Amid the pandemic and the new normal of wearing face masks, the perfumery industry can leverage visual cues online and in-store to boost and enrich the consumer’s sensory experience of fragrances, say Nanyang Business School’s Xie Fengshu and Gemma Calvert

More than two years since the COVID-19 outbreak, most parts of the world are slowly adjusting to the “new normal”, where much of our social, business and consumption activities still take place online. When face-to-face interactions do occur, most people are still required to (or opt to) wear a protective face mask. And while the pandemic has accelerated the development of e-commerce, the perfumery industry has, perhaps unsurprisingly, witnessed an uncompensated loss in brick-and-mortar sales. Prior to the pandemic, consumers typically approached perfume counters to sample the fragrances before purchase, relying heavily on their olfactory experience of the scents to discriminate between perfumes.

However, in the early stages of the pandemic, government-imposed restrictions on removing face masks in public prevented consumers from being able to smell and sample fragrances, resulting in a sharp fall in annual revenue of US$6.8 billion across the perfumery industry between 2019 and 2020 (Fragrances Report 2021 Statista Consumer Market Outlook), and forcing them to seek alternative strategies by which to reconnect with consumers across non-olfactory touchpoints.

A solution in sight

One solution is emerging from a rather unexpected source – the field of multisensory neuroscience. Over the past few decades, scientists studying how our senses interact in the human brain have discovered that they are far more interchangeable and interconnected than had previously been thought (Calvert & Thesen, 2004).

Indeed, of relevance to the fragrance industries, we now know that our perception of odours is significantly influenced and enhanced by what we see. This highlights the potential for visual cues to compensate for the current inaccessibility of fragrance sampling due to the requirement to wear face masks.

Research has shown that appropriately matched visual cues (e.g. the smell of strawberries in the presence of a luscious red colour patch) help consumers to perceive odours more accurately and with greater intensity (Zellner & Kautz, 1990; Gottfried & Dolan, 2003).

The same effect has been exploited in the fragrance industry. Branded scents that are deliberately and consistently matched with specific colours are known to strengthen the identification and perceived intensity of a fragrance (Kim, 2013). By exposing consumers to coherent colour-fragrance combinations, whether in-store, on pack or even through visual advertising, the unique notes and characteristics of a fragrance can be dramatically enhanced.  

The colour of a passionate fragrance

Congruent visual-olfactory experiences can evoke extremely powerful emotions and memories. The use of vision to set the scene for metaphoric dynamic advertising for specific branded fragrances is a growing trend.

A poignant example is the famous series of film advertisements for the fragrance “Si Passione” by Giorgio Armani featuring Cate Blanchett. The ad is a visual celebration of red in which the actress is seen wearing flamboyant red dresses or suits, and in scenes of daring independence (skydiving, flirting, posing).

The vibrant red colours that permeate the ads are used to connote a fragrance that is alluring, provocative, exciting, and to be worn by those who value their sense of freedom. These are the visual cues and metaphors used to evoke expectations of the fragrance, particularly in circumstances when the fragrance itself cannot be sampled through olfaction. 

Seeing the bigger (sensory) picture

Researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience have shown that human olfactory perception depends on expectations based on non-olfactory cues (Engen, 1972).

For example, one study exposed participants to one of two strawberry fragrances – one dyed red, the other colourless. The results showed that people generally perceived the red-coloured fragrance as having a stronger strawberry scent (Zellner & Kautz, 1990).

The sight of specific visual cues has also been shown to modify how we perceive the smell or taste of foods and beverages. In a landmark study in 1980, Dubose and colleagues found that people judged a cherry-flavoured drink as orange (when it was coloured orange), or lime (when it was coloured green)! When the colour was removed, only 37% could correctly identify it as cherry (down from 70% when it was coloured red). Perhaps this explains the well-known adage that “We eat first with our eyes” (Apicus, 1st century Roman gourmand).

In the field of marketing, yet more research has shown that even without being paired with odours, visual cues in magazine advertisements can exaggerate the appeals of perfumes, increasing consumers’ expectation of the actual fragrance and stimulating greater interest and desire that ultimately lead to purchase (Toncar & Fetscherin, 2012).

The research showed that even before consumers gain olfactory perception of a perfume, the visual messages they received can nudge them to move toward the next step in their consumption journeys (e.g. going into the retail environment to sample the perfume or even immediately placing an order from e-commerce platforms).

Seeing is deceiving in the brain

So, what is going on in the brain when what we see can change what we think we are smelling?

Using functional MRI brain scanning, we revealed that when people were exposed to congruent colour-odour fragrance combinations (e.g. the smell of pine needles in the presence of a dark green colour patch), activity in the brain areas associated with perceived reward and pleasantness increased – over and above the activity observed for the fragrance alone (Osterbauer et al, 2005).

This and ongoing brain imaging studies are helping us to understand the physiological bases of these multisensory effects on our perception.

Virtual sensoria

Digital technologies such as AR and VR now allow fragrances to be sampled while viewing congruent visual scenes that can dramatically enhance the sensory experience – an opportunity that the perfume industry is starting to embrace.

Some marketers have already experimented with the creation of visual-olfactory experiences in their digital campaigns to delight and excite their consumers in-store as well as online.

When Sephora launched its first perfume “Do Not Drink”, it integrated AR technology into its Instagram posts. Working with a sensory neuroscientist who specialises in translating fragrance notes into analogous visual cues, Sephora incorporated visuals with an orange colour and cues such as spilling passionfruit juice and tropical plants to evoke expectations of juicy, sweet-fruity fragrance notes.

Involving VR technology in the brick-and-mortar setting to enhance the visual experience also enjoys great potential. When consumers pointed their phone cameras at the perfume bottle of “Live Irresistible” by Givenchy, the scene of a spring picnic with pineapples, madeleine cakes and blush roses lying on a pink blanket pops up on their screens, helping consumers to feel embraced by the gentle spring breeze with sweet floral aromas.

With the global relaxation of COVID restrictions on movement, including social and consumption activities, consumers are slowly returning to brick-and-mortar retail outlets, albeit with many still wearing masks.

Although consumers may be largely unaware of the influence of what they see on what they smell, we now know that every glimpse they take secretly contributes to their consumption expectations and choices. Exploiting cleverly designed visual cues which are congruent with the fragrance present throughout the consumption journey, both digital and in-store – the interior design, the product packaging and even the hue and tone of store lighting – can boost and enrich consumers’ sensory experiences of fragrances in today’s “new normal”.


1. Calvert, GA & Thesen, T (2004) Multisensory integration: methodological approaches and emerging principles in the human brain. Journal of Physiology, Paris 98(1-3): 191-205.

2. Zellner, DA, & Kautz, MA (1990). Color affects perceived odor intensity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 16(2), 391.

3. Gottfried, JA, & Dolan, RJ (2003). The nose smells what the eye sees: crossmodal visual facilitation of human olfactory perception. Neuron, 39(2), 375-386.

4. Kim, YJ (2013). Can eyes smell? Cross‐modal correspondences between color hue‐tone and fragrance family. Color Research & Application, 38(2), 139-156.

5. Engen, T (1972). The effect of expectation on judgments of odor. Acta Psychologica, 36(6), 450-458.

6. DuBose, CN, Cardello, AV, & Maller, O (1980). Effects of colorants and flavorants on identification, perceived flavor intensity, and hedonic quality of fruit‐flavored beverages and cake. Journal of Food Science, 45(5), 1393-1399.

7. Toncar, M, & Fetscherin, M (2012). A study of visual puffery in fragrance advertising: Is the message sent stronger than the actual scent? European Journal of marketing.

8. Österbauer, RA, Matthews, PM, Jenkinson, M, Beckmann, CF, Hansen, PC, & Calvert, GA (2005). Color of scents: chromatic stimuli modulate odor responses in the human brain. Journal of neurophysiology.