Scent and history – IFRA Fragrance Forum

The 2015 IFRA UK Fragrance Forum looked at the ways in which fragrance has helped shape human lives. The abstract below was published on and there is so much interesting things in it that I wanted to share it with you.

‘Our fragrant world’ was the title of IFRA UK’s 2015 Fragrance Forum, which drew inspiration from the historic 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta to delve into the history of fragrance. Delegates at the event, which took place on 15 October at The Royal Society in London, were treated to a series of presentations scrutinising the many ways in which scent has shaped the modern world, and its continued influences on societies today – both positive and negative.

Smell and sociology

Amply demonstrating the relationship between scent and broader public issues was Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor from the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London, who opened proceedings with his talk, ‘Smell and the city: olfaction and urban formations’. 

Amply demonstrating the relationship between scent and broader public issues was Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor from the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London, who opened proceedings with his talk, ‘Smell and the city: olfaction and urban formations’.

“Sociologists are interested in the ways in which our private troubles and personal experiences – the things that get underneath our skin – relate to broader social patterns and public issues,” began Rhys-Taylor, explaining his personal interest in ‘smells’.

Rather than simply showing how our senses are shaped by history, Rhys-Taylor argued that “our sensibilities, the way make sense of the world – particularly the way we make sense of the world through our nose – actually feeds into these processes of historical change”.

Surprisingly little literature exists on the ways in which we understand cities through our noses, especially considering that smell is such a deeply social sense. And Rhys-Taylor suggested that “by looking at a distribution of smells throughout the city and an assortment of different peoples’ reactions to them, we can learn a great deal about the relationship between our bodies, the economy, sociality and politics”.

Using London as an example, he explained that, ever since the city’s original settlement, dirty, toxic and smelly things (both real and symbolic) have been placed to the city’s east, in the direction of the prevailing wind – a sensory division of class into west end and east end that became more pronounced in the 19th century with the arrival of coal and heavy industry.

Moreover, some smells totally unassociated with toxicity (the smell of cooking fish, for instance) were viewed as culturally dangerous because of their link with the working classes.

We might think that much has changed in British cities now that sanitation/hygiene has been democratised, Rhys-Taylor added, but we’d be wrong. To demonstrate, he analysed two modern, urban examples of olfactory objects loaded with cultural and social connotations: fried chicken and the flat white coffee. Both, he said, show “how social class is manifest in the city’s aroma-scape” and illustrate how “socioeconomic divisions are made and remade through the various moral, cultural and aesthetic meanings that we all ascribe to the city’s aroma-scape”.

Both loved and loathed, the fried chicken shop is a London staple – there are more than 200 chicken shops in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets alone. Discussing commentators’ responses to the fried chicken shop phenomenon, Rhys-Taylor stated: “Distaste is perhaps too less of a word to describe the corporeal anxiety and disgust elicited by the idea of fried chicken.”

Interestingly, writers rarely describe their dislike as arbitrary; it is always rationalised. The gut-felt reaction to fried chicken smell is frequently justified with reference to health, as well as the increased instances of litter, crime, antisocial behaviours, noise and general disturbance that we see as accompanying an abundance of fried chicken shops. As Rhys-Taylor summarised: “[There are] a whole set of social concerns surrounding fried chicken that piggyback on that smell.”

There is also a flip side, namely the colonisation of urban space by flat whites. According to estate agents, Rhys-Taylor added, “an independent coffee shop or florist can add £8,000 in value to a £400,000 property, because it looks and smells nice, and appeals to particular hierarchies of value based on specific aesthetic, moral and cultural taxonomies”.

 Signing off, he asked the audience to view both fried chicken and the flat white “as prisms through which we might ask the most pressing urban questions of our age: in whose image or aroma is the city being made and who has a right to this city?

“My hope is that in raising these issues we can question our own sensory dispositions, and the quiet role that they might play in processes of spacial injustice, stigmatisation and prejudice.”

Scenting disease

Professor Jonathan Reinarz of the University of Birmingham’s School of Health and Population Sciences (part of the College of Medical and Dental Sciences) likewise compared and contrasted the historical significance/application of scent with the modern world, only this time the focus was on medicine.

In ‘Detecting disease – the pathological world of smell’, Reinarz explored how, until recent centuries, the sense of smell was used in both the diagnosis and treatment of disease, stating: “Smells could bring health benefits… they could also bring health hazards.”

He began by linking the rise in Christianity in the western world with the intertwining of scent and morality; goodness was associated with pleasant fragrances, like flowers or baked bread, while putrid stenches accompanied evil deeds: “In early Christian texts, the choices you make could be accompanied by a foul or fragrant smell and that spoke volumes.”

In the past, illness was fully embodied by a full sensory experience, explained Reinarz. “Doctors were very attuned to sounds, smells and sights – they collected those signs and diagnosed accordingly. And these weren’t just the by-product of a disease or a symptom. These were [believed to be] the active agents that could potentially cause disease as well. Lots of texts talked about a ‘miasma’ of odours that could potentially overwhelm us.”

 Moreover, doctor’s pomanders and professional fumigators were ways in which pleasant scents were used to try to prevent disease. And to stave off plague, bonfires burning fragrant branches were built in outdoor spaces.

As regards the role of smell in diagnosis, Reinarz said it was seen as “a sign that there was corruption in the body” and an imbalance of the four ‘humours’. In cases where the suspected cause was a venereal disease there was also the possibility of smell being used to moralise.

That said, he added that specific conditions do have certain smells: “The plague reputedly smelled like apples, typhus of mice and diabetes is still sometimes diagnosed by ketones in the breath, while with poisoning you have arsenic and garlic which are associated, and cyanide and almonds.”

With the exception of aromatherapy, smell is utilised far less therapeutically in the modern world. However, Reinarz points to the work of George Dodd in Nature on the VOCs contained in our breath and the detection of disease. “It’s that ‘early smell’ of cancer that doctors were talking about back in the 16th century, but now you have sniffer dogs in to smell breath and try to diagnose not just cancer but also detect hospital borne infections like C.difficile, and they are picking up on volatile biomarkers… and this is starting to attract a bit more attention in medicine.”

He also touched on the othering of ethnic communities in many cities’ sanitation drives and (on a larger, international scale) the ‘unclean foreigner’ rhetoric surrounding historic (and even ongoing) sanitation projects in developing countries, as well the movement towards ‘perfume-free’ zones in cities to try and combat instances of asthma.

Fragrance, memory and mood

Punning on the well-known ballad, ‘On the way to Scarborough Fair: memory and mood effects of rosemary aroma’ was delivered by Dr Mark Moss, Head of Psychology at the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

Dr Moss described his research as “a study into what many people would consider to be the bleeding obvious… that aromas, herbs and essential oils have been associated with impacts on health, wellbeing, mood and cognitive performance throughout history”.

To provide scientific evidence, 12 years ago Dr Moss conducted a study to ascertain whether rosemary had a proven effect on alertness and whether lavender had the opposite effect. The methodology involved 144 people split into three groups who were in the presence of an aroma of either rosemary or lavender essential oils, or a control with no aroma. To counter any expectancy effect, participants were led to believe they were part of a study to validating a new computerised testing battery for cognitive assessment.

The participants also answered subjective mood scale assessments for alertness, contentedness and calmness, before and after the cognitive assessment.

Dr Moss’ team found there was a difference between the rosemary and lavender conditions (with lavender making things worse) when it came to the quality of memory performance overall, but no difference between rosemary and the control.

However, when breaking down quality of memory into components and considering them separately, the rosemary aroma led to a long term memory performance that was significantly better than both the control and lavender conditions.

Looking at working memory, while the lavender condition impaired working memory, there was no improvement as a result of the rosemary. So the effect of rosemary on memory, noted Dr Moss, “is not a global effect, just on certain aspects”. Whereas, “lavender seems to impair most things”.

The participants, meanwhile, felt rosemary increased their alertness and that lavender decreased it. And both those in the presence of the rosemary and lavender felt more contented than the no-aroma control subjects.

Encouraged enough to continue, Dr Moss said the next step was to find a possible reason.

“It might have something to do with cognition – what it smells like – it might be something to do with the way the molecules interact with nasal mucosa which stimulates brain areas, or, there’s a possibility that when you inhale the aroma of an essential oil you inhale a lot of VOCs into the lungs and that these compounds are then absorbed into blood, cross the blood-brain barrier and have a drug-like effect on the brain,” he explained.

Acetylcholine, he told delegates, is a neurotransmitter in the brain involved in memory and attention that may be manipulated. Meanwhile, 1,8-Cineole is a volatile terpene and a major constituent of rosemary essential oil that animal studies have proven is absorbed through the lungs; it can also cross the blood-brain barrier. Moreover, test tube studies have shown that 1,8-Cineole prevents the breakdown on acetylcholine, as do a number of other constituents in rosemary.

A second study saw subjects participate in serial subtraction tasks and rapid visual information processing. Subjective mood assessments were also undergone and blood samples were taken.

The number of correct serial 3 and serial 7 subtractions significantly positively correlated with the level of plasma 1,8-Cineole. Additionally, reaction time measurements showed that the more of the compound was in subjects’ blood the faster they answered.

The mood study showed that the higher the blood levels of 1,8-Cineole, the less the reduction in contentment over time of study. However, there was no heightened feeling of alertness, which was surprising as rosemary positively effects perceived alertness. This, said Dr Moss, suggests the impact of rosemary on cognition is pharmacological, but that mood effects have a different mechanism.

Looking at prospective memory – “the ability to remember to remember” – Dr Moss assessed the effects of rosemary aroma on both event and time based prospective memory. Two groups (rosemary aroma and no aroma) were compared using the Cambridge prospective memory test, and mood scales and blood samples were taken.

Those in the rosemary condition performed better than in control for the event based and time based prospective memory tasks, showing that both long term memory and also prospective memory are significantly improved by the presence of rosemary aroma.

The most recent of Dr Moss’ rosemary aroma memory studies (carried out this year) was on prospective memory in the elderly. “[This is ] something that has never been done before and something that is very important, because things like having to remember to take medication is more prevalent in the elderly than in the young,” he said.

A total of 120 elderly volunteers were randomly allocated into three groups – rosemary, lavender and control; and mood scales, Cambridge memory tests and blood samples were all carried out.

Once again a significant improvement was seen in the prospective memory of those in the rosemary condition compared with control and a slight impairment was created by the lavender condition compared with control. Again, both event and time based prospective memory in the healthy elderly were improved as a consequence of being tested in an atmosphere of rosemary aroma. Plus the relationships between 1,8-Cineole and the performance were in the same direction: the more of it absorbed the better the performance.

Finally, while all participants felt they’d become less alert as a result of taking the Cambridge test, the rosemary group became the “least less alert – so their alertness was better preserved”.

Tim Nancholas, Strategic Insight Director at analyst Kantar Worldpanel, next assessed ‘How fragrance influences shopper behaviour’, backed up by recent data for the UK’s fine fragrance, air freshener and fabric conditioners markets.

Notable findings for the fine fragrance market included the fact that, in terms of value, 48% of purchases are made by men. Rather more expectedly, much of the market is gifting; across the whole year, 50% of fragrance purchases are gifts, and over Christmas 2014, 80% of fragrance purchases were in the form of gifts. “So we’re not always getting products for ourselves,” said Nancholas.

However, year on year up to June 2015, the value of the fine fragrance market has fallen to £1.7bn. Assessing the reasons why, Nancholas quoted further stats: “We [Brits] buy fine fragrance on average two or three times a year and we’re spending over £80 a year. So what is driving that decline in fine fragrance is the percentage of people who actually purchase. In 2014, we had a third of the population purchasing a fragrance at least once – in 2015 that has fallen to under 32%”.

Also, while the population buying fragrance on a four-weekly basis peaks at Christmas, this has been going down year after year.

The percentage of the UK population that uses fragrance at least once a week is 41%, which is slightly down, added Nancholas, and average using is about four times a week, which equates to 80 million usage occasions in a week. Among the population, you have 20 million people who are regular users of fragrance; 3% of the population who used to use it, but have stopped; a third who use fragrance occasionally; and 10 million people who don’t use fragrance at all – a sizeable chunk of the population.

“As an industry we need to invigorate people to use more fragrance and we’ve got to get men particularly to add more fragrances into their gifting list,” Nancholas summarised.

Looking at air fresheners, Kantar Worldpanel data showed that UK households spend £465m on air care, a figure on the rise. While Glade is the number one brand, the top ten ranking contained three own brand air fresheners, and while automatic air fresheners account for more than a quarter of purchases, reeds are really growing 20% year on year.

Favoured fragrances, meanwhile are ‘clean linen’ and ‘cotton fresh’.

Nancholas concluded with a case study illustrating just how important scent is to the fabric conditioner segment, that of P&G’s Lenor Unstoppables, a product that can be added to the consumer’s laundry even if fabric conditioner has been used, to provide fragrance lasting up to 12 weeks. A massive 9% of UK homes purchased this product in the past year, and over one third re-purchased. “In the year to June, the product was worth £31m – that was for one new launch, which is a product that didn’t exist before, and which is all based on fragrance. So does fragrance change shopper behaviour? Yes, it does.”


Lizzie Ostrom, also known as Odette Toilette, runs cult fragrance-led events and is author of the recently published Perfume: A Century of Scent. Her talk, ‘Forgotten fragrance storytelling’, revealed the ways in which fragrance firms in the early 20th century wove stories around their perfumes, which “enabled fragrance to cross over from its traditional realms in the beauty world, women’s magazines and men’s lifestyle magazines, and to break through into mainstream news coverage”.

She began by showing examples of perfume adverts from the turn of the century in catalogues such as Sears Roebuck, which were initially run alongside other female-targeted adverts, including those for contraception. However, not long after “fragrance broke out to get its own coverage”.

The ways in which brands generated column inches back then will be familiar to the industry today. As Ostrom noted: “Fragrance and the arts, immersive experiences, multi-sensory performance – it’s all happening now, but it’s been done before.”

 Around 110 years ago, English fragrance firm Gosnell, for example, launched hot air balloons shaped like their perfume bottles over London and Paris, and enlisted celebrated soprano Marie Rose to endorse its signature Cherry Blossom line.

Another playful concept from the First World War era was a theatre production in New York that featured actresses playing emotions, who were each sprayed with a scent that represented their ‘emotion’ – lemon for hate, ylang ylang for love, etc – which generated “a huge set of features in the press in the States at this time”.

Product placement was another seemingly modern tool used by the industry in the first half of the 20th century. However, as Ostrom explained, the art of product placement wasn’t quite as refined as it is today. One amusing example was Caron’s placement of its 1930s perfume Fleurs de Rocaille in a Ginger Rogers movie; unfortunately, the film in question, Primrose Path, was about a prostitute and Caron was unsuccessful in its attempt to get an injunction to remove the scene featuring its bottle. “I love this story,” added Ostrom, “because it shows that even though product placement was happening then, the rules weren’t set and brand management could go slightly wrong”.

She also told the story of the Elizabeth Arden scent Bluegrass: a refreshing oriental fougère fragrance in a period of exotic, heady creations. It was a daywear perfume with horses on the bottle (reflecting Arden’s love of the races) and inspired by her successful, exclusive beauty retreat Maine Chance. Although Bluegrass caused friction between Arden and her management team, who wanted something more metropolitan, both the scent and its marketing – centring around retreat and the countryside – were revolutionary for the industry at the time.

“Often we think about fragrance stories as being about seduction and the archetypical narratives of man-meets-woman, and I think what Arden did was she made something a bit different, and she couched it in that idea of health and wellness. She chose a very different angle on the nature of the fragrance as well as the marketing,” added Ostrom.

Then you had the showmen entrepreneurs of postwar US. Showing the audience images of a photo shoot from Life! Magazine – stating “you know if a perfume makes that they’re in the national consciousness” – Ostrom told the story of Eau! and its flamboyant French creator, who marketed the scent by positioning himself a master of seduction, selling Eau! to menfolk as a seduction tool and to women as a way of buying into French glamour.

Even more successful stunts were employed by the makers of the popular Black Satin scent, who would send taxis with bubble machines around cities, blowing fragrance bubbles at potential customers; scent cheques to target female bank clerks; and, particularly audaciously, drop bombshells loaded with scented snow from planes to generate press interest.

“As you all know, it’s very difficult to convey product into something that people can relate to,” said Ostrom, who said that she could see such stunts being at home in 2015, finishing: “2016 Fragrance Forum… snow – let’s have it!”

The final speaker of the day was Bob Fowkes, co-founder and Marketing Director of Brockmans Gin, who showed that smell is integral not only to the fragrance and personal care industries but also to the drinks world in ‘Message in a bottle: telling a unique brand story with an innovative aroma and taste profile’.

Back in 2007, with the idea of creating “a luxury gin so smooth that you could drink it alone over ice”, the Brockmans founders undertook research among their target customer base of mid-20s to early-30s consumers. Feedback suggested that a lot of people saw gin as classic and English, but with a summery, outdoorsy image and Terry & June, suburban middle class connotations.

A plus-point for mid-20s consumers in the UK was that they had warm memories of drinking gin with their families at Christmas. However, those Americans questioned referred to the ‘Christmas tree taste’ and “what they meant by that was the juniper smell – that was a big barrier for them”, said Fowkes.

 Historically, he explained, the word juniper gives us the word ‘gin’ – “it is the heart of gin”. However, the “lavender, camphor smell you get from juniper was acting as a barrier to emerging consumers. So, as well as our brand development, that is what we started to explore”.

Working with chefs, flavorists and creatives, Fowkes and his team sought to create a new scent and taste experience which matched their glamorous, luxury ‘nighttime’ gin marketing message.

As such, a total of 11 botanicals are used in Brockmans, with coriander – refreshing, with sage-y and spicy notes – touted as the most important after juniper. “We see coriander as the link to all the other botanicals,” said Fowkes, who added that they also “raised up the citrus with orange and lemon peel and then, finally, added something new to gin, by adding blueberries and blackberries, which creates the top note within our gin and gives that sensual ‘night’ feel”.

To round off proceedings, he left delegates with his recipe for the perfect G&T, namely, a wide mouthed glass, to open up the botanicals; large chunks of ice; a good-quality chilled tonic, poured gently; and a suitable garnish – two blueberries and a twist of pink grapefruit, said Fowkes, draw out the taste of the botanicals in Brockmans.

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