Scents have the incredible power to evoke a rich interplay of emotions. For instance, on an otherwise average day you reach for a favorite perfume, spray it on—and suddenly something feels different. The outlook for the day appears brighter, your reflection in the mirror happier, and your spirits higher. Catching whiffs of your sillage fills you with comfort and reassurance, boosts your self-esteem and even influences the way you relate to others. The effect of aroma can be nothing short of magical, and understanding the science behind it gives us a chance to design unique fragrances that generate positive, uplifting emotions.
“Indeed scents have a unique capacity to touch us deeply on an emotional level,” explains Christelle Porcherot Lassallette, Principal Scientist. Olfactive stimuli are processed differently from those generated by our other senses. The anatomical link between the olfactory system and limbic system, the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories, is direct. “Despite conventional wisdom that humans are visually-oriented, we find that smell can be more important than color in certain contexts,” says Porcherot Lassallette. Since odors are processed in the same part of the brain as memories, recollections evoked by smells are clear and vivid.
Moreover, smelling is a complex activity, with a number of different processes taking place in the brain once the odorant molecules reach the receptors. Scientists point out that as molecules interact with the 350 olfactory receptors in the nose, the resulting emotional response can be quite intense. As Porcherot Lassallette says, “Emotion, a brief, spontaneous reaction that we feel in response to an external stimulus—for instance, the beautiful fragrance of blooming jasmine—can seem fleeting. And yet the effect of the whole experience is lingering. Something happens in our body under the influence of scents. Research shows that odors not only have an effect on our mood, but also on our heart rate and facial expressions. Certain odors reduce stress, induce a state of relaxation, and influence cognitive performance.”
Learning the science behind the emotions that fragrances and flavors evoke has been a mission at Firmenich for more than 30 years. “Science was very much part of our DNA right from the early days—our company was established by chemist Philippe Chuit, and in 1939, Firmenich’s Director of Research and Development Lavoslav Ružička was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, ” says Jérôme Jallat, Vice President, Global Consumer Insights and Sensory. “The Firmenich founders saw from the beginning that research was essential and that both the clients and the consumers wanted to understand better how their products affected them.”
Acknowledging the power of scents to touch emotions, however, wasn’t enough. Firmenich’s challenge became to prove it rigorously and scientifically—and then use this knowledge to craft products that enhanced people’s well-being. “The research behind it is complex, since the topic is vast and intricate,” says Jallat. “Consider this example. If in the morning, your spouse puts on a rich perfume, it can convey an unpleasant, suffocating feeling. The same fragrance worn in the evening during a candlelit meal, however, will appear as romantic and seductive. One perfume can provoke a range of completely opposite emotions.”
“The emotional impact of a fragrance is multifaceted,” adds Porcherot Lassallette. The connection between scents and emotions is modulated by one’s experiences, psychological state and cultural background. Where we come from and what we’ve experienced in life will affect our perception of odors and the emotions they evoke. In the United States, the scent of durian, a tropical fruit notorious because of its pungent smell, would provoke revulsion. In Indonesia or Malaysia, on the other hand, it would elicit happy memories of stopping by a road stall in the countryside and enjoying the messy but delicious affair of sharing durian with friends and family.
Although culture-specific responses were previously treated as an additional difficulty, we saw it as an opportunity to respond to what consumers in different countries sought in their fragrances—comfort, serenity, relaxation, or romance. “Such divergent reactions to scent are reflections of our lives and the cultures that nurtured us,” says Justin Welch, Director of Marketing – Fine Fragrance. “They reveal that fragrance is deeply personal. That the same composition can inspire absolute love or complete rejection is evidence of its power to move us.”
The question then is how to use this power in positive design, to develop new breakthrough technologies and to create products that add to the happiness and well-being of people around the world. New thinking and new concepts were needed. Christian Margot, Distinguished Scientist and Director of Research & Development in Geneva, has been exploring the biology and impact of smell in collaboration with the Brain and Behavior Laboratory of the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at Geneva University and a worldwide network of scientists. This initiative resulted in a series of instruments that allow the Firmenich creative team to decode emotional responses to fragrances.
One such tool is ScentMove™, an emotion and odor map developed through rigorous testing in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, China, Singapore and Brazil. The emotion-odor scale on which ScentMove™ is based measures affective feelings in response to different types of scents. Since responses to odors differ around the world, the map is adapted to each country. It elucidates the scent-emotion link and adds a new layer of information to consumer tests.
The next generation of research has been to decode the emotion-odor link using novel technologies and implicit methods. “One needs to recognize that emotions are by their nature complex and have tensions,” says Andrea Kaye, Director of Consumer Research North America. Simply asking people what they feel touches only the surface of the issue; new techniques using the latest research from psychology and neuroscience can shed additional light on our emotional response to scents.
As Kaye explains, in perfume design, it means understanding what kind of accords and structures generate the most intense reaction in people. “For instance, we know that a familiar aroma will generate a response, but familiar can be boring, so it needs to be contrasted against something intriguing and transportive. When the combination of these elements is correct, it creates the right tension and excitement. Such fragrances become classics.”
Designing a perfume that will evoke positive emotions requires a combination of the perfumer’s creativity and artistry and also cutting-edge research. What’s more, since every perfume tells its own story, every creative process is unique and personal. As Gabriela Chelariu, Senior Perfumer, observes, “Fragrances are carriers of emotions—of their creators and then of their wearers. While creating fragrances I always refer to my experiences and memories, to touch people’s hearts, to bring them back to happy moments in their life, to enchant them and make them dream. I want my perfumes to bring vitality and energy, making people feel like their best self.”
The emotional palette has to be adjusted for each project, since responses to scents vary by countries and cultures. A perfumer and the fragrance development team will then brainstorm specific ingredients or stories that not only connect to the desired emotion, but are also intelligible to the target consumer. They might be familiar and comforting or novel and beguiling, and their harmony and interplay in the final result will determine the rush of emotions a person would feel upon waking up in the morning and reaching for a bottle of perfume. Each fragrance contains different stories and emotions, and that’s part of the beauty—and magic—of scent.
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