Play-Doh: why you can't get enough of the smell

The United States Patent and Trademark Office no doubt receives plenty of funny and unusual applications every day. When Robert Simmons Jr. submitted his idea for a rock, paper, scissors card game, “for people too lazy to use their hands,” he must have had administrators in fits of laughter. (Believe it or not, you can actually purchase the game on Amazon.)

Last summer, the toy manufacturer Hasbro made a similarly unusual application. The scent of the company’s iconic Play-Doh has been trademarked. The smell of the squidgy toy product – formed by a combination of a slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough – has to be one of the world’s most famous scents. And unlike with other toys, foods and experiences, it hasn’t changed since the brand first hit the market back in the 1950s. “The distinctive smell has consistently served as a hallmark of the brand, and after more than six decades providing children with a source of imaginative and creative play, the scent has become increasingly recognisable among children, parents and grandparents alike,” says the business.

Man smells jar
Smells can take us back to our childhood / GETTY

The news was certainly unusual. But the efforts made to “protect an invaluable point of connection between the brand and fans for years to come,” as the firm’s senior VP of global marketing Jonathan Berkowitz put it, was not surprising.

You see, smell is incredibly important to brands that create products, experiences and services, and then sell them to us.

And that’s because when we detect a smell, the olfactory neurones in the upper part of the nose generate an impulse which is passed directly into our brain. This is known as the limbic system, which is made up of a set of structures within the brain that many scientists point to as being the major controllers of our mood, memory, emotions and behaviours.

Just how important smell can be is best highlighted by the experiences recounted by those that have lost their sense of smell, know as anosmia. Sufferers commonly say they feel isolated and many struggle to form close personal relationships.

Smell is increasingly important to brands that want to keep on selling us stuff. And that’s because our sense of smell is more closely linked to memory than any of our other senses. Our olfactory function has the power to evoke specific memories spontaneously. The smell of an orchard in blossom might conjure up one fine summer’s day playing in the trees as a child.

There is also the emotive nature of smell – something the entire perfume industry is built upon, as different brands vie for our attention by conveying emotions and feelings through scent.

Smelling flowers
GETTY / A scent is so powerful, it can set off an involuntary reaction that bypasses the rational brain, allowing us to feel without thinking

A scent is so powerful, it can set off an involuntary reaction that bypasses the rational brain, allowing us to feel without thinking – often, the exact emotion marketers want us to experience in a retail environment. Commonly referred to as ‘sensory marketing’, retailers have long used smell to influence customer decisions. Studies that have used eye-tracking technology to measure where consumers look and for how long, highlight the close link between smell and consumer behaviour and attention. Subjects shown printed adverts for products that are accompanied by smells that match the product not only look more closely at the page, but recall it better and want it more.

Global entertainment business Disney is famous for its use of scents to both attract and retain loyal customers. Fans of its theme parks have long discussed the unique smells associated with a number of areas of the sites. That’s because the company uses patented Air Smellitizers, devices situated in the tunnels beneath the parks, to emit scents that match the surroundings. Salty sea air smells for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, fresh citrus on Soarin’, honey scent on Pooh’s Adventure.

It was also a tactic employed by the Pennsylvania Ballet to give a nostalgic lift to those attending a performance of The Nutcracker at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music last Christmas.

Appealing to our olfactory system is not just reserved for commercial purposes though. In Singapore, a creative agency called JWT, is experimenting with its clients how smell might be used as a therapy, to reanimate memories of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. So-called ‘smell kits’ are used to evoke distant memories and include things like clean sheets, talcum powder, chilli and garlic.

“We realised that care-givers use visual stimulus like photographs, or conversation and music, but they never use smell,” says Juhi Kalia, executive creative director for JWT Singapore. “Smell is like a short-circuit. It’s the short path to your brain, and takes you back emotionally.”

The next time you open up a tub of brand new Play-Doh, you will no doubt be transported back to your childhood in an instant, the smell triggering a feeling, a memory, an experience that may have been long-forgotten. And you will understand why the company behind it is doing everything it can to protect that smell for generations to come.

If our Live Life Better series has piqued your interest in the senses, check out our upcoming event with sensory experience experts Bompas & Parr.

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