Why the sense of smell is not yet fully integrated in Product Design?

Tuesday, 31 May, 2011

Whereas Olfactory Marketing is more and more popular, product design does not seem to be in line with this trend. Is that due to feasibility issues? Or just because we are obsessed with the other senses and do not realize the potential of the sense of smell?

Other senses (sight, touch, hearing...) are considered key factors in product design. However smell tends to be forgotten, while it provides a lot of added value. In the FMCG industry there is a process of 'Designing Sensations', but the question is whether and how it can be improved to make better products.

Perhaps due to their links to the field of arts, Industrial Designers have a holistic approach to designing the sensations their products bring to people. They define the characteristics of products, such as chairs or lamps: 3D shape, materials, size, color and texture. They not only ensure that the product is pleasant to senses but also that it is industrially feasible, cost-competitive, eco-friendly and suitable to producer's brand. On top of this, Industrial Designers often explain also what product creation is inspired on: The lamp is based in nature's shadows below a tree in summer; the chair is elegantly in line with the latest 'retro' trend in decoration, etc.

However, Industrial Designers do not take into account the sense of smell in their creations. This is due to lack of knowledge in scent evaluation (How does this smell like?; How should this smell like?) and because they do not know how to apply scents in practice to product design (How can a chair or a lamp deliver a scent?). This type of know-how is restricted to fragrance suppliers and their business is based in sales volumes, not in technical consulting. In practice, just buying and adding a scent to a pre-designed product always ends up in technical failure (the scent is actually not perceived).

The job of Fragrance Designers is about collecting information on consumers' tastes and preferences, new creations, technical feasibility of raw materials, market trends, competitor's products, brand's positioning and strategy. With all this information, they 'design fragrances'. They build a conceptual story that describes the fragrance idea and they help to create, develop and choose the best fragrance, which is the one that both fits the concept and pleases best consumers' senses. A fragrance designer can evaluate more than a hundred different fragrances in order to select the best one among them. Fragrance Designers not only help to create and develop the fragrance but also to introduce its concept in the marketing, communication and sales strategies of the product.

Nowadays the automobile industry has integrated the sense of smell in their processes of product design. It is considered a key factor since it is well-known that scent strongly conditions the car purchasing decision. A client enters a new car to try it, they touch it, smell it… and decide whether (or not) to buy it. Thus, a lot of ‘sensory engineers’ are taking care of the smell, touch and hearing of the new car design. Car designers have adopted a holistic approach to the sensorial experience of the product they design. Why this approach is not taken by other industries?

Developing ice-creams, smoothies, soups or spirits requires a process where information about consumers' preferences is collected, product prototypes are developed and tested, competitor's products are analyzed, market trends are observed, product concepts are built... In the food and beverage industry there is a process of 'Designing sensations', but the question is whether and how it can be improved to make better products.

Indeed, in most cases, particularly in the big Companies, there is not a holistic approach to ‘Product Design’. While sensory evaluation has a long history in the food & beverages industry, it is systematically restricted to R&D, which takes care of the 'expert' view of sensory perception (expert tasters, chefs and trained panels). Market research takes care of consumer's taste and Marketing builds the ‘product concepts’. ‘Sensory’ is not integrated in Consumer Intelligence or Marketing Strategies. This is a big mistake. Because these Companies are not taking full advantage of the added value that sensory innovation can bring to Product Design. How are sensations explained to consumers? What is the connection between sensations and emotions that products arise? How is consumer’s sensory feedback integrated in New Product Development? Are consumers co-creating new products together with the R&D experts? Are Marketers fully aware of the sensory benefits that products bring to people? How key are consumers’ sensations to re-purchase decisions? Why do consumers like the products they like? Why do they keep purchasing them? What is their sensory and emotional link to the brand? Do they remember the flavor? Can they distinguish it from a competitor?

New Product Development should include consumer’s feedback since the very beginning and all along the process till launch and post-launch. It does not make any sense that ideas for New Product Sensations (flavor, smell, texture) come from a brief issued by Marketing to R&D (the sensory specialists!). Sensory Innovation can play a (very profitable) superior role: not just testing products anymore but about ‘Designing Sensations’. And Sensory Designers should not belong to the R&D department. Instead, they should play an interdepartmental role: involving R&D, Consumer Intelligence, Marketing and even Sales altogether.

Like for Industrial Design, the process of ‘Designing Sensations’ is complex, multidisciplinary and interdepartmental. On one side it requires technical knowledge, and on the other side it is creative and innovative. And, the same as for industrial designers, the ‘Designer of Sensations’ should integrate information from the different Company departments in order to make new products that provide special sensations to people. And help to communicate, within Brand’s strategy, what these new sensations are about.

At Open-Senses we are passionate about sensory innovation. If you share this passion, you can contact us at www.open-senses.com.