Follow your nose | the olfactory system

Our olfactory system doesn’t just detect scents. It plays a major role in how and what cosumers buy – and don’t buy!

Have you ever caught a waft of a perfume or an odour and, a split second later, you were transported back to a time or a memory – buried deep in the cortex of your brain? According to research, sensory memory does exist and it connects you to experiences and sensations, sometimes from the distant past.

Our sense of smell, or olfaction, has been extensively studied, including in terms of marketing and consumer behaviour.

Consequently, the smell of a product can modify our sensory attributes and influence us whether to buy or not buy a product. In fact, fragrance-scented products have been known to sway consumers to buy, regardless of the efficacy of the product.

Therefore, it is not a coincidence that most cosmetics, toiletries and household products we buy today are scented to appeal to our olfactory glands.

In an experiment, three gel formulations and three cream formulations were tested. Two of each formula had different types of fragrance added, while one of each formula had no scent added.

The results confirmed that the presence and type of scent used in the formulas had an effect on the perception of the tester. In conclusion, the study found that a consumer’s response to a cosmetic product lies not only on its efficacy, but how it was perceived through appearance (packaging), tangibility (how it felt on the skin), and its smell.

Consequently, when developing a new product, it is paramount that you get the fragrance right, as it could heavily influence the purchasing decision of the consumer and may be the difference between whether your product is a success or not.

Smell the roses

Back in 1991, Richard Axel and Linda Buck discovered how olfactory receptors worked and how the brain interprets smell.

The researchers found a large gene family that coded for olfactory receptor types. (This equalled 1,000 genes, or 3 per cent of the human total.)

These receptor cells are extremely specialised to particular odours, and each olfactory receptor type sends an impulse to the olfactory bulb, which passes this information on to other parts of the brain, which in turn interprets the odour patterns as smells.

Fun fact: Humans have an immense number of olfactory receptors – about 40 million – but it is nothing compared with animals like German Shepherd dogs, which have about 2 billion.

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