Words or whiffs?

Is language stronger than our sense of smell?

In his famous, brave and hotly disputed memo, Starbucks chairman Howard Schulz talks about some of the mistakes that have been made in Starbucks stellar expansion - many of which can be summed up as "efficiency at the cost of the experience".

Whoever really wrote this memo, a lot of it makes sense to me. As a very British tea fan (milk, no sugar, and better make sure the water is boiling!), I have only been in a few, newer Starbucks stores. I must say I was singularly unimpressed and wondered what all the fuss was about. Reading Mr Schultz's mail and the hundreds of responses, it seems that I may have missed out on the "original" Starbucks theatrics.

But what do you think of this quote from the mail: "...aroma [was] perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we had in our stores..."

"Perhaps"? Back when I was a real psychologist, one of my fields was the evolution of behaviour; so pardon me while I rant a bit of bioscience...

Generally, you can say that the perceptive channels that we developed earlier in our evolutionary or developmental history work on us at a deeper, more emotional level than things we learned later.

Thusly the chemical sense that is smell (also enjoyed by our monocellular cousins) goes deeper than our sense of body language or rhythm (found in vertebrates with a familiar body pattern and a beating heart). In turn these sit deeper than our reading of tone-of-voice (mammals), facial expression (primates), words (humans) and written language (very modern humans). This is not only relevant in presentation technique...

Think about it - writing to someone is the most distant kind of contact. Speaking to them is more personal, then comes touching them, and we only want to smell our very good friends. That sequence is evolution in reverse.

Back at our Starbucks example, the "aroma" we are talking about goes right to the primitive root of our brain. Smell is thought to be the strongest trigger of memory, and is known to produce powerful physical reactions at hyperspeed, including salivation and stomach fluid production. What verbal signal can come close to that?

Howard (may I call you Howard?), we can debate back and forth whether experience or efficiency are more important in a coffeeshop setting, but I can tell you for free that the rich smells and evocative sounds of the coffee making process are a far stronger and far deeper signal than anything your partners might possibly be saying!

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