BACK TO THE FUTURE: Scent, Nostalgia & Magic

What superpowers did you most long for as a child? Did you want to fly? Be invisible? Have superhuman strength? From a young age, the idea of living beyond the constraints of our earthly bodies appeals to us. Perhaps this explains our intrigue with nostalgia. In a year that has felt uniquely apocalyptic, nostalgia offers us an escape when the present has felt all too confining. Nostalgia, like fragrance, has the dual capability to enhance the here-and-now and transport us elsewhere. This idea that fragrance is transportive is unoriginal, yet rarely explored to its deepest meaning. How does fragrance transport us? What does that actually mean and what does that feel like? What is the role of nostalgia in this magic?



The transportive nature of scent is inextricably linked with memory. Our sense of smell begins in-utero; it is an umbilical cord to our past, connecting us to our experiences and people over time. Rachel Herz, PhD (2016), neuroscientist and expert in olfaction, emotion and cognition, explains that scent-cued memories trigger “more emotional and evocative recollections than memories triggered by any other cue.” This is due to our olfactory bulb’s privileged position in our brain, with direct contact to the amygdala and hippocampus. These areas of the brain are responsible for emotional experience, associative learning and memory. None of our other senses have that targeted connection. All of this lends itself to our ability to learn how we should feel about smells. The reactions we have to scents are not a given—they are learned via the emotional experiences we have with them. For example, did you have a great relationship with your father? If so, you’d likely associate positive feelings with his cologne. If you were to smell it years later on the street, it would snap you back to a positive place. Terrible relationship with your father? That very same cologne would be associated with negative feelings. If you were to smell it on the street again, your stomach might clench. It is not the scent itself that triggers these reactions; it is the feelings you’ve learned to associate with the scent.

With that in mind, what differentiates memory from nostalgia? Nostalgia expert Krystine Batcho, PhD, (2019) succinctly states, “You can have a memory without nostalgia, but you can’t have nostalgia without memory.” Batcho explains that we have four types of memories: neutral, sad, happy and nostalgic, the last of which is a mix of emotions. Batcho describes nostalgia as a rich cognitive-emotional experience. It requires a mental processing of the meaning of memories. The meaning we give those memories comes with associated feelings. The feelings themselves are mixed, which is why nostalgic feelings are often described as “bittersweet”. The bitterness comes from the longing for something that can never be again exactly the way you experienced it, combined with the sweetness of having lived it at all in the first place.

Although the bitterness of nostalgia has characterized its historical representation, contemporary researchers now largely regard nostalgia as a healthy psychological phenomenon. In fact, three separate proprietary studies at Firmenich all revealed that the top emotions American consumers associate with nostalgia are overwhelmingly favorable. These consumers consistently link nostalgia with feelings of happiness, comfort and calm. Sure, there is some sadness and pain interlaced with these jaunts down memory lane, but they don’t characterize the entire trip.


Modern research indicates that nostalgia offers a myriad of psychological benefits. Batcho explains that nostalgia enhances wellbeing by providing a unifying emotional experience across three dimensions:
* Connects us with ourselves: it unites us with who we are and our identity over time. We are constantly evolving and nostalgia helps us to stay connected to our authentic self. It strengthens our sense of self-continuity and self-esteem.

* Connects us with others: the majority of our nostalgic memories revolve around the self in social context. When we are very young, it is part of what bonds us to the most important people in our life. For many, it reminds us of a time when we were unconditionally loved and simply enough, just for being us. As we grow, this extends into our larger social network, increasing social connectedness, social competency and relationship satisfaction.

* Helps unify what would otherwise be felt as a conflict. The bitter-sweetness of nostalgia captures its inherent paradox. However, nostalgia offers a bridge between these two ends of the emotional spectrum, by allowing us to revisit an experience, even if we can’t relive As Batcho explains, “when we reminisce nostalgically, we want to bring the best of our past into our present”.

With the aforementioned benefits at play, nostalgia also provides a stabilizing force in times of unexpected change. This is why transitions in life, like moving from adolescence into adulthood, or crisis, such as a global pandemic, can elicit pangs of nostalgia. It is essentially a self-soothing tool for adapting to unpredictable life changes, which have defined 2020.

Firmenich has long invested in its understanding of nostalgia. The Emotions360 study and tool reveals the emotions, ingredients, foods, fruits, flowers and colors consumers associate with nostalgia worldwide. In America, cinnamon and oak are strongly associated to nostalgia for both genders, as well as childhood favorites like cotton candy, vanilla and ice-cream. Some of these nostalgic elements, such as cinnamon and oak, are shared across regions, while others are culturally specific. For instance, in Russia, the Silver Birch is a revered cultural symbol that is strongly associated with nostalgia. Germans link gingerbread, nutmeg, clove, roasted almonds and hazelnut with nostalgia, all of which play a role in cultural treats, such as kuchen, marzipan and glühwein. In Brazil, beach fruits, like pineapple and coconut, are linked with nostalgia. French consumers express the bleakest perception of nostalgia, associating it with sadness and melancholy; nonetheless, they associate innocent delights like lollipops with it. Most of our scent associations are made in childhood, when we are exposed to scents for the very first time. Prior learning and personal history deeply impact the associations we make with scents. For these reasons, knowledge of a target culture is essential when crafting nostalgic fragrances to ensure they align with consumer expectations. Congruency is key.



Emotions360 allows us to understand the smells that consumers associate with nostalgia, but what about scents? How do we develop fine fragrances—oftentimes faceted, complex and abstract—to transport consumers to beloved nostalgic spaces? To find out, Firmenich conducted its Fine Fragrance Nostalgia Study in 2019 with 180 American women and 20 fine fragrances to explore how the fragrance industry’s perception of nostalgic fragrances compared to that of the consumers’. The study aimed to unearth what constitutes a nostalgic fine fragrance.

The results are surprising. The findings reveal several key emotions that are critical for the development of nostalgic fragrances. The most liked fragrances in this study were also the ones with the highest scores across this unique emotional trifecta. Decoding those emotions is more important than decoding the attribute “nostalgic” itself. The focus of creation must be on cultivating the quality of a nostalgic experience. Based on conceptual and olfactive findings, Firmenich created a framework for how to approach the creation of nostalgic fragrances through four different pathways: emotional, iconic, personal and dreamlike. These approaches can be tailored to a brand’s overall DNA, specific brief and target consumer. The pathways themselves can be thought of as doors that lead to different rooms of a house, with each room offering the consumer its own meaningful nostalgic experience.

Nostalgia allows us to retreat inward, time travel, existentially fly and experience unconditional love, while fragrance appeals to our desire to live beyond, or transgress the given. Together, the two are a powerful cocktail, especially in 2020. For better or worse, this year has underscored the power of the unseen—in systems, structures, even air. Part of the magic of fragrance comes from its invisible power to move us. We can’t see it, but it is all around us, fueling our most powerful memories about ourselves, others and our experiences. While fragrance may not transform us into superheroes, it does offer us superpowers: the power to experience beauty within the ordinary, comfort within uncertainty and calm within chaos.


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