Cultural connection through smell

May 8, 2014

Image source: Camil Tulcan

I recently followed the smellul8tr experience at the Next Wave festival.  Two sets of artists ‘hacked’ galleries and public spaces around Melbourne to juxtapose different scents into unexpected places, all to release novel memories and associations.  For example  Bill Noonan ‘hacked’ airwick air-fresheners with the scent of barbecue, to challenge the senses.  In an art gallery context, it was disconcerting, but comforting to smell barbecue as you walked in the door (and, to be honest, made us more than a little hungry!)

This got me thinking about our senses, or more specifically our sense of smell.  It feels like we often forget, or ignore, one of the senses that could be most useful and interesting for brand experiences.  I’m not talking about ‘smell-release technology’, ‘scratch & sniff’ or any such thing, not directly anyway.  I’m talking about the emotional connection which smell can generate, and whether there are simple ways this could be leveraged to build stronger connections.   

Our sense of smell is a powerful force, and one we don’t yet fully understand the implications of.  Neuroscientists still don’t understand the full implications of the connections between scent and our memory. 

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What we do know is that the piriform cortex (the part of the brain that ‘senses smells’) is connected to the medial amygdala & entorhinal cortex, parts of the brain most active in memory and emotional learning, and important functions such as forming social bonds. 

At a non-neuro level, we understand that sometimes smell can be the key to unlocking memories we would struggle to call to mind at will - one sniff of a musty book page can transport us back to a childhood rainy afternoon at our grandparents.  Moreover, smells that were repetitive, or ritualised (e.g. the smell of the sea), can instantly conjure up not just a place or person, but a number of emotions associated with that place e.g. the first day of holidays.  This is a form of involuntary memory known as the Proust Effect.

Research studies have shown how olfactory memory is more emotional than verbal memory, meaning what we smell, has a direct connection to our emotional encoding and learning (See a body of work by Herz & Cupchik).  In fact, it’s argued that we have relatively little conscious control over the emotional memories activated by scent as they are autonomic, meaning they happen like a reflex - something we can’t control. 

Branding Scents

This has interesting implications for brands.  Consider, for example Subway, or KFC for that matter.  You know the smell and it hits you before you even step inside the building.  Which, in itself is an interesting point – they are providing a brand touchpoint in a public space.  You can’t see it, but you’re being talked to in the most emotional way our brain knows … through scent. 

Supermarkets have been ahead of the olfactory game for years, pumping out the smell of fresh bread, hot cross buns, and other pleasant scents.  But this is not just about ‘appetite’ appeal, or a ‘nice smell’.  If we unpack the potential emotional significance of that smell, and likely associations given to us by culture we find a deeper set of codes.   Fresh bread cues baking, which is production, which connects to the idea of freshness, and creation by a human - not a machine.  We implicitly assume there is a ‘baker’.  It also connects, for me at least, to a sense of comfort, homeliness, farms and feeling safe, warmth and cosiness.  A nice emotional mood to be in before I do battle with the aisles – perhaps a mood conducive to browsing for a few minutes longer. 

Olfactory connections with food are the most obvious, but what might happen if we think about other spaces where they could play a role.  Car salesrooms for example, and a ‘new car smell’.  Or alternatively, could we play with things a little further, what is for example, the smell of freedom?  Fresh air, the salt of the sea perhaps.  

Or think about clothing retailers.  There will be scents and perfumes that cue nostalgia, that cue creativity, that make us happy, and that make us sad.  Are retailers making the most of all our senses as we enter their spaces?  Are brands really getting us ‘in the mood’ to shop?

The Cultural Significance of Emotions

There is another interesting dimension to consider when it comes to considering the power of our emotional responses to olfactory stimulation. This dimension is the commonality of smell.  We have no way of knowing someone’s autobiographical history, of where they come from and what they’ve experienced.  But we can make some educated guesses.  We might expect everyone to have positive associations with freshly baked bread for example.  But what about the smell of the sea?

For many Australians this might be about freedom, holidays, summer, sunshine, laughter, family.  But will this necessarily be the case for someone from, for example, Norway?  Or even for those who have grown up by the beach, we might expect this to be associated with more ‘special’ memories for those who did not grow up near a beach, to those that did, where it would be more everyday and cue a different range of emotions. 

Which raises the question can we ‘map’ the senses cross-culturally, and even across Australia.  Is there a way to create an emotional map of what smells might connect with what emotions?  It seems that there are certain smells that cross cultural boundaries.  Lwin & Wijaya  explored this in a study in which high emotion (a happy celebration) and low emotion (a clean room) events were discussed with 8 groups of people from across cultural worlds.  They found common associations with the smell of ‘fresh air’ in all cultures, along with the association of citrusy smells with ‘cleanliness’ in all cultures.  For the cleaning example, knowledge of these category boundaries in scent may be crucial in innovation, to either conform or disrupt associations with a product. 

But this relationship does not just go one way.  Whilst we associate smells of ‘citrus’ or ‘alpine’ with cleanliness, respondents were also found to associate smells they had no way of ever having experienced with these values. For example the idea of Alpine fresh air for cleaning products, existed even in cultures that had never interacted with an ‘Alpine’ environment in real life.  Arguably the brands and media around these values had created their own ‘scent-memories’. 

The study argued that for low emotion scents, we accept cultural commonalities and allow our associations to be built by outside influences e.g. media.  However for high emotion memories and events, the scent associations tend to be much more culturally and personally specific, and therefore are harder to replicate and create across cultures and people.  So can brand provoke an emotional response, the answer appears to be yes, easily, but never the most extreme emotions. 

If we accept, and presume that we can map common reactions to smells across different populations then perhaps in the future this may become our shared experience and meaning.  As we increasingly consume content on demand, and live lives increasingly less shaped by the social structures we grew up with (who, for example, still makes it home for the 6pm news?) we have less and less common cultural touch-points that are guarantees for certain cohorts of people to know and understand.  These are an essential function for bonding, shared experience and forging new connections.  If we don’t have a shared interest, we may have a shared history through points of cultural connection.  As this diminishes, maybe smell takes over.  We might not have a shared consumption of media, but do we all recognise and feel happy at the smell of freshly cut roses?  The jury’s out for now, but one thing remains true.  Smells connect us to deeper emotional memories and experiences than we often actively consider, so perhaps it is time we started paying more attention to the humble nose.