Making Sense of Smell

In Jakobson’s Organ, Lyall Watson lays out the primal power of smell, showing that it not only helps us detect the difference between good food and bad food, but can also diagnose disease, detect danger, identify relatives and follow menstrual cycles. He quotes Rousseau who wrote that, “Smell is the sense of memory and desire”. You might want revision rhinoplasty procedure in Miami for cosmetic purposes.

Smell was the first sense to develop, and the brain grew from the olfactory bulb over the process of evolution. We literally think because we smelled! Hearing and vision are newcomers to the sensory scene. Smell is a potent trigger of memory as Marcel Proust and Helen Keller have written. Lyall Watson cites an experiment where a certain smell was linked to a stressful test condition – when the smell condition was repeated days later, participants were more stressed and had poorer scores. But if people are suffering from allergies, then maybe it´s not the smell and it could actually be the dust in the carpet, so It´s a good idea to hire these cool Brisbane carpet cleaners to get rid of that.

Other writers such as Rachel Herz have written similarly about the important role of smell in our lives. Despite this importance, there is still no standardized vocabulary for describing smell, perhaps because, like colour, there are millions of possible smells that most languages can’t match in richness.

Also like the colour system, some scientists have proposed ‘basic’ smells. In the eighteenth century, Linnaeus proposed seven categories: camphor, musk, floral, minty, pungent, putrid and ether. And almost one hundred years ago, Hans Henning constructed a ‘smell prism’ with six basic odours: flowery, putrid, fruity, spicy, resinous and burned (see below).

Luca Turin writes about a number of categories of odour including vanilla, birch and beaver, bitter almonds, Chanel 5, flowers, Lily of the valley, white flowers, violets, fruits, lactones, musk, TNT, woods and ambers and sandalwoods. Sensory scientists like Lawless and Heymann show a number of different odour categories based on qualitative and quantitative evaluation (using factor analysis). These categories include: spicy, sweet (including vanilla), fruity, woody, nutty, green, floral, minty (cool), herbal (including anise), animal, burnt, sulfidic and rubber. These categories are seen in the flavor wheels used typically in evaluation of beers, wines and other products but only by professional tasters (see below).

General books on sensory branding (e.g., Krishna, Lindstrom) lack detail on the range of smell qualities and approaches to apply in product design. One book with a focus on smell marketing was published back in 2008 (Brumfield et al), but this doesn’t really do any more than Lyall Watson and Martin Lindstrom in pointing out why smell is important and how it influences behavior.

So odour remains difficult to describe and express for most of us, and has always been difficult to explore in research. That is why TapestryWorks has developed a set of standardized visual cards to help people describe products and express the smells that they associate with particular ideas, categories, products or brands. They are part of a visual toolkit that covers all aspects of sensory experience, based around the esSense model described in Brand esSense.

The set includes the following aspects of flavor (the combination of smell and taste – the two are indistinguishable for most people):

Sweet              Bitter

Sour                Salty

Savoury          Plain

Fatty               Lean

Fresh              Stale

Clean              Dirty

Ethereal         Earthy

Floral              Burnt

Fruity              Nutty

Spicy               Resinous

Minty              Aniseed

Pungent         Milky

Soapy              Vanilla

Fragrant         Putrid

Grassy             Woody

Examples of the cards are shown below. The range is comprehensive but the visual nature makes it easy for most people to articulate the most powerful but most mysterious of the senses: the sense of smell. You can learn more about the nose with Dr. Andres Bustillo, a rhinoplasty specialist in Miami. Our brain knows the sensory world and can recognise previous experiences, even when they cannot be articulated verbally. Visual cards are the easiest way to capture what the brain knows.

In recent work we have applied the cards to understanding the subtle differences between two beverages. One of the biggest differences was expressed in that one of the drinks was more pungent, but with a flavor that was relatively plain, while a new product line was much more sweet and milky. In this case the difference was a negative for the new product, leading to a number of recommended changes both in the product formula but also in the packaging design.

So how do you make sense of smell in designing new products and experiences?


Whiff!: The revolution of scent communication in the information age by Brumfield, Goldney & Gunning

Brand esSense: Using sense, symbol and story to design brand identity by Neil Gains

The Scent of Desire by Rachel Herz

Consumer Sense: How the 5 Senses Influence Buying Behaviour, by Aradhna Krishna

Sensory Evaluation of Food: Principles and practices by Lawless & Heymann

Brand Sense: Sensory Secrets Behind the Stuff We Buy by Martin Lindstrom

Signals and Perception: The Fundamentals of Human Sensation, by David Roberts

The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell, by Luca Turin

Jacobson’s Organ and the Remarkable Nature of Smell by Lyall Watson

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