The Return of Scent

"Everything smells like something these days."

Laura can really toss off the occasional Yogi Berra quote, and this one, a genuinely confounding one, came out during a conversation we were having about laundry detergent. Of all things.

What we were talking about was this: After more than a decade of consumer products companies heavily promoting perfume-free and dye-free soaps and detergents, have you noticed how smell is making a big comeback lately?

A few examples I've noticed recently:

1) Arm and Hammer laundry detergents now carry the label "Now with more scent!"

2) Purex laundry detergent now says "New! Now more freshening power" which, in the language of consumer products labels, essentially means "smells more."

3) Ajax recently rolled out some new, uh, flavors? of their dish liquid, and last month I brought home a bottle of Topical Lime Twist. It had a promotional sticker on top of the bottle saying, ungrammatically, "Powerful Clean, Exhilarating Scent™."

4) I've also noticed less and less shelf space dedicated to scent- and dye-free products in my local grocery store. The products are still there, but they're much less prominent than they were years ago.

Admittedly, these are just anecdotes. And, honestly, I'm still recovering somewhat from Tropical Lime Twist Ajax, because the smell reminds me, vividly, of Tostitos Hint of Lime tortilla chips. Which makes washing the dishes a rather bizarre olfactory experience.

But isn't it fascinating to see the return of scent on our store shelves? And what happened to the seemingly common consumer mindset from years ago that coloring and perfuming agents were undesirable? That they were potentially bad for us, bad for our skin and bad for our allergies? What changed?

I have a theory about what changed.

First, think about it: what's the difference between two detergents (or two cleaning products, or soaps, or dish liquids or whatever) if they both look and smell the same? Remember, smell and color are extremely strong and vivid cues. They are associative and they impact us emotionally and psychologically.

That impact is often both powerful and subconscious. A smell that reminds us of, say, the shampoo we used as kids or the laundry detergent our mothers used instantly brings back vivid memories and scenes from our childhood. This is a big component of consumer branding: it gets consumers comfortable with and habituated to a specific consumer product.

So, let's go back to the days when "no perfumes or dyes" was a selling point. How do you habituate a consumer to a product that doesn't have a distinctive smell or color? How can you build any long term associations or branding effects with your customers without using these two incredibly powerful cues?

We already know that the difference in quality across most brands is nominal at best. So in the eyes of the consumer, what really is the difference between two nearly identical cleaning products that both look and smell like nothing?

There's no difference at all.

That's why smell is making a comeback.

Read Next: Ten Tips on How to Cut Your Food Budget Using the 80/20 Rule

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

1 comment:

chacha1 said...

Hate, hate, hate all the perfume. You would think we were back in the Middle Ages, before daily bathing was a thing.