21st Century Leap of Fragrance


Olivia Jezler, Fragrance Innovation Specialist

Surprisingly little has changed since the birth of modern perfumery. We have witnessed scientific and technological advancements, discovered new ingredients and compounds, and even seen new markets emerge. However, fundamentally, the fragrance industry has not progressed. The principle remains the same: to create nice-smelling liquids in a bottle. Is this really the extent of our endeavors, or do we have more to offer our sense of smell than the next niche fragrance?

Along with numerous studies, we are all well aware of the power of scent and its ability to affect mood and influence psychological health, cognition and behavioral processes—and its capability to do so even at a subconscious level. How is this knowledge being applied? The fragrance industry has been stagnant, yet it is my belief that we are on the cusp of something transformative and disruptive that will have an impact on health care, education, art, safety and even help individuals faced with disabilities.

This is where fragrance can be applied for a deeper purpose, to make a change and that actually impacts our lives for the better. But in order for this to happen, we have to think outside of the bottle and do so together with others. Are we ready to?

Interplay Between Senses

Our senses have been working together all along. Psychologists and neuroscientists have known of the existence of cross-modal correspondences, or interactions between our senses, for many years. An example of cross-modal perception is synesthesia, a condition whereby the stimulus of one sensory system leads to the involuntary response by another sense. Individuals who experience synesthesia can, for example, “smell” a sound or “hear” a color. However, beyond synesthesia, a large body of research shows that even across cultures, people exhibit consistent cross-modal correspondences.

The early 20th century gave birth to Gestalt psychology, which is seen as the foundation for the modern study of perception. This ideology explains that when the human mind perceives, the totality of this perception has a reality that is independent of its smaller parts. For example, movement cannot be understood only by studying a series of static experiences, rather it becomes an entirely new sensation and requires new methods of inquiry. In essence, the organization of cognitive processes is viewed as a product of complex interactions among various stimuli, which posed a fundamental change to our understanding of cortical functioning. The earliest areas of study of the Gestalt movement included illusions and movement; direction and sound;1 and relationships between smells and tones.2

Since then, research has found various relationships spanning our senses; for example, the pitch of a sound pitch with an object’s location in space;3 and louder sounds with visual stimuli that exhibit higher contrast.4 And it turns out that people also can reliably match more complex stimuli such as music with pictures.5 When it comes to olfactory correlations, research indicates relationships between colors and odors,6 auditory pitch and smell,7 smells and shapes,8 as well as how the presence of an odor can modify the tactile perception of fabric softness.9

Wolfgang Köehler, one of the founding Gestalt psychologists, first observed a correlation between speech sounds and the visual shapes of objects in 1929. He demonstrated that when college students were asked which shape was “kiki” and which was “bouba,” students almost uniformly associated “kiki” with a jagged, pointy shape and “bouba” with a rounded, curvy shape (see F-1). Later studies suggest that even 2.5-year-olds (who do not yet know how to read) showed the same phenomenon.10

This demonstrated that shape forms were consistently being matched to certain sounds across age groups. Why is all this relevant? It demonstrates that existing cognitive processes are shared by a large part of the population. It also means that if we work together with such findings, we can develop more compelling products and experiences.

Fast-forward almost a century later to the Crossmodal Lab at Oxford University, where Charles Spence studied the psychological and neurological integration of information across our five sensory modalities. In his research,11 Spence discovered correlations between shapes and specific odors. Lemon and pepper, for example, were associated with angular shapes, while raspberry and vanilla were associated with rounded shapes.

Building on this research, the SCHI Lab at University of Sussex and Marianna Obrist’s team of engineers, computer scientists, psychologists, a neuroscientist and a scent expert are researching novel technologies to evoke deep-set emotions through our lower senses of touch, smell and taste.12 In an exploratory study, a total of 17 participants (12 males, 5 females) were given a creative task with a “spikey” or a “rounded” scent to see if these scents still exhibited the same correlations. The goal was to see whether the different odors would lead to clearly identifiable differences in creative output.13

Researchers scented modeling clay either with vanilla, which as stated, previously was correlated with rounded shapes, or lemon, which was correlated to spikey shapes. Interestingly enough, only three participants noticed the scent in the clay when asked about it after the experiment. It can therefore be inferred that the ability to detect or even identify the scent had no effect on the task at hand.

A rough assessment of the differences between groups was performed using a non-parametric ANOVA (Kruskal-Wallis rank sum test) and Conover’s test for multiple comparisons with Bonferroni correction. The analysis showed the lemon sculptures tended to occupy a larger area than the vanilla sculptures. Indeed, sculptures molded with lemon-scented clay tended to have a higher number of spikes, parts and bodies than vanilla-scented sculptures. What does all this mean for the fragrance industry today?

Sensory Alignment and Applications

Studies have shown that sensory alignment between the senses has an impact on merchandise evaluation,14 perception of pleasantness and trust. It can thus be concluded that sensory misalignment can be linked to consumer dislike.

How can this be linked to our current fragrance business? Potentially by linking the shape of the packaging and labeling with the fragrance of products, e.g., fine fragrances, personal care and household, or flavored products such as snack foods, spices, flavored drinks and spirits. This could also be achieved by exposing a designer at various stages of the design process to the particular fragrance or flavor for which they are designing. The delivery method of the stimuli could take on various forms: from embedding the scent into the modeling material (as explored in the previous study) in initial prototyping phases, to the potential of digital scent dispersal at more advanced stages of product development.

As the described research suggests, if the odor of the product is present when a designer is developing its packaging, the shape of the packaging will better reflect its contents and provide a more memorable, impactful experience for the end user. In other words, more senses acting congruently together, i.e., expressing the same features across sensory modalities, make it more natural for our brains to perceive, connect with and remember the product–and more likely that we will purchase and repurchase the product.

These connections are not limited to the shape of a given package. Through further research, they could extend to include surface, weight, texture, lighting, contrasts, semantics, font and sounds used in the entire product and marketing mix. We are already doing this unconsciously; why not consciously work together to make it readily accessible across disciplines? Such research is already happening…

Taking it a step further, a database could be developed that collected all these correlations between our senses. It could act as a toolkit aiding us in how to blend each sensory element to create desired experiences for an end user of a certain age, in a specific region of the world, at a given moment in time.

Toward a Hybrid Approach

In April, the Harvard Business Review15 published an article on the need for a hybrid approach to education; one that encourages “systems thinking”—a capacity to be both broad and specialized to account for the rise in hybrid jobs. In relation, the MIT Media Lab’s spring member’s event called for an “anti-disciplinary” approach that goes beyond user-centered to user interaction, pushing the educational system to the forefront of innovative design.

The field of human computer interaction (HCI), for example, is one hybrid field combining computer science, behavioral sciences and design. But hybrid fields are not limited to these disciplines. With the number of personal computers on our wrists, in our pockets and seamlessly integrated into our everyday environments, engineers, designers and the HCI community are looking for novel means to interact with forever-evolving technology. With this increased interest in designing for a wider spectrum of interfaces and experiences, and the possibility of employing sensory feedback, we find the novel field of multisensory HCI.

Modern-day interest in digital olfactory experiences is nothing new. Since the 1990s, multiple attempts have been made to merge digital technologies with scent; in the last decade alone, a number have been made in Japan and in the West. With his doctorate work, in 1999, Joseph “Jofish” Kaye at the MIT Media Lab put scent, along with all the details regarding its challenges in new technology mediums, on the map. He explored various applications of scent and how it could be used as a new information carrier, or a so-called display system.

This was the first comprehensive, publically accessible work on fragrance in the field of human-computer interaction. However, for known reasons such as the difficulty in controlling odors, our general inability to detect and differentiate between odors, the inaccessibility to fragrance materials, and lack of knowledge for how to use fragrances, scent applications remained experimental, viewed mainly as kitsch and deemed unsuccessful. Maybe this is why half of the scent-related projects at the MIT Media lab in 2016 are exploring “odorless” scents.

Contrary to when scent branding emerged a decade ago, technological advancements today are happening all around us and we can see it all around us. With wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT), computers are moving beyond the screen and are seamlessly integrated into all aspects of our lives. Innovations in material science, such as reproduction technologies (3D printing), are allowing us to genetically modify and grow living systems, and virtual reality is allowing us to immerse ourselves in new states of mind and sensations. Can we even imagine what the future of Snapchat will feel like?

With technology becoming ubiquitous, technology truly becomes part of our real living, breathing environments and naturally interacts with all our senses. If we do not take our senses into consideration when designing for these new smart systems, we would be missing out on creating game changing innovations, from the best safety alerts, information carriers, to truly personalized systems that can make us healthier, happier, more at peace and ultimately transform our lives.

If fragrance wants to be a part of this, it will require new frameworks for thinking and new models for doing business. Are we ready for this, or more importantly, are we willing? We are in the 21st century where the future of fragrance, the future of everything, is interwoven. Can you smell it yet?


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