Today, the belief that the fragrance of products can serve as a message about their specific qualities – for example, natural, trendy or trustworthy – is widely shared throughout the cosmetics and toiletries, household and laundry products industries. This belief has been amply confirmed in consumer research. Even the small number of relevant studies that have been published show that fragrance can substantially affect consumer perceptions of functional attributes of products such as gentleness in toilet soaps and cosmetic emulsions6 or therapeutic action in cosmetics, as well as social attributes such as the goodness of soaps for women, for men or for the whole family.
Psychologists have long known that, in Jerome Bruner’s words, “whatever is perceived is placed in and achieves its ‘meaning’ from a class of percepts with which it is grouped.” Soon after Bruner published his seminal paper, psychologists began to explore this mental grouping of percepts and the semantic, meaning-giving associations triggered by perceptions. Some of them concentrated their efforts on odors.
One would have thought that the findings of these specialists would be of great interest to professionals in the fragrance and fragrance-using industries. In fact, however, these industries have shown little interest in academic research regarding the psychology of olfaction, and this with good reason. Many of the findings of olfaction psychologists have seemed irrelevant to the everyday experience of perfumers, consumer researchers and marketers of fragrance-containing products. This was particularly obvious in the area of fragrance “meanings.” The psychologists’ paradigm in this area, cited over and over again, was the passage in Proust’s Swanns Way in which a spoonful of tea into which a petite madeleine cake had been dipped triggered in the narrator’s mind a detailed reliving of a moment in his childhood and a rich emotional experience. A leading odor psychologist stated: “The salient aspect of the sense of smell is the persistence of memories of episodes associated with odor.” Reports in the psychological literature on odor associations followed this pattern and thus seemed to belong to a different world of experience than the functional product associations which are salient to the fragrance-applying industries.