Here comes a lengthier version of my musings about perfume in a career context that led to the article in Swedish business paper Dagens Industri.

The main point that I want to make is this: Scent is one of the many tools that we can use to create good conditions for communication.

This is the main principle behind why I think that the perfumes (and scents in general) that we use at work are so interesting. This has nothing to do with “trying to smell like a leader”, as in putting an olfactory mask on. Nor is it about manipulation of situations or our image. It is about being aware of how scents are linked to our brain and therefore affect our perception of ourselves, of situations and of others.

Let’s proceed: the right scent in the right context can strengthen your professional communication and thus position by adding definition to your message about who you are and what you want. For a person already conscious of their personal brand it is only natural to also have either a signature scent or better still, a fragrance wardrobe.

An interest in perfumes is sometimes unfortunately associated with an interest in fashion, cosmetics etc. This leads to underestimation of scent as a powerful communication tool. Olfactory perception, our sense of smell, is particular. Olfactory impressions travel directly to the brain’s emotional and memory centers, which in turn affects both how we feel and perceive things – and how we are perceived by others. This happens not only in the moment, but also afterwards when we create memories. How you smell will affect the associations someone has with you when they remember you. Now tell me this does not matter in a professional context. Just think of job interviews! Or negotiations. Or your first day as CEO meeting with your key stakeholders.

With a conscious choice of scent, you can use this to your advantage. Your scent can clarify who you are, and reinforce the message you want to get across as well as the associations you want to evoke. In the same way that your voice, posture and clothing affect how others see you, the perfume you wear will make a difference. A positive one if you invest some effort.

A signature scent or a fragrance wardrobe?

Some people find a perfume that feels like the only one they can imagine wearing. Sometimes this lasts a few years, sometimes a lifetime. But let’s admit it, most people don’t. Sticking to a perfume that feels “ok” because you are unsure of what to look for or scared to try new things doesn’t count. Finding a signature scent is not an easy thing to do. Until you find one I really do recommend composing a fragrance wardrobe of say three to five perfumes for a start. Allow yourself to use different perfumes at work and at home because that will let you go all in with the various types of scents that attract you and explore (or define) more sides of your personality. Special perfumes are not generic or random. Adapt your fragrance to the needs of different situations and what you want to convey about yourself in them.

The scent of a leader
As a leader it is important to be clear. Nobody follows a confused guide. Your scent is one of the signals you can use to communicate who you are and how you want others to relate to you. A boss who has a very formal appearance but smells of summer vacation makes a confusing impression. Another example of olfactory failure is wearing a perfume that is too heavy and tranquilizing in a situation where your role is to be someone who boosts energy.

In a professional context, it’s not just a question of smelling well. There are thousands of great smelling perfumes and people. Someone who makes the right decisions will benefit from smelling right. Scent is a tool. It can improve conditions for communication, remember? Reinforce what you want to convey about your message and yourself by using the right fragrance. Choose a fragrance that works for you just like your other attributes do.

Risks with perfume failure

– Creates confusion
– Sending out the wrong signals
– Distraction from your message
– Negative associations
– Affect energy in the wrong way

Potential with the right perfume

– Extra definition
– Memorability
– Enhanced message
– Emotional values added to intellectual content
– Affect energy in a tactic way

Confusion or contrast?
In situations where it is important to be clear, concise and concrete confusion is seldom good. Avoid sending out confusing signals by mistake in important contexts. There is however another way to look at it. Attention can be caught by using disruption in the form of a contrast. A conscious use of contrast between fragrance and other attributes can create a very interesting effect. This is something that is interesting to experiment with and I encourage it. An informal minimalistic outfit with a complex perfume, an feminine look and a masculine fragrance, vintage and modern synthetic notes. You can create great effects. Again, this depends on who you are and what your professional context is all about. It is not black and white. You have to look at who you are, your context(s) and needs. There is no generic professional perfume wardrobe.

My point, again, is to inspire you to make more conscious choices and explore the communicative potential of scents. To see how they can convey different aspects of you and what this can add to different situations. Go explore, have fun!

Every now and then it’s good to refresh our memory about the basics when it comes to scents. Brands are more or less trendy, there are seasonal perfume launches and top ten lists and marketing budgets. Then there is the smell of rain, of summer, of skin, of coffee beans. Sometimes it is easy to forget how it is all connected. So, here is a very short and extremely simplified guide to the sense of smell – or olfactory perception. It is not necessary to know these things to appreciate perfume, but having some rough insight into the links between scents and our body and brain makes things more interesting and the search for perfume or candles more conscious.

Nothing is arbitrary, and so much of how we perceive scents has to do with the construction of the brain.

First of all, we are all affected by scents around us. This has nothing to do with preferences or interest. We are programmed to take smell seriously as it has initially been a survival tool used to sense danger and to find suitable partners for reproduction. We might not find ourselves in the situations where it is the most important tool anymore, and much has changed. For example we select partners according to various criteria and we have dates written on food packages so we don’t necessarily smell them to see if they are still ok. But our brain is still built the same way and our instinct is to trust the information that smells gives us.

When we inhale a scent travels in odor molecules. It goes up through the nose (it is possible to have two separate impress, that is one through each nostril) and to olfactory membranes inside the nose. The odor molecules match receptor cell sites that line the olfactory epithelium. When stimulated by odor molecules the nerve cells send impulses to the olfactory bulb in the brain which forwards  the impulses to the gustatory center (where the sensation of taste is perceived), the amygdala (where emotional memories are stored), and other parts of the limbic system of the brain. The sense of smell is the only one of our five senses that is directly linked to the limbic lobe of the brain which means that what we smell goes directly to the brain’s centers for memories and emotions.

The limbic system is also directly connected to the parts of the brain that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress levels and hormone balance. What we smell goes right to the parts of the brain that are related to emotions and memories. We might intellectualize olfactory impressions, but we can never avoid the highway they take to our feelings. This is one of the reasons why a conscious use of smells, for example in professional contexts, is a very powerful (and underestimated) tool.

What scents we prefer is to a large extent based on memories and cultural preferences. Scents trigger old memories and suddenly something creates a feeling of safety because it reminds us of childhood. Or the opposite – a scent can take us back to an unhappy feeling because it triggers a sad memory. Scents have been used in therapy to activate traumatic memories among war victims so that these memories can be processed. Sometimes we are not even aware of the strong associations between a smell and a memory until we experience them. It is noteworthy here that what we perceive as a bad smell is something that we are taught. This is a good reminder for parents with small children – the children do not evaluate the smells until you teach them. Why not let them keep discovering for a while longer before drawing the map?
The associations are subjective. There are however some general scent-related effects that seem to affect us in a similar way. A citrus smell will boost our energy (try smelling a lemon when you get sleepy in your office the afternoon). Lavender has been used in studies that indicate that it improves our cognitive ability. Benzoin, vanilla and sandal wood calm and balance. You might not think this matters or that it is obvious – but do you really think about how your perfume affects different situations at work? A brain storm and a crisis meeting benefit from entirely different smells. You benefit from different smells in the morning compared to when you need to unwind.

Smell the attraction
A strange mash-up of procreation science and marketing clichés has created some sort of hype around fluffy explanations and theories on the sense of smell and attraction. You will for example hear the word “pheromones” thrown like some sort of dating dart. It is not that easy. Olfactory perception does indeed play an important role in attraction but various aspect of contemporary life has changed that game a bit. We have over-washed bodies, on-paper-criteria and online dating for example. It is true however that olfactory perception has had the purpose to help us select appropriate partners based on information about immune systems communicated through pheromones. But let’s leave it at that for now and I promise to do a post on pheromones later. I would suggest however that when you select a perfume based on your desire to meet Someone that you want to keep meeting: don’t go looking or asking for perfumes that “smell sexy”, look for perfumes that add to you smelling like you.
There is an infinite amount of aspects to talk about when it comes to our sense of smell and our body and mind. I have mentioned some of these in my posts about scent and memories, and the posts on specific ingredients. Please feel free to share insight or questions by commenting below or send an e-mail.

Olfactory disorders
Last but not least, our olfactory perception is not something that we should take for granted. Many people suffer from an olfactory disorder and this can be quite problematic. Here are some of the most common disorders of smell.
  • Anosmia – inability to smell 
  • Dysosmia – things smell different than they should 
  • Hyperosmia – an abnormally acute sense of smell
  • Hyposmia – decreased ability to smell 
  • Phantosmia – “hallucinated smell,” often unpleasant in nature 

Scents affect us in many ways. One is that they give us pleasure. (Or the opposite if we are unlucky). Another is that they connect directly with our memory and imagination. Who would we be without our memory and imagination?

This post will be without pictures, deliberately. You will get your own pictures in your head when reading it and it is important that it is just like that.

When I moved to Amsterdam to study communication I had the fortune to make many Italian friends in the student house where I stayed. After I had introduced myself to one of them he started to recite a poem. (If you are Italian, or from a Latin culture or maybe just from anywhere south of the Baltic Sea this might sound normal to you. To me, raised in Sweden, this was magic). The poem was ’A Silvia’ by Giacomo Leopardi. Naturally I became Leopardi’s biggest fan that very second and bought a book with his poems within a week. For years I had an inner image of this poet as a tall charismatic sensual passionate Man of Art & Words. And then one day I started researching and found out that this ardent heart belonged to a man who had a very short, very isolated and very non-carnal life due to illness. He was not attractive, and in lifelong physical and emotional pain. He was also alone. Much of the time physically, most of the time emotionally it seems. Not only in a romantic sense, also in his family and in an existential sense.

Yet this man created the most tender, sublime, dynamic and powerful poems that you can imagine. About life and what being human is about, yes. But also about women, desire, the dance of heart and the reflection of one soul in another. What is reality? The inside or the outside?

In an earlier post I wrote about Polge comparing poetry and perfume, that perfume is like a kind of language. It is something that communicates. Naturally, the creation of perfume is much like the creation of poetry. But I would like to highlight one particular power that they share – poetry and perfume both have this almost undefinable ability to create The Other. The feeling, experience, world or phenomenon that does not yet exist or that is not here. A creation for the senses that they do not yet know about, or cannot anticipate. I think what I am trying to say, put in a very simple way – the power of sensual experience to take us on journeys… somewhere. And this somewhere can be back, future or away. The somewhere can be known or unknown until we get there. Art can do this, also music. Take you somewhere.

Proust referred to involuntary memory. That does not mean necessarily “unwanted” but rather that it is not deliberately created by your intellect. The term is described here, but you will probably experience it the best if you read Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ where you will find the episode with the madeleines. You can find an excerpt with this part of the book if you google, for example here.

We should not undermine the power of scents. Not only as an aesthetic, as an attribute, but as something that affects our brain. Scents have a fascinating capacity to activate memories and feelings and can be used in therapy to activate the brain. Scents can give you real physical pain when you find a sweater that still bears the smell of a lost person. Scents can create collision between the past and the present. Scents can awaken desire to have something or someone that is not at all in that zone of your life yet. Scents can make you feel more comfortable in one country than in another. Scents help us choose our partners and teach our children that we are theirs and they ours. (Speaking of which, I have been reading about pheromones lately and there is so much that I want to tell you that I just do not know where to start.)

Try to activate the scents of your life and relationships. The lilies at your wedding. The summer clothes drying in the sun. The first snow. Swimming in the sea at night. Hair damp from summer rain. Freshly baked bread. Airports. A new piece of writing on a sheet warm from the printer. Your favorite ingredient. Your friends home. Coffee. The way your city smells when you take your first step outside in the morning. Think about what smells there are in different places and situations that are significant to you. See if there is some way for you to make them concrete and possible to re-create. Add olfactory memories to your relationship – maybe there is a particular fragranced candle or flower or spice that you can return to on anniversarys and important days just to evoke that special feeling. Give your child fragrance memories because he or she will remember them forever. Buy spices on your travels or find the plants that grow in the destination your fantasies like to return to. Also it is not unusual that perfume houses have fragrances inspired by specific places, just look at Byredo and Chanel. But it is of course not sure that their memories are the same as yours.

The attentive returning reader of this blog might now be thinking that I am contradicting myself. Because I have said many times that we should search for the fragrances that reflect who we are and avoid trying to create something else with superimposed olfactory characteristics. True. But I am not saying that you should wear a fragrance that smells of Buenos Aires, Cape Town or Tokyo but not of you. You want a scent of a geographical place that probably reminded you of a place in yourself. This  is precious, and personal. Your memories are parts of your inner you. Some memories, and some parts of ourselves, we prefer to let rest un-activated, but some we want closer. Scents can help you with that.