Olfaction (the process of smelling) occurs when a piece of the thing that smells, or, more scientifically, an ‘odourant’ binds to olfactory receptors in the mucosa. An orchestra of cells then earn their keep by carrying information about the odourant to the olfactory bulb.
From here, the message travels predominantly to five different brain regions, some of which belong to the limbic system (the area of the brain involved in emotional processing). Due to these close anatomical ties to the limbic system, odour information plays a huge role in emotional processing and perception. Put another way, smell does what a 140 character-long Tweet or even a rambling Facebook status update can’t do. That is, a smell can simultaneously conjure up both powerful memories and emotions instantaneously. It provides a shortcut to some of the brain’s oldest cyto-architecture.
The limbic system’s role in memory is as vast as it is in emotional processing. Once a scent enters the brain and becomes embedded in the memory/emotional regions, visual cues alone can cause it to be resurrected and, in certain cases, re-experienced. For example, watching an M&S advert showing someone smelling a just-baked cake or a freshly brewed cup of coffee can make us, as consumers, experience olfactory sensations. For the less self-restrained among us (pointing the finger directly at yours truly) this kind of advertising tends to end up in a trip to said shop in an inevitable attempt to recreate the sugary goodness rekindled in our minds in our own home.
But it’s not only through visual cues that companies manage to touch our deep olfactory mechanisms. Some have gone one step further and used smell itself as a way of making their products memorable. This is exactly what Abercrombie does with their trademark scent, ‘Fierce’. And ‘Fierce’ has become central to the Abercrombie brand itself. Take care, though, because playing with smells can backfire. For proof, look at Hollister. The smell of SoCal fills you with feelings of claustrophobia and near-blindness — like a ruthless blow to the head. Getting the wrong scent is an avenue, therefore, best avoided.
Another example of smell going wrong can also be found 30,000 feet up. When airlines choose to use a specific scent in their plane’s cabins, stores and merchandise, there’s a tangible risk of an undesirable outcome – for the scent if not the airline. For someone afraid of flying, or who has had a bad experience in flight, the brand smell will quickly become very powerfully associated with feelings of fear and vulnerability. Or for those that look to the alcohol to ease in-flight nerves, that cabin scent quickly becomes an accomplice to the head-pounding, sick-inducing feeling of the hangover that may have resulted.
Those examples just go to show how carefully the sense of smell has to be respected by marketers. It is easy for companies to underestimate its power and long lasting effects on the networks in our brains, yet once those connections have been formed, they are very difficult to unravel. As we can see, the natural synaptic strength of the neurones in a brain can either act as a huge advantage or a drastic failure for marketing techniques.
On a slightly different note, marketers have to make sure potential smells are appropriate to the situation and environment in which they are trying to portray a message. For instance, if McDonalds decided to use the smell of freshly cut grass as their ‘scent logo’, the olfactory system would enter a mild state of confusion. Let’s face it, the natural smell of freshly cut grass and the processed food of McDonalds are to each other as clockwork is to an orange.
Whilst there may seem to be a a lot of speed bumps on the road to successful olfactory branding, if you play your cards right, you could create a novel and unique connection in your consumers’ brain that is harder to shift than a cage of African elephants. New research from the Institute of Science in Israel explains why. Scientists there found that first-time scents seem to be given a unique status in our brains. The special status of scent memories seems to be reserved only for first-time exposure:
“We expected a unique representation of initial or ‘first’ olfactory associations but did not expect that it would materialize even in cases where the behavioural evidence did not indicate a stronger memory,” Yaara Yeshurun of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel said. “In our paradigm, initial and later olfactory associations were remembered equally well, but only first associations had the unique brain representation.”
In terms of understanding the brain, the findings suggest that activity in two brain regions, known as the hippocampus and amygdala, together can render a memory “special.”
All this is food for thought for marketing agencies like us, who serve both B2B and consumer clients. Scent would appear to be the province of the latter, but you can’t help wondering if it has any application – thinking outside the box – for the former, too. Judging by research like the above, there is hoards of potential in the realm of olfactory advertising and scent logos. If appropriate and well executed, companies could find themselves in very good stead with a few wafts in the right direction.