Q: Can our sense of smell be influenced by other things besides just the odor?
A: Yep. In fact, our sense of smell can be influenced by our thoughts. And clever marketers know this.
Several researchers in Spain noticed a trend lately in “natural” ingredients in perfumes. This is part of a general trend in consumers wanting more natural ingredients in general.
The researchers thought that it’s possible that the “halo effect” extends to consumer products.
- In other words, if a product has one “righteous” or good trait, maybe that extends to everything else about the product.
- So these researchers sought to examine whether just saying that something is “natural” influences people’s perceptions of it.
- They got the feeling that people would generally like something more (or at least, say they like it more), if they feel like it’s ethical, good, or “righteous.”
The study was published in the journal Food Quality and Preference in 2014.
The researchers got 112 students to be participants in a study of fragrances.
The students were split into two groups.
Each student smelled 3 fragrances in random order.
- All the fragrances were 100% natural ingredients made from essential oils.
- The three fragrances were floral, citric, and woody.
For one group, there was a projector that displayed the following text on a screen during the fragrance testing: “Perfumes made of 100% natural ingredients.” In this same group, an experimenter stated at the beginning of the test that the fragrances were made of 100% natural ingredients.
For the other group, there was no slide and no information about the fragrances being all natural.
Participants were asked to rate the fragrances in a number of ways. They were asked whether the fragrance had a “natural scent.”
Then, participants rated the fragrances on a number of words that all test how enjoyable the fragrances were. These words were:
- And relaxing.
- All these “enjoyment” words were averaged together into a measure of pure hedonic sensorial experience.
Participants were also simply asked whether they liked it, using a scale of 1 to 10.
Participants were also asked whether they would buy it on a scale of 1 to 10.
Participants then did a survey measuring how pro-environmentalism they were. Maybe those who considered themselves environmentalists would be more likely to enjoy natural products?
Those participants in the “all natural” group rated all three fragrances as more “natural” than those in the other group (even though they were all the same natural fragrances).
Participants in the “all natural group” rated all three fragrances as more enjoyable than those in the other group.
The “all natural” group once again wins – all three fragrances in the “all natural group” were better liked than those in the other group.
Once again, the “all natural group” dominates. Those who were told the fragrances were all natural were significantly more likely to say they would buy the product.
Contrary to expectations, these effects weren’t particular to those who claimed to be pro-environment. They generally worked for everybody.
- “Naturalness” of scent:
- Hedonic sensorial experience (you can think of this simply as sensory enjoyment):
- Purchase intention:
Just take a moment to let this sink in, and consider the possibility that you’ve been duped by this stuff by marketers in the past. When you're choosing the best cologne for men you may actually think a cologne smells better if it's marketed as natural.
People in both groups got the same all natural stuff – it’s just that telling one group that it’s all natural suddenly makes them enjoy it, like it, and intend to buy it significantly more than the other group.
This shows us that sensory experiences don’t just appear in a vacuum out of nowhere.
- We have to interpret our sensory experiences, and there’s a weird interaction between what we’re smelling and what we think we’re smelling.
- But this shouldn’t seem too controversial if you think about it. The smell of cheese in one context is completely different than the smell of cheese in another context.
Still, it’s an important lesson to marketers and consumers. “All natural” is a buzzword that works.
Apaolaza, V., Hartmann, P., Lopez, C., Barrutia, J. M. & Echebarria, C. (2014). Natural ingredients claim’s halo effect on hedonic sensory experiences of perfumes. Food Quality and Preference, 36, 81-86. Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0950329314000512