We can't help getting a sugar rush whenever we enter a Lush storeWith shelves full of scented bubble bars and bath bombs, speakers blaring energetic pop music, fresh-faced sales assistants holding products up to customers’ noses and a cocktail of sugar rush-inducing aromas wafting out onto the pavement, a visit to one of Lush’s vibrant stores is an experience in its own right.

Opening their first brick-and-mortar store in 1996, Lush have built a reputation as one of the world’s most renowned creators of ethical, handmade, vegetarian cosmetic products – and for having the smelliest shops.

The Lush experience – sensory overload or clever marketing?

Your nose often knows there’s a Lush nearby before your eyes do. Their enormous range of aromatic products and frequent demonstrations by staff guarantee a sugar rush for your nostrils whenever you enter the vicinity.

Like a fragrant flower dipped in syrup, the smells streaming through the doorways of Lush’s shops are intense, feminine and sickly sweet. For some, this distinct aroma is the lasso that tugs them into the shop and entices money from their wallet. For others, one whiff is enough to make them cross to the other side of the road. Even Lush’s co-founder, Mark Constantine, admits the smell “is Marmite…people either love it or hate it.”

While the company doesn’t specify a target audience, there’s little doubt its duo-chromatic wooden store design, emoji-shaped bath bombs and witty taglines (“We were all born naked and the rest is swag”, for example) particularly appeal to the younger generations. The sugary ‘scent bubble’ around every store is just another tasty lure for kids, teens and young adults with a sweet tooth.

Changing tastes

It’s well known that with age comes the development of a more ‘sophisticated’ palate, be that our food or scent preferences. Gone are the days when we could eat three Cadbury Crème Eggs in a row and relish the inevitable sugar rush that came afterwards. As thirty- or forty-somethings, the thought of just one of those sickly Easter snacks is enough to make our stomachs turn.

At what point did our propensity to pick sweet scents and flavours change?

Young people prefer sugar rush-inducing scents

Science tells us there are definitive differences between the preferences of young people and adults. A review of 474 articles by Hoffman et al. (2016) revealed children and adolescents show a higher preference for sweet flavours and odours compared to adults. These include cherry, candy, strawberry, orange and apple – popular ingredients found in many adolescent-marketed perfumes and scented cosmetic products.

Herz’s (2003) study of more than a hundred women of varying ages revealed that teens show a strong preference for scents in the categories ‘sweet foods’ and ‘baked goods’. In contrast, 78% of women in their 20s, and around half of those in their 40s, 50s and 60s, reported flowers as their favourite smell.

While research into the effect of age on odour preferences prevails, there is mounting evidence to suggest declines in olfactory function might have something to do with it.

It’s all in the nose

As we add candles to our birthday cakes, the cells in our noses undergo some changes. Our olfactory cells – a patch of nerves found high up in the nose that connect directly to the brain – regenerate continuously throughout our life. It’s believed that, with age, this regeneration process diminishes and we’re left with reduced olfactory function. Around 25% of those aged 50 years or over were shown to have an impaired sense of smell.

Other research suggests changes in our ability to sniff out odours could be the result of certain genes switching on and off (ones which control specific olfactory receptors) at different points across our lifetime.

Why do young people prefer sweeter-smelling scents?

Learning to love

Okay, so we know our sense of smell gets worse over time but what about those sickly-sweet fragrances in particular? Why are teenagers happy to douse themselves in something that smells like it belongs in a vending machine, whereas older adults tend to reach for something muskier, fresher and sometimes a little spicy?

It could, in part, be down to the associations we form with certain scents.

According to Koster (2002), there are no innate preferences in olfaction – we learn to like (or dislike) particular smells. Things are a little different for our taste buds; research shows we have an inborn aversion to bitter tastes and a preference for sweet ones.

With regard to odours, babies essentially start with a blank slate. As they age and experience the world, they form cognitive links between the aromas they come across and emotions they feel at the time. Herz’s (2006) example of the ‘hospital smell’ is a great one – this infamous aroma is often disliked because of the negative associations we have to hospitals. In contrast, vanilla often has positive associations related to childhood memories, such as the pleasant sugar rush we get after an ice cream on holiday.

Vanilla scent can conjure up associated happy memories

Speaking to InStyle about why kids and teens have a soft spot for sweet things, Mark Knitowski, Senior Vice President of Product Innovations at Victoria’s Secret, explains “those sweet, sugary notes represent things they can relate to whether a place, time, or something they may enjoy eating,”.

More than a decade of formal education and countless dramatic news articles have taught adults that sugar is the enemy. We’ll have the occasional pain au chocolat for breakfast or sticky toffee pudding for dessert but generally, many of us try to limit the stuff. As we strengthen the negative associations between sweet foods and their corresponding aromas with an unhealthier lifestyle, it’s not surprising that our preferences for them tend to diminish.

Sugar rush scents – a roundup

It comes as little shock that teens list sweet, often food-related scents as their favourite more often than adults. Generally, whether it’s the result of varying olfactory function, genetics or the existence of positive associations, young people prefer sweet scents and companies with adolescent-targeted products or services would be wise to take advantage of this.

The ever-expanding world of multisensory retail has seen brick-and-mortar businesses capitalise on young peoples’ preference for sweet-as-pie scents, Lush being a great example of this.

While its intense-smelling stores may act as a deterrent for older generations, there’s little doubt the memorable sensory experience that customers are confronted with every time they enter one of Lush’s establishments has contributed, at least in part, to the company’s massive success amongst young people in particular.

If our sugar-filled blog has left you feeling hungry for more information about how you could incorporate multisensory elements like aromas into your business, why not get in touch with us?