Aromas Flavours and Emotional Responses

Flavours and aromas often prompt strong emotional responses. Our olfactory system is directly connected to our limbic system – the part of the brain most associated with emotions. By the time that we have identified an aroma or flavour our emotional response to it has already been triggered.

Responses to some aromas and flavours are reasonably universal. Vanilla is comforting and homely, coffee is awakening and stimulating, pine feels like a breath of the open air, clean and fresh. While mint is fresh and stimulating in quite a different way.

Other aromas evoke very personal emotions, memories of a loved one or a special place, a particular part of our childhood or simply of home.

Sometimes the emotion is very specific, we know exactly why that aroma or that flavour evokes that specific memory. We remember how we felt at that specific time and the aroma prompts that feeling within us again.

At other times we have no specific memory of why this flavour makes us feel as it does. However, rest assured, buried deep within us there is a memory. Our unconscious brain has paired the aroma, the flavour with a memory – or a series of memories – and, even if we don’t consciously recall the memory, we do experience the emotion. This is known as ‘associative pairing’. It is at the root of all of our likes and dislikes when it comes to aromas and flavours and it is the most fascinating part of being a food and drink psychologist.

Some of the emotional responses to specific aromas and flavours tend to be very common either within cultures or even across the globe and these are often used in food and beverages and in hygiene and homecare products to evoke a desired emotion or divert us from a less desirable one. So mint is used in toothpaste and in chewing gum to evoke a feeling of freshness, lemon and pine in cleaning products to prompt feelings of freshness and cleanliness and vanilla as a welcoming, comforting and homely flavour and aroma.

The use of aromas and flavours to evoke positive emotions greatly enhances our lives. The feeling of freshness in our mouths after we clean our teeth, the ‘clean aroma’ of our homes after we clean are hugely gratifying and reassuring. The aroma and taste of coffee stimulate and enliven us long before the caffeine reaches our bloodstream and who would rather smell the natural bathroom aromas instead of the clean fresh smell of pine forests.

But when such strong links exist between certain aromas and flavours and the emotions that they trigger, sometimes these links do not work in the way that we would like them to. Sometimes we need to find ways to break or retune the link.

Have you ever found yourself enjoying the ambiance and aromas of a beautiful pine forest and then found that the resin and pine aromas evoke less pleasant thoughts of a public lavatory? Also, with such strong associations between toothpaste and mouth fresheners, mint can be a problematic flavour in food and drink.

These problems, however, are not insurmountable.

Aromas and flavours are not blunt instruments, they are complex and layered. When we understand which parts of the complex matrix that is an aroma prompts the specific emotional response we can alter the delivery of that aroma to either adjust the emotional response to one more applicable to the specific product, or we can break the link altogether.

Strawberry is a popular flavour in children’s confectionary and drinks, also in children’s medicines. This has created for many a strong link between strawberry and childhood flavours. Consequently, strawberry is often viewed as a childish flavour, not right for adult or more sophisticated products.

However, strawberry is a complex flavour with elements of sweetness and sourness, deep rear of mouth flavours and more fleeting lighter green notes. When we understand the type of sweetness and the delivery of this sweetness and of the deeper strawberry flavours that cue the memories of childhood strawberry, we can deliver strawberry in a very different way that feels much more adult. We can introduce complexities into the strawberry flavour that feel natural while also evoking feelings of greater sophistication – much more of an adult flavour.

We can achieve similar results with mint flavours by understanding which aspects of the mint sensation evoke those feelings of mouth and breath freshness. We can then change the way that mint is delivered in a confectionary or a snack product to moderate the feeling of freshness to one that feels more appropriate to the occasion rather than evoking feelings of consuming a toothpaste.

When you focus upon the emotions that aromas and flavours evoke and understand how and why they evoke these emotions, it becomes possible to adjust the way that those aromas and flavours are delivered to adjust or to change the emotions that they evoke.

The links between aromas and flavours and the emotions that they trigger are important in food, beverages, hygiene, homecare and more. They, however, are not an absolute given. It is possible t adjust your aromas and flavours to change the emotional response. A very powerful tool for brand building and one that can be very confusing for your competition when you master this tool.

Chris Lukehurst is a Director at The Marketing Clinic:

Understanding the connections between the consumer experience and emotional responses.