In 1964, two Australian scientists coined a new word: petrichor. It describes the warm, earthy fragrance created by rain falling onto dry ground.
Linguistically, petrichor is a bit of an anomaly. Certainly in the West, European languages lack a specialised vocabulary to express odour qualities – even incredibly common ones.
In English, we don’t really have a word to describe the smell of petrol or freshly cut grass.
In English, we don’t really have a word to describe the smell of petrol, for example, or freshly cut grass. This is because English speakers predominantly use source-based descriptors to describe scent. We say an object smells like a rose, or like chocolate.
The lack of dedicated olfactory language gave rise to the idea that humans are not good at talking about smell. In 1984, a team of researchers went as far to assert that smell representations are “inaccessible to the language centres of the brain”, despite the fact that in other cultures, scent and language share a more symbiotic relationship.
Dispelling a myth
The Jahai of the Malay peninsula – a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers – are able to describe smells with impressive accuracy. A 2013 study found that 50% of English speakers routinely struggle to name common odours like coffee, but Jahai speakers could accurately identify and describe very specific scents with ease.
In Jahai, the word cŋəs means to smell edible or tasty. sʔı̃ŋ is the smell of urine. crŋir is the smell of something roasting.
So why does English not lend itself to olfactory description? One theory is that, over time, our evolutionary need to describe smells diminished, and the words we might have used disappeared too.
Personal fragrance is performing worse online than any other beauty category.
This hasn’t stopped us buying fragrance. Today, the global perfume market is estimated to be worth around $30bn. But according to the New York Times, personal fragrance is performing worse online than any other beauty category.
The pandemic hit the industry particularly hard, with some brands seeing a 45% drop in sales. As bricks and mortar stores closed and consumers shopped online, it became apparent that traditional fragrance branding wasn’t cutting it digitally.
A digital divide
The internet is a medium that, like TV, lets us see and hear things, but not smell, touch or taste them. For fragrance brands, the question has long been how to take our sense of smell and turn it into something that can be represented visually and aurally. For this reason, it’s common to read about how a particular scent will make you feel, as opposed to its olfactory composition.
Scents activate the limbic system, which is where we store long-term memories and emotions. It’s why our sense of smell and memory are so closely connected.
This isn’t just a marketing tactic. When we smell something, instead of activating the cerebral cortex (the part of the brain that processes language), scents activate the limbic system, which is where we store long-term memories and emotions. It’s why our sense of smell and memory are so closely connected. And it’s this link to memory that has historically encouraged brands to communicate in esoterism and abstraction. Take a second, and think about a stereotypical fragrance ad – often they’re pretty leftfield.
In-store, esoterism worked to entice people into a highly-experiential environment where you’re surrounded by scent. Online, however, shoppers generally don’t have time for ambiguity.
We were conscious of this when helping to relaunch Commodity, a boutique US fragrance company. Keen to remove the smoke and mirrors that tend to surround fragrance, we opted for a much more digital-friendly, elemental approach.
As an industry, fragrance has long leant on its heritage. Going forwards, finding the right words to appeal to a new generation of digitally-native fragrance consumers will be more crucial than ever. To read more about our work with Commodity, read the full case study.