What the smell? How different cultures view smell

Chad Davis - innovator in aircare What the smell?

Smell is not just an experience that influences our minds and moods, it is also a social and cultural occurrence. As an aircare, fragrance and scent marketing business, Vectair Systems selects smells for companies – a wide variety of these businesses and customer base are from different countries and cultures.

Smell Is an Undervalued Sense

In Western culture, smell is probably one of the most undervalued senses. This is starting to improve as the number of studies over the past two decades into the effectiveness of scent have increased, as well as the growing number of scent marketing/scent branding services or requests on the market. Just by looking around at the array of scent delivery systems available today, from “low-tech” to “high-tech,” it seems that scent has found its appropriate acknowledgment in modern culture. Historically, though, the ‘value’ placed upon smell was not always the same as we understand it to be today.

Historical Value of Smell

The so called ‘intellectual elite’ of the 18th & 19th century saw (pardon the pun) ‘sight’ to be the all-important sense—it was the sense of reason and of civilization. Smell was deemed to be of a lower order that was often associated with savagery and even madness. When looking at how smell has been reflected in ‘our’ language through the years, this perception makes sense; the alternative terms for ‘nose’ border on disrespectful (snout, conk etc.). If you look at alternative words for other senses, they are more positive and complementary (sight = visionary and touch = dexterity).

Think of when you were a child – did you ever hear anyone say, “That person’s sight is so poor!” Instead, you probably heard someone say, “That person stinks!”

Scent in Other Cultures

In India, an old form of greeting was to smell a person’s head, while in some Middle Eastern countries, breathing on somebody while you speak to them is a gesture of goodwill or even friendship. To avoid doing this could show a desire not to participation in friendly conversation, and such an act could even be perceived as disrespectful.

In many cultures, the gift of a bottle of perfume or scent is a popular, high valued gift. Scented shrines offer scent ‘for the pleasure of the gods,’ and such shrines can be integral to the rituals of many religions.

A Reshuffle of Sensory Importance on the Horizon?

More and more sociologists and psychologists are focusing on smell as a sense that has more influence on society and cultures than most people realize today. Smell in popular culture today – such as the smells in popular retail stores, hotels, etc.- places focus ever increasingly on aromatherapy products to help people ‘relax’ after a day at work, to entice people into their store or to bring fragrance into people’s everyday lives in products like soap, bath bombs or even laundry.

There are also more stories today than in recent years in newspapers and magazines on the influence of scent on the brain. Such coverage of the topic has given rise to the boom in candles, reed diffusers and non-aerosol scent diffusers that provide light mists of fragrance that are free of aerosols.

What the smell? - scent in history

Managing Customer Expectations

Vectair Systems has found that a number of trends are common amongst most of their customers, regardless of culture or country: the desire for new experiences for customers and end-user friendly fragrances. There has been a real push over the past 18 months in particular for scents and scent delivery systems that promote a ‘sustainable’ image through the use of fragrances that use less VOCs while also remaining ‘end-user friendly’. Also, businesses want to try new things and provide new experiences that go beyond the standard ‘loud music’ in a store. We expect this trend to keep on growing in the future as well.

We find that managing customer expectations is as important as delivering the scent experience itself. What exactly does the customer need? How powerful should the scent be and for how long? Even the best smelling fragrance might not meet customer expectations.

With fragrance now in fashion and existing in a world of immediacy, smell is the sense of choice for businesses to reach new audiences, instantly.

By Chad Davis | Executive Vice President | Vectair Systems, Inc.

This article originally appeared in the American Cleaning & Hygiene Magazine as part of a series of guest blogs on scent and smell written by Vectair Systems. Next month, Paul Wonnacott, President, looks at the science behind scent and the current trends withing the scent industry. 

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