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.