Can we smell colour? This is the question fragrance company Escentric Molecules posed to me in response to their recently updated brand packaging.
Escentric Molecules has set out to create a multisensory experience. So today, we're exploring that connection. Can colour, in this case, the colours on packaging, lead us to smell the scents and connect to our emotions and memories?
Talking about multisensory experiences, we need to look at an amazing phenomenon called synaesthesia that only 1 - 4% of the population experience. As cited in a medical journal: "This is a rare blending of the senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell) in which the stimulation of one sense triggers a predictable and reproducible effect in another sense."
The journal goes on to say: "Synaesthesia is something you can't control, and the response happens right away. For example, if you hear a new piece of music, you may see a colour or taste a flavour without any effort. It just happens."
For the rest of us, it's more likely that we have developed our link of colour to smell through past experience or associated memories. We remember the smell of citrus fruits, lavender or freshly cut grass. When we see the colour that we have associated with that smell, we pair them together. So you could say we smell colour too.
Behind the scent
Exploring art and chemistry, the brand aims to deliver a multisensory experience which in turn inspired their unique packaging. As Paul White, Creative Director, puts it: "By taking the notion of and responding with binary…the coding became a key point of the brand by using it to put messaging into the packaging, by breaking the words and the branding into binary terms and then burying that binary into the packaging."
Paul went on to say he likes "the idea that these fragrances communicate on a very different level and deliberately so. It's great when you walk into a store, see the product and the colour story, and it engages you to the point where you just want to pick up the tester and smell it."
What is likely to be happening here from a colour and design psychology perspective is when we walk into the store, for example, the first thing we notice is the colour, then shapes, then words. This was backed up by research carried out by KISSmetrics, which showed that up to 85% of our purchasing decisions are based on colour alone.
When we see colour, its messages are primarily on an unconscious level. Colour speaks to us in a language we understand instinctively — the language of emotions — and it influences how we think, feel, and behave without us necessarily being aware of it.
Colour is nature's own powerful signalling system. It's a universal, non-verbal language all species, including animals, understand.
Before we could speak, our signalling language was colour. We knew what was ripe, poisonous, and safe, which was important for our survival. As we developed speech, our need to communicate through colour was slowly pushed to our subconscious. Colour psychologist Angela Wright posits we are now typically only 20% conscious of our colour choices.
Back to the question we started with, can we smell colour? So far, we understand that the connection between colour and smell is involuntary for people who have synaesthesia. To further explore this question, we need to understand how the rest of us have developed our link of colour to smell in other ways. It's likely to be one of the three ways we relate to colour: through our own personal colour association, our cultural beliefs or the psychological traits of colour.
A multisensory journey
So now, let's go on this multisensory journey together to experience Paul's vision and connect with what we are seeing, feeling, smelling and sensing as we engage with the new Escentric Molecules packaging.
When Escentric 01 packaging was being designed, Paul explained they used "layered blacks to create a mysterious and quite dark and secretive looking box, which is very unusual in the world of fragrance."
The design on the packaging was inspired by encoding the binary pair inside the fragrance. From a colour psychology perspective, in this context, black is being used to create an air of mystery, to be secretive, alluring and captivating. It's like stepping into the unknown or a deep secret. Black is sophisticated, and purple represents luxury and opulence.
The first purple was made from the mucus of sea snails. It took 12,000 snails to produce just over one gram. The Romans made the colour a status symbol, and for many centuries, it was a colour only royalty could wear. This colour only became affordable for the common people when a synthetic dye was discovered in 1856.
At the heart of this fragrance is Ambroxan, a nature-identical to ambergris, one of the oldest fragrance ingredients in the world. The prismatic nature of the fragrance is captured in the colours of the packaging, from the citrus notes of lemon and mandarin, through to the 'woody' heart of the fragrance. These colours communicate to us to expect a rich, opulent and fresh scent experience.
What really stood out for me was the use of dark brown, which anchors the packaging. This relates to the positive psychology of brown, the rooted groundedness and stability we feel when we see wood, which links us back to the woody heart of this fragrance.
Looking at the packaging, the lines, the colours, what's the first thing you associate this with? What smell are you expecting? This fragrance is based on vetiver, which is a grass from India. The vertical grass lines were the inspiration for the packaging, broken down into prismatic form, which also incorporates the colours of ginger and lime. You can really get a sense of this from the packaging.
We can see more variations of green than any other colour. We find greens restful because it's the colour that falls in the middle of the colour spectrum, and our eye needs very little to no adjustment in order to see it. We are reassured by green on a very primitive level. We know where there is green, we will find food and water — it equals life.
As soon as I saw the packaging, I was instantly transported back to my time in India when I saw the local women walking along the road, their saris adorned in these rich, vibrant colours. Paul thought this was quite interesting because the main molecule, Javanol, is based on sandalwood from India. This is a great example of personal colour association. The colours of the packaging triggered a memory for me. When I then smelled the fragrance, it further confirmed India to me. There is a cohesion between what I'm seeing, the memory and the emotion I am feeling, and what I'm smelling.
Pink is a colour, especially in Western cultures, that has become known as a colour for women. Interestingly, before a US department store ran its colour campaign in the 1940s, pink was a colour that was associated with boys. Since then, pink has become a traditional colour for women, and over the past five years, we are seeing it return to a colour that both men and women embrace.
Unlike the other fragrances, this perfume was created to evoke a sense of place. This is a perfect example of personal colour association. Geza has developed a multisensory experience that reflects his experience at his coastal holiday cottage in Majorca. This was carried through to the packaging, which is inspired by the idea of fracturing the landscape — the blue sky and the sea and the sun. Paul sums it up: "Geza has packaged the olfactory experience of being there."