We often have a hard time describing the scent sampling process in a way that sticks. No matter how carefully we try to coach clients there are certain hurdles that are difficult to overcome, especially human nature.
Let’s face it, it is quite natural to open up a sealed bag labeled “scent sample” and put your nose right into it. We fight this urge even at SensoryCo. The fact is that instant gratification is so much more intriguing and cognitively satisfying than walking through the steps recommended to improve the accuracy of the experience. But since we are replicating scents (i.e. we aren’t actually bagging up chunks of chocolate, dirty socks or grass clippings) you can sometimes get into trouble taking the easy path.
To illustrate this I have jotted down a few important things to avoid during any scent sampling process:
1. I’m High and Low
For those of you that simply can’t fight the urge to poke your nose right into the bag, you are bound to pick up the “highs” and “lows” of each particular scent. So “sweet” may be very “sweet” and a background that may be described as “chemical” may be perceived as dominantly “chemical.” This obviously changes perception, sometimes drastically.
For sampling we provide sample chips that are meant to be taken out of the sealed package and waved in the air, put in front of a slow moving fan or generally allowed to mix with air before smelling. Take the other approach and you may experience something completely different.
2. My Nose is Fried
We are not talking about the result of an ’80’s addiction gone awry. Your nose can actually burn out during the scent sampling process.
Here’s an example that you may relate to. Have you ever boarded an airplane and were nearly overwhelmed by the thick, stale air that seemed to be a combination of body odor, airplane food and possibly a tint of baby diaper? (If you haven’t you are probably a mouth breather). Personally, I am surprised to find that it takes just a few minutes of exposure to deaden the impact. And by the time you arrive to your destination you are completely acclimated, though the next lineup of passengers are certain to be nasally assaulted, in turn.
Just like during air travel your nose can desensitize during the scent sampling process. It helps to take the time to leave the room, breathe in fresh air, and give your nose a break before re-sampling. Some people keep coffee grinds on hand to cleanse the nasal palette.
3. You’re Playing Jedi Mind Tricks On Me!
Most scent sampling organizers like to play “Name that Smell,” that is, they will put a smell in front of you and you are supposed to take a wild stab at what it might be. In my experience there are very few people that can blindly identify a series of smells no matter how accurate the simulated smells are. The fact is that everyone perceives smells differently and we are often influenced by outside factors without even knowing it.
There is a psychologist at Oxford by the name of Edmund Rolls who conducted a study where he confronted subjects with an ambiguous odor which was labeled “cheddar cheese” or “body odor.” Subjects rated the cheese smell as much more pleasant demonstrating that our perception of smell can be influenced by language.
Further, at SensoryCo we often test scents in combination with audio visual cues – for example, matching the release of smells with a picture, a video advertisement or a clip from a movie. We find that subjects, more often than not, agree that a particular scent is, in fact, what we say it is when presented with the visual or auditory cues. This is particularly noticeable in a group setting where smells would be naturally perceived quite differently by each individual if measured blind.
4. Air It Out
Most scents are far superior when mixed with the air. This is for many technical reasons. By the very nature of deploying scents via a dry delivery method there is a concentration of smell at the saturation point and you pick up undesired features of each scent the closer in you are to the source. But some scents simply don’t activate without interacting with air.
The best example that I’ve experience is when we were sampling a “first article” urine smell for medical simulations. Like my customers I just couldn’t wait to sample correctly and promptly proceeded to open the small sample bottle. I was expecting a certain level of pungency from the bottle.
I was baffled so I handed it to my colleague who hurriedly grabbed the aroma sample from my outstretched hands. During the transfer a small droplet flew out of the loose cap and landed on her jeans. No big deal. It wasn’t very strong anyway. Or was it?
Come to find out this particular scent needed time to mix with the surrounding air. During our meeting the smell of pee started wafting around from an unknown origin. When we finally realized what had happened we were pleased that we were getting close on the accuracy, but throughout the rest of the day she had to deal with the fact that it smelled like she was working in a daycare. Lucky for all of us it was localized to her personal space and not a full bottle spill onto the office floor.
There are certainly other tips and techniques to proper sampling such as sampling subtle to strong, giving time between scents so they don’t muddle together, ensuring proper ventilation, cleansing the palette and so on. I guess if I were to sum it up the overriding principle would be to take your time. Does a master chef present a 7 course meal all at the same time? Definitely not. Slow down and enjoy.