The Forest and the Trees

I was getting a mani/pedi recently, and she asked me if I wanted my usual scent for the foot scrub, which in my case is an amber scent. But for some reason that day I asked for the whole scent experience, which meant that she hit the button that laid down the chaise lounge I was in, put the warm and yummy fuzzy blanket on me, gave me a warmed neck pillow and covered my eyes with one of those quilted sleep thingies. Then she put three little bowls, one at a time, under my nose and asked me to pick one. I chose the second of three.

“Interesting,” she said. “We are getting more and more people choosing this scent—it’s going to take over as the most popular scent soon.”

I had picked geranium. Geranium. I have to admit that my first thought was “old fashioned” (with the emphasis on old). But ultimately I realized I felt, well, safe, which was an odd feeling during a spa treatment.

Over the next couple of months I would ask my friends about their trips to the spa, and oddly enough, more than half mentioned their scent choices changing. While only one had chosen geranium outright, the other changes were seemingly in line with what I had experienced—those who had changed recently had all changed to a floral scent, and all of them, with no prodding, spoke to wanting to feel cozier or sheltered. These scents made them feel nostalgic for simpler times. Now, this obviously isn’t in-depth research by any means, but their choices—and the language they used to describe them—speak to all of us wanting or needing something different in our lives.Wanting to understand this more, I started looking to see if I could find anything about links between scent profiles and cultural or societal shifts. I found immense amounts of data, articles and papers around scent and spiritualism, sexuality, religion and romance; about the power of scent and memory; and even about the geography of scent, but not a lot on this subject. I did, however, find a book titled The Essence of Perfume by Roja Dove and found it quite interesting.

First, I learned that fragrances fall into one of three families—floral, chypre and oriental—each reflecting a different global mood.

Floral scents are popular in times of uncertainty or naivety, such as pre-WWI and the late 1980s when AIDS was creeping into the wider social consciousness.

Chypre scents seem to rise up from the ashes of war or recession, such as post WWI and WWII.

Oriental scents are the perennial feel-good scents that arise during the party times, like the 1920s and 50s.  

For example, in the 1930s we had moved from the 1929 Wall Street crash to the Great Depression, the green divide between the rich and the poor was wider than ever, and in Germany, Hitler had taken his first steps to power. And the quintessential scent of the ’30s?  Jacques Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, scent: woodsy and earthy, warm and spicy, with a top note of floral and orange.

And a little more recently, we find the 2005 Perles de Lalique by Lalique. After 9/11, every major perfume launch was put on hold for two years. And then came a wonderful woodsy, peppery chypre scent with hints of rose and iris and patchouli that spoke both to lament for the past and hope for the future.

And here we are in 2014, with what seems to be a strong move toward a global floral mood that kicked into gear in 2012 and is getting stronger. Maybe we are trying to cover our fears, our uncertainties (economics, politics, even geography) and even our naiveté (Ebola, Russia) by marking our bodies and surrounding ourselves with lush floral notes. From La Vie Est Belle in 2012 through PHI Une Rose de Kandahar in 2013. In 2014 there are so, so very many, but most telling is that the top 10 perfumes for women in 2014 were all florals.

And it’s not just us women. Men feel it as well. Last year at this time, GQ ran a story on “How to wear florals like a man: 8 floral fragrances for men.” And that wasn’t the first, nor last. Right up to last month on D’Marge, where we see yet another post about floral scents for men, focusing on the well-known Dior Homme and four others.

So, what am I getting at here? For me, it was a good reminder that while there are many, many things we look at in marketing to help us understand the people we are talking to and with, we in the industry sometimes we forget three things. First, we are them. Secondly, there is such a thing as a global collective thought—we are all human. We as marketers can’t discount what we see, experience, feel or do, and we can’t forget to look at the forest when we are studying the trees. Thirdly, we tend to focus only on what people will see and what they will hear and rarely on what their scent experience will be (or touch, for that matter, but that’s another post). And yet, scent is such an important part of so many of our consumer experiences—from Cinnabon to cars. Who hasn’t been tempted by a Cinnabon aroma wafting by? And we all talk about the “new car smell,” which brings its own positive emotional experience, but why isn’t there an Audi smell or a BMW fragrance that is unique to the brand, that helps extend the experience both physically and emotionally?

And lest we forget that ultimately it’s about sales, here are three examples where we see scent making a difference. In a WSJ article earlier in the year, the reporter wrote “Cinnabon, the bakery chain, places ovens near the front of its stores so the enticing smell of warm cinnamon rolls escapes when oven doors open…[with] bakeries intentionally located in malls or airports, not outside, so smells can linger…[and] putting ovens in the back of stores at a test location ‘significantly’ lowered sales.”

BrainJuicer, a market research agency out of London known for their expertise in behavioral economics, did an experiment a few years ago with Dutch lingerie retailer Hunkemöller in which they used scent as a behavioral primer. (Priming is where behavior is influenced by seemingly unrelated or semirelated stimuli that help trigger particular actions.) They used scent, as it tends to remind shoppers of romantic occasions. After a six-week experiment, the scent interventions saw as much as 20 percent uplift in sales.

Furthermore, a study published this January in the International Journal of Marketing Studies that looked at the effect of the presence and absence of an ambient scent on customers showed that customers “felt greater pleasure and stimulation, expressed intention to revisit the store and spent more time in a scented environment than in an unscented one.”

Scent. As Diane Ackerman said in her book A Natural History of the Senses, “Nothing is more memorable than smell…it detonates softly in our memory like poignant land mines.” It’s emotional, it’s physical, it’s extremely individualistic and yet collectively experiential and it has a power like no other sense. So as marketers, we would be foolish not to play a bit more with these “poignant land mines” as we go about our jobs on a daily basis.


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