TCS Daily

Point, Click...Sniff!

By Emilie Boyer King - March 4, 2004 12:00 AM

The rolling hills and dusty wine cellars of Burgundy may seem a world away from Silicon Valley, yet this fertile wine-growing region in central France is at the forefront of a very specialized new technological advance. The official Burgundy wine association (BIVB) boasts the world's first scented website.

It might not seem like news to those who remember Digiscent, back in 1999. The California-based company had developed the appropriate software and equipment to release odors over the web but promptly went bankrupt. The project never materialized and for a while, the idea seemed to have disappeared into thin air.

But the scented web resurfaced in France a couple of years later in 2002. Sensing a great market potential in France's fragrance, food and wine industries, the national phone company France Telecom R&D picked up where Digiscent left off. Today, the scented web has been taken up by wine and fragrance companies, and is spilling over to education with cooking schools taking on the challenge.

There are several reasons this technology, which has been ignored elsewhere since 1999, has taken off in France: One is the strength of the French fragrance industry. Releasing smells on the Internet could have a very concrete use for online sales and marketing. "The fragrance industry represents €170 billion in France and this was a very important factor when we were starting out on the project," said Jacques Messager, project manager at France Telecom R&D. "The link between this industry and the internet could only be an interesting one."

The French fragrance brand Cacharel has bought into the idea, creating its own scented website, as well as the official website of the town of Grasse, France's "fragrance capital." "Every single perfume company came to see us when we were showcasing the idea," said Messager.

Another important factor is the French wine industry. Squeezed by global competition and a tradition of winemaking which has denied the importance of marketing for too long, the industry is going through a crisis. Wine producers are looking for new marketing tools to attract consumers both in France and abroad.

Additionally, France has strict laws governing alcohol and tobacco advertising. The "Loi Evin" stipulates that advertisements for alcoholic drinks must be limited to showing the alcoholic content, origin, ingredients, fabrication, ways to enjoy the drink, details about the owner, and sales information only. An advertising campaign by the BIVB for Burgundy wines was recently forbidden because it showed a woman's figure; the association between a targeted group of consumers (women) and wine did not make it through the courts. These restrictions emphasize the need to find marketing techniques which are both successful and which fit into the legal framework.

"The Loi Evin is very limiting, and so we have to find different ways to develop the market," said Joëlle Brouard, head of the masters program International Marketing for Wine and Spirits at Dijon Business school in central France. "And we don't have huge marketing budgets. With this new tool, there is a meeting between technological innovation and concrete needs."

It was with the wine industry that France Telecom R & D got its first big bite. BIVB bought into the idea and hasn't looked back since. "I was bit skeptical at first because the project seemed too new for Burgundy wines, which have a very traditional image," explains Philippe Trollat, responsible for technical missions at BIVB. "But I was given the green light to go ahead with this and create a site that would modernize the wine's image without ignoring its past."

The result is a film showing vineyards and lush countryside accompanied by whiffs of the undergrowth. Musty smells are diffused as the viewer is taken into old vaulted wine cellars, and blackcurrant and vanilla flavors fill the air to evoke the aromas in certain wines.

The site does not offer wine for sale, but acts as a window onto the wines and the Burgundy region. For Trollat, it has been a great success. "We've managed to give the wines a newer, more modern image and the results have been very positive," said Trollat. "People not only talked about the site's technological innovation and design, but as a result, Burgundy wines were also seen as being pioneers." A second site is under way.

France Telecom R & D and BIVB have recently collaborated with a cooking school, the Lycée Jean Quarre in Paris, where the site is used in oenology classes to teach pupils about Burgundy wines. The BIVB plans to buy up to 50 diffusers by the end of the year to distribute them to cooking schools throughout the country.

The general public will not be able to test these sites from home for a while yet, as the necessary equipment is expensive. Although France Telecom developed its own software which can be downloaded for free, it learned from Digiscent's mistakes. To cut costs, it partnered with other companies to manufacture the diffusers necessary to release the odors. Today, these still cost up to $600.

"For now, the scented web has more of a B2B application," explains Messager. "We'll have to wait at least another year for the next generation of diffusers." But only last month, UK net provider Telewest Broadband announced it had developed a scent diffuser for use on broadband connection, available for $465 dollars. A good sign that the market is opening up.


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