s usually a more idiosyncratic odor that has included dirty vacuum, implausible wild flowers, a Swiss cheese omelet, burp, Windex, and, of course French fries. I’ve been subjected to stale cigarettes, stale beer, and stale feet. I’ve experienced moldy sedans, musty trucks, and even a car that smelled like curdled milk. 

Then, on a recent ride, as I sat in a disturbingly sanitized vehicles, the fumes swirling, another question occurred to me, just before delirium hit, “Why doesn’t Uber do something about this smelly situation?”

Smell’s just one of the many unknown variables Uber needs to account for when sending out its fleet – musical choice, pets, interior design, and the drivers’ other personal touches are all creepy unknowns that can diminish a ride, and not to mention the Uber brand. But odiferous autos seem like a simple – and welcome - issue to tackle. 

One FAROUT way Uber could handle this pungent conundrum would be by creating a branded scent: a scent that’s uniform across the fleet and acts as a marketing tool. We’re already seeing companies test sonic cues — that is, branded sounds or voices to prepare for the days when voice activation replaces touchscreens. But these sounds are aren’t just about keeping up with technological trends. They’re about taking a multisensorial approach that makes consumers feel. Branded sounds are far more evocative than a sleek website or logo: sound taps directly into emotion. And smell’s just the same. That’s why Disney pumps its amusement parks full of that “fresh-baked cookie” smell: to make you feel at home and at ease. 

Such olfactory-centric approaches are basically branded aromatherapy, but Uber’s hypothetical efforts could be so much more - especially as a new generation of perfumers debut innovative psychoactive scents. For example, The Swiss perfumer Givaudan recently used the indigo plant to create a scent that releases endorphins, relaxing the user; and the vegan English company Romilly Wilde uses jasmine oil in their mood-enhancing bouquet. 

It seems Uber’s a perfect vehicle to test this potentially ripe venture. A branded scent would make the Uber brand more robust, both as an institution and an experience; it would transform the ride into a branded, multisensorial journey, rather than just a trip to destination. Plus, in addition to providing users a consistent experience across Uber cars, a hypothetical Uber-branded scent would offer other real benefits: it would help users know they’re getting into the right car; a soothing scent could reduce anxiety among their drivers; and, on a different note, Uber would be eliminating synthetic scents and potentially carcinogenic fumes from their brand experience – and, really, isn’t that enough? 

Even if Uber ignores this advice, it’s important for brands today to explore ways they can expand their unique imprints. Consumers today want more than a logo and font; they want brands that awaken senses, emotion, and experience. Failure to accommodate these changes will lead static brands straight to the junkyard.