The Psychology of Smell


More and more of my clients are intrigued when I mention the use of fragrance in an experience.  However, to some it does seem a bit like a dark art so this week I’ll talk about how scent can be used to not only lift an experience but to also increase its emotional impact.

Smell is a a very potent sense and is one we can take for granted because its effects are more subtle than vision.  Smell usually gets boiled down to something that either smells nice or doesn’t, and although this view is valid it doesn't take into account getting into the recipient’s brain.  Sometimes, the choice of scent is obvious as you may see from its use in coffee shops and that wonderful bread smell radiating from Subway sandwich shops.  But sometimes a ‘nice’ smell isn't actually needed. Some museums use scent to make scenarios more realistic - a pongy medieval street for example.  However, smell can be used in much more interesting and subtle ways and can be far more evocative when thought about more.  This more sophisticated thinking has been used for a long time when choosing perfume or aftershave and in considering how it is used to best affect.  There’s no reason why this cant apply commercially too. 

So, first things first - Here’s a bit of information on how smell works.  When we smell things, we are actually detecting molecules of the substance in the air; they float through the air and some reach our nose.  When these molecules attach to the neurones in the upper part of our nose, electrical impulses are sent to our brain.  The olfactory bulb is the first part of the brain to receive these messages and this is part of the Limbic System.  This is important because the Limbic System plays a major role in controlling emotion, memory and behaviour.

Smell is connected to memory.  The scent of a previously fashionable perfume or aftershave doesn't only remind you of a person but it can actually transport you back to the frame of mind you were in when you knew that person.  Sometimes it’s fleeting, like briefly seeing a window into the past but sometimes you may even remember events and scenarios. 

That transportation to another frame of mind is the emotional impact of a memory.  Emotion and memory are closely linked and this is manipulated by marketers everywhere - a positive or negative association with a brand will last a long time and can be hard to reverse.  Fragrance can be a glue that connects memory and emotion together.

Even if you want to use a scent in a more literal sense to make an experience more realistic you should still think about communicating the personality of your space or event like you would do when choosing a perfume or aftershave for yourself.

It’s then important to think about accessing emotional memory and taking people back to a pleasant frame of mind so they will remember you in a positive light.  On one level, you can choose something you know will be nice for people and also create a higher chance of remembering you when they smell it again.  For example, My business cards contain the grassy image as seen on the homepage of this website.  I scent the cards with a ‘cut grass’ fragrance to evoke that feeling when people are out cutting their grass at the first onset of spring/summer.  The idea is that I want to increase the chance that people will mentally relate me to that optimistic, glowing feeling.  Also, I have increased the chance of them thinking about me when they are happy and optimistic when next summer arrives.

On another level, you can create this positive memory yourself by using scents in an experience and then following up this smell to bring back memories.  This can be done by being consistent with your chosen fragrance(s) and tying them in closely with other sensory media at different times to jog memories.

Of course, there are a few practical considerations.  Fragrance is a consumable and so will be a regular cost.  This cost will depend on how fragrance is used and also the size of the space it will be used in but I wouldn't say cost is prohibitive.  You also need to think about a delivery system.  Some squirt aerosols and so create noise that may be undesirable and some methods are more visually impactful and so may need to be disguised.  This is all part of the general problem-solving procedure though and again, is not prohibitive.

Finally, as I have been mentioning since my outlook only included audio, it is important that a combined sensory approach is used to create an overarching experience with each part intertwined, creating more than the sum of the parts, concreting the idea in memories and emotions.  Don't just paste a smell in over the top of an existing experience, but design the whole experience that seamlessly communicates the essence of your message.