Smell is the only one, among the five senses, that goes directly to the brain, without intermediaries.

Olfactory Marketing is a discipline that studies the application of fragrances to sales through interaction with the emotional sphere of those who perceive them. Olfactory Marketing allows to associate to a brand or to a product a particular essence that excites and that will remain impressed in the memory in time.

The olfactory mucosa sends information via the olfactory nerve, olfactory bulb, and olfactory tracts to the primary olfactory cortex and simultaneously to structures in the libido system: the amygdala, where emotions are processed; the hippocampus, where memories are processed; and the hypothalamus, which processes signals related to eating, drinking, and sexual behavior. Thus, smell is strongly associated with emotions, memory, eating, and sexual behavior. The nose is directly connected to the limbic system, the oldest part of the brain, the seat of emotions and memory, where instinctive responses are processed.

The olfactory pathways send signals to the olfactory cortex without passing through the thalamus, structure of the diencephalon, involved in the forwarding of nervous signals to the cerebral cortex. The thalamus transmits all the sensory input from various parts of the body (sight, touch, temperature…) to the cerebral cortex, the only sensory information that are not reach the thalamus and consequently to the cerebral cortex are those of smell.

The olfactory message is therefore particularly effective because it operates on a communication channel not saturated by too many messages and emotionally involves the receiver. As responses to smells can result from automatic and unconscious cognitive processes which occur without awareness, one is more likely to buy with olfactory stimuli compared to visual stimuli. Smell, this mysterious sensorial instrument, classified by scholars as the most direct one because it is strictly connected to the limbic system, and therefore the least conditioned by man and his rationality, is therefore a powerful stimulator of sensations, visions and emotions.

Anyone who passes in front of a bakery at the moment when bread or other products are being baked is unlikely to be able to resist the temptation to go in and buy something. Such a common experience would be enough to explain how olfactory marketing works, that complex of strategies which uses smells and scents to sell more easily. Smells are processed directly at limbic level, where there are the structures responsible for memory. It is for this reason – and also for the fact that most odors are not broken down into components, as happens with visual stimuli, for example – that scents are not only easier to memorize, but also more closely linked to memories. We talk about olfactory memory to mean that mnemonic material which can be easily recalled starting from a particular smell, usually related to childhood for example. Olfactory marketing, then, plays on this, that is, on the ability to recall positive memories thanks to odors and at the same time, always through odors, to imprint a positive memory of the brand. In addition to the evidence that smell is the most primitive of our senses: in the past, smells were indispensable for finding food, securing a good partner, and protecting oneself from certain danger and, even today, the stimulus-response mechanism ensures that every smell corresponds to an immediate reaction at a behavioral level. This explains why a good or a bad smell can influence purchasing behaviors.

In addition, the sense of smell is constantly active with the act of breathing and cannot be deactivated.

The olfactory memory is ancient and instinctive, it cannot be controlled rationally like the other senses: it can be activated even in states of deep unconsciousness, such as coma. The smells tend to impose themselves regardless of our voluntary attention,  Kant defined the sense of smell “contrary to freedom” since breathing we are necessarily forced to smell all kinds of odors.<

The olfactory memory, in fact, has the amazing ability to evoke with extreme clarity a past experience, even if it is deeply dormant in our mind: it often happens, in fact, that familiar smells bring to light memories and emotions related to it; on the contrary, it is not possible to “taste” a smell, even if it is well known, evoking a particular memory.

Remembering a past event after having perceived a particular odor is a phenomenon called “Proust syndrome“. The writer Marcel Proust, describes, in “Swann’s Road – In search of lost time”,  a particular event that affects him through his olfactory perceptions and in his memory: he affirms that perceiving the smell of Madeleines he suddenly remembers his childhood, his aunt Léonie who offered them to him and when he ate them. 

Smells are able to recall past episodes in an extremely vivid, detailed and emotionally connotated way thanks to the activation of episodic memory. The olfactory memory is more persistent than the conscious one in fact, the visual memory loses more than 50% of its intensity after 3 months, the memories related to smell lose only 20% of its intensity only 12 months.

Moreover, the anatomical proximity of the olfactory system to the amygdala, the structure responsible for emotions, and to the memory, the hippocampus, has been seen as a further evidence in favor of the Proust syndrome, whereby odors would be “stored” together with the emotional sensations of the moment.

Since the very first years of life, the olfactory apparatus elaborates and catalogues all the odorous molecules it comes into contact with, allowing us to recognize what we like, from what could represent a danger (fire, bad food, unhealthy air…). By and large, the process occurs unconsciously, yet an olfactory memory can influence our affective preferences and daily behaviors. 

The evocative power of olfactory memories and the ability of the sense of smell to be activated even in states of deep unconsciousness have found a concrete application in olfactory therapy, a treatment aimed at helping patients with head trauma or emerging from coma states to regain memory through olfactory experiences.  a study by Rockefeller University in New York showed that people can remember 35% of what they smell, compared to 5% of what they see, 2% of what they hear and 1% of what they touch.

The effects of smells on our unconscious are exploited in “scent-marketing”, which uses scents for marketing or commercial purposes. Scenting can be applied to the product or the point of sale, so you can connect with your customers on an emotional level and make the memory of the brand more powerful and memorable: a pleasant fragrance, for example, inspires confidence and improves the shopping experience.

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