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Here's Why Perfume Descriptions Are Never About Smell

Storytelling sells scents.

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If you’re among those who shop for cosmetics online, you may have noticed fragrance descriptions like this:

His telegrams came repeatedly and she persisted in ignoring them. He knew what she was capable of, but she refused to work his way. This time, despite herself, she gave in. The ultimate request: she must deliver his commissioned painting in person. The private plane would arrive in the morning. For the moment, she rode her horse freely along the river.

Although provided alongside a list of top, heart, and base notes, this story has nothing to do with the actual scent of Atelier Cologne’s Mandarine Glaciale. Yet many fragrance companies are using the same tactic: storytelling as a way to sell perfume.

Studies show that scent is closely linked to memory. And while companies can’t tell what we’ve experienced or what associations we may have with a scent, marketers have learned to link perfume to memory, emotion, and desire by using elaborate storytelling in their fragrance descriptions.

“If I tell you, ‘This smells like cedarwood,’ it might not mean anything to you,” says Christine Luby, co-founder of the fragrance brand Pinrose. “There’s a disconnect — people don’t know the vocabulary of scents, but they understand moods and emotions and how they feel.”

Pinrose uses a synesthesia-based personality quiz and vivid, textured descriptions to hook people on their fragrances. “People have a hard time articulating fragrances,” co-founder Erika Shumate says. “If a true artist perfumer blends the ingredients in such a way that you’re given a feeling, you’re not meant to pick apart the fragrance. That would be like picking apart a painting and saying, ‘That has blue and red and black.’”

In the age of Instagram, visuals are key. We want to see the contour, the highlight, and just how matte that lipstick really is. But when it comes to fragrance, words seem more compelling than images. After all, you can’t photograph a scent.

“Smells are invisible, and we have to figure out what the source is and work backwards from that,” says neuroscientist Rachel Herz, a leading world expert in the psychological science of scent. “Visual cues can also work well, but language is more specific.”

Scent, of course, also plays a role in how we self-define. We may not have a signature eyeshadow or nail color, but many people have a signature scent — or want to.

Miya Lin, a freelance makeup artist and beauty consultant, says that when helping clients choose a new perfume, she asks them to tell her about a side of them people may not have seen before. “I think scent can say so much about who we really are as a person,” she says. “Words are super personal. It’s about the vision that we want people to see us as.”

Language not only does a good job of describing scent, but also allows us to insert ourselves into the story. In an image of a model wearing a product, we may like the way it looks, but that says nothing about how it will look on us. However, as fragrance marketers have discovered, written stories can create a fantasy in which we become the star player.

Fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen, a pioneer of the fashion psychology field, says, “A picture does the work for you. But with the description, you can see yourself in that experience. You feel the grassy field under your feet. You can imagine smelling the perfume.” A story brings us into the experience — even when it’s one we haven’t had yet.

Some companies, such as Paris-based Etat Libre d’Orange, have taken this concept to the extreme.

Etat Libre d’Orange is responsible for esoteric scents like Fat Electrician, which is featured alongside a story about an attractive young ladies’ man. But the tale ends in tragic banality: “Now, a Fat Electrician in New Jersey, his talent depleted in his sexual decline. This is the curse of beauty — it doesn’t last.”

This type of story as a method of selling fragrance may be unconventional, but it is deliberate. Founder Etienne de Swardt writes the stories first, then lets the perfumers interpret the words into scent.

green flowers in a small vase and a perfume bottle Moment RF/Getty Images

“The idea was to create a not really a brand, but a display of stories,” says fragrance marketer and Etat Libre d’Orange staff member Nina Kalinine. “If you’re a perfumer, you want to promote the ingredients. But for us, the stories are the beginning of the question. The smell and the fragrance is very important, but comes second in the development.”

On the flip side of this coin is Demeter Fragrance Library, which uses scent to create stories in a more literal sense. This company takes the idea of a very specific scent and turns it into a bottled fragrance: Freshly Brewed Coffee, Paperback, and even Dirt are among their best-sellers.

“Our reaction to scent is primarily, if not exclusively, learned,” says Demeter CEO and head perfumer Mark Crames. “While we share accepted cultural expectations regarding various smells, in the end, we are crafted by our own experience. If Grandma burned down the house baking chocolate chip cookies, your feeling about the smell of chocolate chip cookies will be very different from mine.”

No fragrance house can be sure of the associations we will have with a scent. However, they are banking on the ability to tap into our emotions and memories using stories, whether the story is our own or one they’ve crafted for us.

The reason this marketing tactic works so well is scientific. There’s a real, physical connection between scent and memory.

“Your limbic system contains both the olfactory bulb and memories,” says Shumate. “We’re going to get to that olfactory bulb through your limbic system.”

In our brains, the limbic system is where our emotional life plays out, and is crucial to the way we form long-term memories.

“The olfactory bulb — the area of the brain where smells are processed — and the limbic system — the area of the brain where memories are processed — are directly neuroanatomically linked,” says Herz. “This is unique among the senses: no other sense has such an intimate link to emotional memory.”

Herz, author of Why You Eat What You Eat, is on the faculty at Brown University and Boston College and is a Demeter Fragrance Library scent memory consultant. She’s been studying the connection between scent and memory since 1990.

Humans evolved to use scent as a survival tactic. Although our sense of smell is not as well developed as that of other mammals, like dogs, we have long needed our noses to help us make life-or-death decisions.

Our reactions to smell can be instinctive. Most of us are hardwired to have an unpleasant association with the odor of something rotting, for example, because that smell can signal poison and disease.

However, we also have unconscious reactions to scents that have nothing to do with survival, but with recollection, because of the physical link between scent and memory in our brains.

Smells, as we all know, can trigger memories. Herz says this connection is so powerful, it can even unlock memories that might have otherwise been lost forever. “There’s a direct link between how we feel, how we think, and how we behave,” she says. So when a scent triggers a positive or negative memory, our actions reflect that feeling.

In a series of studies, she tested people’s reactions based on scent. She found that when subjects were exposed to a scent that they associated with feeling frustrated, even if the scent itself was neutral, they performed worse on subsequent tests than when exposed to a different scent or no scent.

“Memories triggered by smells are not any more accurate than memories triggered by anything else,” she says, “but there can be a misperception that they’re more accurate because they’re so emotionally involving.”

It seems that even with scents and experiences we haven’t encountered before, the connection to emotion remains. “Fragrance companies have to create a past or future experience for consumers to identify with to get it to stick,” says Dawnn Karen. Perfume may not always be able to take us back to our past — unless it’s a scent we’re already familiar with — but it can promise to help create new memories that we desire.

“What they’re often trying to do is to create a new association with your experience,” says Herz. “That’s why a lot of marketing goes into having language that has a particular type of story.”

Whether it’s a story we’ve lived before or not doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Smells are biologically linked to our emotions. No small wonder that perfume companies have started using storytelling to tap into that link.

The text associated with a fragrance may succeed in reaching our emotions. But can it get us to make a purchase?

For Pinrose, it seems to. Shumate and Luby noticed that although the fragrance Sugar Bandit was neither their worst- nor best-seller, it had the highest re-purchase rate. Clearly, customers liked the scent, but something about the marketing was off.

“We realized that the name might be holding it back a little bit,” says Luby. After renaming it Secret Genius (described as “perfect for hatching plans and sneaking kisses”), sales took off, and it’s now their No. 1 best-seller.

It makes sense. We can’t really look at a fragrance and think, “I identify as a Sugar Bandit.” But we can definitely identify as a Secret Genius — or at least, we can hope to.

four perfume bottles in golden color but different shapes Moment RF/Getty Images

“I find that when they use text to sell a fragrance, I am more likely to buy it — it’s the story that I want to carry with me,” Lin says. “I feel like if I wear this, that experience will happen to me. It’s a memory I can carry with me, or create.”

Ultimately, when we’re wearing a fragrance, we’re trying to create an identity. It may not be the same one every day, but as the concept of a “signature scent” implies, we want our perfume to say something about us. When we put on a fragrance, it’s not a statement about how we want to smell. It’s a statement about how we want to feel.

Of course, no perfume brand can guarantee that its scents will tap into our memories or provide us with new ones. But story-based fragrance marketing does take advantage of a hardwired biological connection between scent, memory, and emotion. It’s not just about smelling nice: it’s a promise to help us become the main character in the story we want to tell.


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