Understanding the Language of Scent
Although it might sound silly, the aroma of a brand is a key experiential factor. So, here is the classic question; what does your brand smell like, and can you describe it?
When it comes to marketing, scent may be an effective tool that offers a much deeper and longer lasting impression. Crayola crayons were found by a Yale University study as one of the most recognizable scents for adults in the United States. It is a fact that the average human is 100 times more likely to remember a scent over something seen, heard, or touched. In fact, “memory for odor is markedly resistant to time, easily accessed and tends to be characterized by a degree of emotion, clarity and vividness.” (Laird 1935; Engen & Ross 1973; Hertz and Cupchik 1992)
However many companies, brands, marketers and even those in the “fragrance” industry do not understand how to describe scent. To offer a description or enter into a discussion on the various senses, most of us have some kind of educational experience than can be drawn against, however when it comes to smell, it is our most neglected sense. For example, if inspiration comes from tastes – than a favorite cookbook, chef, or cooking show can educate. Visually – art galleries, photography, and graphic design help people “see” and experience spaces differently. The sounds of the world, or the music we experience each and every day, the variety of sounds; all one needs to do is “plug in.” Touch is explored through various massage, love and basic human contact – one can describe touch simply how it feels.
Nevertheless, with olfaction and smells, where does the average person begin? We smell over 10,000 different aromas every day and yet we notice one maybe two. The aromatic molecules that do capture ones nose are either strong and offend the individual or, so powerful that the aroma creates a scent memory. Most people are not taught how to smell and perfumery schools do not exists in North America – so many smell by default.
Speaking about scent is confusing enough but where the smell originates from, can also create a huge amount of confusion. Unfortunately, the public perceptions that a natural smell is better is not very helpful. Aromatic chemical molecules such as sulphur, a true natural chemical compound smells like rotten eggs. Lynelol acetate, another fragrance chemical known as lavender oil but as all chemicals can be created synthetically – the aroma is almost identical to the public. Yet, if one said, “I am wearing natural lavender” vs. “I love this lynelol acetate I found” – the language alone would create a misinterpretation of a good smell or bad one.
Not understanding olfaction creates a confusion and inability to describe scents. This limits expression on how something such as a brand should smell. It seems when “scent” is the focus of the discussion; basic scent definitions are not easily understood. One of the reasons for this, olfactory language is not consistent, in fact the fragrance industry has a very difficult time agreeing on what odor category certain aromas fall into, the interpretation is too large. Visually if something is blue, it is blue, shades may create an interpretation, but the color is not yellow. Tasting coffee is coffee and not chocolate, the trumpet creates notes different than the violin. Cold feels cold and the understanding is simple. However, scents are interpretations and subjective – the language of scent becomes confusing.
Using proper terminology may be the starting point to educate those interested in scent branding. Fragrance is a substance made from a combination of aromatic chemicals. Perfume is a particular concentration level of fragrance material that is often alcohol base. Aromatic chemicals are chemical vapor either natural or synthetic that has a distinct aroma. For every day definitions odor usually means a smell for which we have negative associations, and yet aroma has positive associations – truthfully they are the same thing. Scent seems to be neutral and smell can mean negative but depending how the word is used it can be a verb – the act of olfaction. There is no such thing as “fragrance free” or “unscented” for if there is a molecule – there is a smell.
While reading other discussions on scent marketing/branding, there seems to be such verbiage as “Who would want to go into a store that has an awful smell to it?” Some how in North America (I say this because outside of this continent the experience to aroma is different) there became this attitude that there are good smells and “bad”ones. The question that leaves one to scratch their head, how did this occur? Seventeen years in the scent branding industry has created theories for myself, on how we as a society have neglected our sense of smell and why we continue to do so, but that will be another post.
In the meantime, a common scent marketing/branding mistake is the use of improper terminology. As well, complicating a story or campaign by telling the consumer about the new “fragrance” or that they need to “smell” something. The aroma should just happen—aroma should be the backdrop to the consumer’s experience, a sense that becomes heightened so it impacts the sensory aspects to the campaign. The aroma should describe the brand, the brands signature and act as the unspoken language.
Yale Study: The Color of Childhood