First-time Scents are Memorable



We know that smells can evoke memories – think Proust’s madeleine – but new research shows that first-time scents seem to merit a unique status in our brains. The researchers used fMRI imaging to judge how well people paired scents and objects a week after their first exposure:

“We found that the first pairing or association between an object and a smell had a distinct signature in the brain,” even in adults, said Yaara Yeshurun of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. “This ‘etching’ of initial odor memories in the brain was equal for good and bad smells, yet was unique to odor.” Sounds did not have the same effect, the research showed. [From Science Daily – Early Scents Really Do Get ‘Etched’ In The Brain.]

The special status of scent memories seems to be reserved only for first-time exposure:

“We expected a unique representation of initial or ‘first’ olfactory associations but did not expect that it would materialize even in cases where the behavioral evidence did not indicate a stronger memory,” Yeshurun said. “In our paradigm, initial and later olfactory associations were remembered equally well, but only first associations had the unique brain representation.” In terms of understanding the brain, the findings suggest that activity in two brain regions, known as the hippocampus and amygdala, together can render a memory “special.”

I continue to believe in the importance of olfactory marketing, and for me the neuromarketing takeaway here is that a scent intended for branding use should be unique to be memorable. Hence, don’t choose a common scent like cinnamon or lavender to make your brand statement, even if that scent is both pleasing and relevant to your product. Indeed, choosing a riskier, more unusual scent might be the best approach.

Surely most scent marketers would strive for uniqueness in any case, but this research shows that our brains will store that brand association in a different way if it is indeed a first-time exposure.

  1. Christine Zambrano says

    Totally agree about the power of smell. Doesn’t everyone love the new-car smell? The challenge is to be able to transmit this digitally one day.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    I’m sure people are working on that, Christine, even if initially only for a limited number of scents.

  3. Tracy Pepe says

    I agree and disagree with your statement.

    I have been scenting spaces for 17 years – I am a scent brander. So, from my hands on experience, when a scent is tied to the other senses such as visual or taste than the smell has to be familiar – but it must be exact. Our studies indicate the highest ROI for the brand that takes this approach. So for example – a grocery store decides with “category” scenting for the laundry area – we than take the common elements found in all the products that create this experience – cotton notes. Add it to a visual, combine the textile and the store will get a very high return.

    For true sensory branding and VERY FEW have done this well – yes the scent needs to be unique and part of the brand. When we created the custom fragrance for the IIDEX trade show the request was to compliment the shows brand – green living – so the aroma was green. Creating a scent that depicts the colour and taps into the imagination of the brand – than YES the aroma needs to be different.

    My fear with your general comments – most have very little knowledge about fragrance – many companies have library scents – and people often choose what they like not what works. I have experienced horrible scent marketing and proved it offered zero ROI -in fact costing the client because the company decided to be “creative”. Such as, cut grass in an area that sells beer – the idea set the aroma for summer – problem the smell of cut grass has a “mushroom” note most can not identify with but reminds them of allergies and the guys I know want to drink the beer and not think of cutting the grass!


    Oh yes to Christine and transmitting scent digitally – you can – you just need a big budget BUT why would you!

  4. Christine Zambrano says

    Fascinating education on the nuances of scent branding Tracy. Who knew (besides you :)) that cut grass had undertones of mushroom?? (Perhaps that is earthy pull that makes cut grass one of my favorites – not cutting the lawn for sure!) The power of scent also reminds me of another novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s, The Prodigal Summer.

    Amazing that scent can be transmitted digitally – do you mean that the process of creating and dispersing scents is digital, or are you saying it’s theoretically possible for me, at my computer (or smart phone?) to visit a website and experience a signature fragrance wafting from it? If so, I can’t imagine why not have it. Along with taste, smell is a dimension absent from the common virtual experience and your web destination would be have an extra draw, no? Like the scent of Pina Colada at a beach resort site?

  5. Tracy Pepe says

    Thanks for the book – love reading about scent.

    Regarding transmitted digitally – once upon a time -maybe 10 years ago a company called DIGIscents entered the market – claiming just that. They had the vision – prototype – and even the money from the industry – however many things went wrong – their focus on the device took over the need to understand how fragrance molecules work – in the end they filed bankruptcy. Mean while in another part of the USA – a brilliant scientist had the solution – his firm TRISENX – but because the bad press with Digiscents the idea was how can this small brilliant scientists do it – after years of hanging on, he too filed bankruptcy – very sad day for he was 10 years ahead of his time. He mind you has the patent on this concept – I know I was the fragrance person who helped him.

    So, the story goes until a really large company sees the potential of this and fully grasps the principles of scent branding – how scent works – this technology will stay buried for awhile.

    NOW today we have USBports that plug into your computer and you add a custom scent and it will scent the space. Your in luck – today is the last day to register for our Scented Webinar – and if you participate I send you this device and teach you about scent branding for an hour at your computer – we scent your space. The Scented Webinar on scent Marketing is next Thursday but scent packs need to be shipped out ASAP! Check the website

    Cheers, Tracy

  6. Christine Zambrano says

    Tracy, What interesting history! Shows just how brilliant new ideas bloom or wither because of arbitrary circumstances. I would love to learn more, have signed up for the scent webinar.

    Thnx, Christine

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.