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Chemical Reaction: Learning to Smell

By: Steve Herman
Posted: June 9, 2008, from the June 2008 issue of GCI Magazine.

page 3 of 4

Although Learning to Smell is an academic book not at all concerned with the personal care industry, we can easily tease out from its pages information that will illuminate how fragrances are perceived, why consumers react to them the way they do, how marketers communicate odor ideas and how perfumers are trained. The key to understanding is the “odor object” and how it interacts with our brain.

We smell Chanel No 5 and think “Chanel No 5,” not, “Wow, a whole lot of aroma chemicals.” Our brain has a pattern that it matches based on memory and past experience, and we have a verbal name to place on it. If a perfumer made something revolutionary, we might think “that smells strange,” the marketing department can’t place it in a genealogy chart, a consumer won’t have some comforting sense of recognition and no one can explain the smell over the phone. Commercially, an unfamiliar scent is a hard sell. Thus, 99% of “new” fragrances smell remarkably like “old” fragrances, a fact that hardly generates excitement among consumers. It is hard to innovate when familiarity is essential to acceptance.

As they train and develop their skills, perfumers smell hundreds of chemicals, and develop odor recognition for most of them, but they also have the advantage of talking about them to other perfumers. This verbal connection forms a much stronger image of the odor. The same is true for anyone involved in the fragrance business, from sales and marketing professionals to the sales associates at the counters in a department store. They see genealogies, read odor descriptions, discuss new fragrances with customers and, all along, are strengthening their odor memories. Those connections, evident in fragrance professionals, provide fertile ground for exploration of how the sense of smell actually develops.

A large part of Learning to Smell is devoted to comparing olfaction research to research on the other senses, particularly vision. The authors combine an understanding of learning, memory and pattern recognition into a comprehensive picture of how our brain interprets an odor. Vision and olfaction both have two modes of sensory discrimination. One is hard-wired for detection of biologically significant stimuli; the second is experience dependent and changes as an individual matures.

Less academic writers have also instinctively recognized the interconnections of the senses. Virginia Heffernan, writing for The New York Times Magazine, mentions “seeing sound, reading smells.” She reports on spending hours on perfume blogs “that describe smells by calling on images, textures, music.” How can fragrances be sold online without some connection between words and smells? What would the fragrance business be like without the learning, experience and verbal cues that can be attached to scented products?