Nose for Nostalgia

by | Sep 13, 2018 | Branding, Marketing

Observations on scent-induced memories

September 16 is World Play-Doh Day. I’m not sure how one properly commemorates this special day, but I am certain of one thing: Everyone recognizes that distinctive Play-Doh aroma. In fact, the scent is so recognizable that Hasbro managed to secure a trademark for it earlier this year.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release.

The nostalgia-inducing smell of PLAY-DOH compound becomes one of few active scent trademarks in the U.S.

PAWTUCKET, R.I.–(BUSINESS WIRE) –May 18, 2018– Today, Hasbro (NASDAQ: HAS) announces that the iconic PLAY-DOH scent, known and loved by fans around the world, is officially recognized by the United States Patent and Trademark Office as a registered trademark of the brand. The trademarked scent, which Hasbro formally describes as a unique scent formed through the combination of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough, makes the PLAY-DOH brand one of the few active and certainly most famous scent trademarks in the country.

The description reads like the back of a wine bottle! Before reading this, it never occurred to me that you even could trademark a scent, and apparently it’s not an easy thing to do. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, “The amount of evidence required to establish that a scent or fragrance functions as a mark is substantial.” That explains why there are only a handful of registered scent marks, with the first one not being issued until 1990.

If it’s so difficult to get a scent trademarked, this Play-Doh thing must be a big deal. What’s up with that?

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As fate would have it, there happened to be a container of Play-Doh sitting on my desk. (In fact, everyone in the office received one during our most recent company meeting. What can I say? It’s a fun place to work.) I opened the can, inhaled and was immediately transported to my childhood – specifically, to the floor of my cousin’s bedroom, with red “spaghetti” drying on the tile. Whoa! That little yellow tub is actually a time machine!

This observation just cried out for more research, so I donned my white lab coat. (Figuratively, of course. Dammit, Jim! I’m a traffic manager, not a scientist.)

I asked each of my test subjects – um, co-workers – to open the container and describe the scent. Nearly everyone quickly said, “It smells like Play-Doh.” That’s it. Just “Play-Doh.” Inarguably it’s a unique fragrance. When prompted to be more specific, responses ranged from “childhood” to “childhood in a cup.” (Side note: One participant responded with “Home Depot”; perhaps that’s an experiment for another day.) Most surprising to me were the faraway looks that accompanied the unsolicited anecdotes that ensued. It became clear to me that I was not riding alone in that yellow time machine.

When asked if they could discern any of the trademark descriptors (vanilla, cherry, wheat dough), everyone had a tough time. None of us can easily get past “eau de Play-Doh.” Was it hard-wired in our brains during childhood?

I did some quick research and was fascinated by articles about “olfactory-evoked memory,” “odor-induced nostalgia” and “the smell brain.”

An article in Neurology (1) about odor-induced memories states that “people born from 1900-1930 were more likely to describe natural smells such as trees, hay, horses, pines, and meadows whereas those born from 1930-1980 were more likely to describe artificial smells that made them nostalgic for their childhood. These smells included Play-Doh, PEZ, SWEETARTS, Vicks VapoRub, and jet fuel.” This all seems logical to me, except for the jet fuel. I’d love to know what that’s all about.

Moreover, scents – more than sights or sounds – have the power to evoke immediate, emotional responses in people. A global research study found that 8 in 10 men and 9 in 10 women relive vivid memories in response to a specific scent (2).

All of this leads up to scent marketing.

Indeed, research shows that scent-based marketing can achieve results. For example, the same product displayed in a scented room can result in an 84 percent increase in purchase likelihood as compared with that same product displayed in an unscented room (3). Another study showed that retail environments with a scent can yield an increase in profits of up to 40 percent (4).

Carmakers realized long ago that the smell of their vehicles is important in the consumer’s decision to purchase a particular vehicle (5). And several manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz and Citroën, now go beyond the “new car smell” and offer different scents for deployment in their vehicles for customers’ ongoing pleasure and well-being.

But there is a reason why comparatively few brands use scents in their marketing. The power of individual scents to trigger emotions and memories is rivaled only by the difficulty of using scents consistently across a large group of people.

People have differing levels of sensitivity to ambient scents, with some being attracted by an ambient scent, others repelled. Moreover, the perception of a scent as positive, neutral or negative depends on a number of variables about the person and their environment. Thus, the same scent can trigger very different reactions depending on the context (e.g., the smell of pungent cheese in the presence of a bowl of spaghetti versus in a crowded subway compartment).

In one study, the scents of vanilla and spicy honey were used in the women’s and men’s departments of a store. Sales nearly doubled when the vanilla scent was used in the women’s department and the spicy honey scent was used in the men’s department. However, when the scents were switched, sales actually declined relative to no scent conditions (6).

Using scent in marketing can be rewarding, but it pays to do your homework and research the best scents and their strength for the brand, context and target audience. Of course, if your brand is targeted at young children, as Play-Doh is, you only need distinctiveness, as scents only really acquire subjective value over time.


  1. Blumenthal H.J. The Smell Brain. Neurology 2011; 77:92.
  2. Lindstrom, M. Brand Sense: Build Powerful Brands Through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight and Sound. 2005; NY: Free Press.
  3. Hirsch A.R. Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding. Advances in Consumer Research 1992;19:390-395.
  4. Gobe, M. Emotional Branding: The New Paradigm for Connecting Brands to People. 2001; NY: Allworth.
  5. Lempert, P. Being the Shopper: Understanding the Buyer’s Choice. 2002; NY: Wiley.
  6. Sprangenberg, E.R.; Sprott, D.E.; Grohmann, B. and Tracy, D.L. Gender-Congruent Ambient Scent Influences on Approach and Avoidance Behaviors in a Retail Store. Journal of Business Research 2006; 59 (12), 1281-1287.
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Susan Bolander
For more than 30 years, Susan has coordinated efforts in various fields, allowing team members to focus on what they do the best. She has an extensive background in producing print collateral and advertising for clients in the travel, automotive and financial sectors and has provided field logistics and reporting for geotechnical and paleontological research projects.

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