About the link between fragrances, our memories and emotions, and buying behaviour.
Our last post described the phenomenon behind ‘petrichor’- that marvellous freshly wet mud smell, and why we love that smell so much. In this post, we intend to touch upon a few other such fragrances – natural as well as man-made. But first, a few facts about our sense of smell.
Humans have five to six million odour detecting cells ; if that sounds like a lot, consider the fact that your pet dog has about 100 – 220 million, depending on the breed ! Multiple sources mention that the human nose can sense about 10,000 distinct scents ; though a paper published in the journal Science in 2014 stated that this number was closer to a trillion scents ! Incredible, isn’t it ? So how does our sense of smell work ?
When an odour enters the nose, if affects the olfactory epithelium that is made up of millions of nerve endings ; the nerve endings pass the ‘message’ along the olfactory tract to the olfactory bulb and it then enters the limbic system. The limbic system comprises a set of structures within the brain that are regarded by scientists as playing a major role in controlling mood, memory, behaviour and emotion. This is why fragrances have such a strong link to our memories, emotions, and moods. Hence the soothing influence of some fragrances (e.g lavender) and the energising effect of others (e.g lime).
This article goes a step further and mentions that smell sensations are relayed to the cortex, where ‘cognitive’ recognition occurs, only after the deepest parts of our brains have been stimulated. Thus, by the time we correctly name a particular scent as – for example – ‘vanilla’, the scent has already activated the limbic system, triggering more deep-seated emotional responses.
This explains the phenomenon often noticed in consumer research on fragrances ; even people who struggle to name a fragrance or to describe it in simple terms like fruity / flowery / lemony / woody / musky etc., can often describe how it makes them feel or what they associate it with –their first girlfriend, grandmother’s morning prayer rituals, a sun-dappled garden with rows of brightly coloured flowers, a hike to the top of the hill in the rain, cake baked by mum fresh from the oven, you get the picture, right ? This is noticed far more during consumer research in India than abroad, as our vocabulary for fragrances is not as developed ; everyone recognises sweet / flowery and citrus / lime, but few can tell a woody fragrance from a musky or a green one, making the act of decoding through associations even more important.
To return to the topic with which I began this post, apart from petrichor, which other fragrances are universal ones, that all or most of us recognise ? In India, jasmine would be one recognised by everyone – whether by the name ‘chameli’ in the North or ‘malleepu’ in the South; sandal would probably be another – calm, soothing, eternal. There probably are a lot of man-made fragrances that we all recognise too. For instance, some of the most common scent associations are those related to food. Ever stood near a shop selling freshly-made chhole-batoore and inhaled deeply before reaching for your wallet ? Or walked past Mysore Concerns in Matunga area of Mumbai and felt the fragrance of freshly ground coffee beans waft up to your nostrils and languorously beckon you to the counter? Maybe it’s just me, but I can think of loads more – fragrant biriyani, or cardamom chai (any masala chai, actually), ripe mangoes, the smoke from a tandoor, garlic naan are among the few that come to mind. Some of this understanding is used commercially too – noticed how there’s often a baking smell that you inhale as you walk past a cookie-shop in a mall ? That’s to make you feel hungry and tempt you to loosen your purse-strings.
But not all universal scent associations are food-related. There’s the salty tang of the sea, mild but still perceptible even in the polluted waters off Bombay, the smell of wet khus on coolers in North India during summer, the smoky smell hanging in the air after a lot of fire-crackers have been burst, the strong antiseptic smell associated with hospitals, the warm n’ fuzzy ‘awww’ inducing smell of a freshly powdered baby after a bath.
There are powerful stories and anecdotes about the way consumers’ relate to the fragrances of products and their strong connection with the same. For instance, consider Johnson’s Baby Powder, a product with one of the most recognisable scents in the world. Introduced in 1893 to soothe irritation on plastered skin, it was soon being used to help alleviate diaper rash too. The aroma of Johnson baby powder is so strongly connected to the image of a happy, clean baby that it is often identified as ‘the baby smell’. In fact, close to a decade ago, a baby products brand trying to enter India found this an impassable barrier and had to retreat – while young mothers liked their products and were happy with them, the grandmothers were rejecting them as ‘the baby didn’t smell like a baby anymore’. What the grannies were missing, in fact, was the smell of the Johnson’s baby powder on their precious grandchild, but their identification with it was so complete that it was ‘the baby smell’ to them.
Scents are such powerful triggers to our emotions – thence to our loyalty, and commercially speaking, our purse-strings – that many iconic brands have kept the initially successful fragrance unchanged for decades or more. Examples of such instantly recognisable fragrances are Johnson’s Baby Powder, Pond’s Cold Cream, Dettol antiseptic liquid, Old Spice cologne, Pears soap etc. Of course, a challenge faced by such brands is remaining contemporary and relevant to their audience while retaining the physical product attributes such as fragrance. But that’s another story, meant for another post altogether.
- Zenobia Driver