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Scented fragrance storytelling: The role of smell in an actor’s toolkit

An intriguing story was published at the tail-end of 2019, revealing how the actor Emma Stone, it was reported in Vogue, likes to determine what the character she’s about to play smells like – and indeed, this is one of her favourite parts of the acting process. 

“I’ve been using fragrance to help me define each character I’ve played since I was 16,” explained the Oscar-winning actress. “Even now, I can smell that scent and be taken straight back.” She also cites her sense of smell as “super-strong—maybe overcompensating for my terrible eyesight? – so scent has always been the quickest sense-memory for me.”

The scent of a character

This may sound peculiar to some. But Emma Stone is not alone. Actor Michael Ball, reported the Guardian, chooses a signature scent for each of his roles, “from bay rum for the vengeful barber Sweeney Todd to his mum’s favourite Madame Rochas for Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad”. This report added that actor Anne-Marie Duff also has a fragrance for each role too, as does Nikki Amuka-Bird, who uses aromatherapy oils to get in character, and ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson who works with a perfumer to devise each scent for her roles from the Royal Ballet. 

Literary characters generate fragrances

From there, it takes a small leap to understand how characters might actually generate fragrances themselves. It’s no wonder that the imaginative world of fiction has inspired many scents. The Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, a US-based online retailer of fragrances, have released scents based on Neil Gaiman’s novels, based on what his fictional characters might smell like. 

Capturing difference with scent

On one level the reasons for this are simple – after all, in fiction each character has to be developed and scent is a deep way to capture their differences. Indeed, some writers’ resources encourage writers to use all five senses, and to use words that describe what their characters see, hear, taste, and touch and smell.  This resonates with\ into the ultimate experience with neuroscientist Dr Andy Myers, the results of which show that the presence of scent significantly increases someone’s involvement in an experience by +38%.  This impact continues to build if all the senses in are in harmony and congruent. As Dr Myers explains, “The senses work together and not in isolation. Engaging different senses in balance creates stronger message structures from the brain realising a “multiplier effect”.  

Scent and the divine

Perhaps this scent-as-character has deeper roots than we imagine. In the book Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination by religious historian Susan Ashbrook Harvey, she tracks scent as a way of bringing worshippers into an interaction between the human and the divine, writing that early Christians had a profound interest in scent as an early part of the path to godliness: “An angels’ arrival would be apparent first be a heavenly scent.” This is consistent with our own studies which have found that scent is the fastest acting of all the senses, providing a five second advantage in a new experience before the other senses kick in.

The science of scent

There’s scientific rigour backing up the art of finding character through scent. Alan R. Hirsch MD, founder of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, did a comparative study, administering personality tests to 18,631 people and comparing the results to the participants’ aroma preferences. “It’s basically like a Rorschach test using odor preferences,” he said, adding that one can understand someone better if you know what they like in terms of scent, as if a fingerprint. Also, most of us understand that we have scents that suit us, which an event at London store Selfridge’s demonstrated by encouraging visitors to find a scent that matched their own personalities.

So develop your own scent in tandem with your own character, and it will become a part of your own character – perhaps even your signature. As for Emma Stone – it turns out that she is the face of Louis Vuitton’s fragrance campaigns. “Fragrance is absolutely to do with emotion, so it’s useful to investigate.” 

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