The scent of adventure and sensuality

Image of Fabienne Hübener
Fabienne Hübener

How can you measure the feelings a perfume evokes? isi Senior Manager Sven Henneberg and an international team of researchers assessed three different methodologies that measure unconscious, spontaneous emotional responses (implicit tests).

Their conclusion: All three techniques are promising. The Implicit Reaction Test in particular seems to be suitable for measuring feelings and reveals differences between fragrances. But the team also warns: "The implicit measurement of feelings opens up a broad field in consumer research. However, the interpretation of the data and methods must be done carefully and requires a solid scientific foundation.


For a quick overview of the pro and cons of implicit methods download our one pager!

Pros and Cons of Implicit Methods



Making emotional responses measurable

At a recent Symposium organized by the European Sensory Network in Pangborn, Sven Henneberg and colleagues from Firmenich, Coty, Mèrieux and HCD compared various methods that make it easier to distinguish the participants’ perception of different perfumes. The focus was on the question: How can we measure emotional responses triggered by perfumes? This question is of interest not only to perfume manufacturers, but to all companies that offer products in which scents play a key role. These can be applied to detergents and deodorants as well as car seats and shoe polish. Fragrances play a decisive role - often unconsciously – as to whether we like a product or not.


Geruchsproben für die Parfum-Studie

Odor strips are passed around during the Pangborn sensory science conference in Edinburgh.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear to researchers that the assessment "I like the product" or "I don't like it" does not cover the entire range of responses that determines the success of a product. Not only the liking, but also the feelings triggered by the product - or the fragrance - flow into the buying behavior of consumers.

What we feel, however, is often not clear enough even to ourselves. The scientific investigation of feelings therefore presents researchers with a particular challenge. Measuring feelings is a complex field in which experts from psychology, consumer research, neuroscience and statistics work together to arrive at reliable results.

The research team covered all the relevant disciplines, namely implicit reaction time, biometrics, and semantic priming, and decided to conduct some of the planned experiments in the lab and the remaining Implicit reaction time test directly in front of the critical eyes of colleagues at the 2019 Pangborn Sensory Science conference in Edinburgh.

Heartbeat, facial movements, reaction times - the tracking of emotions

In July 2019, Sven Henneberg and his fellow researchers stood in a conference room and handed out scent strips of two well-known perfumes to the participants in the audience, Nomade and Pop. According to the respective manufacturers, Nomade elicits adventure, while Pop stands for sensuality. The conference participants took a quick sniff of the strips. Immediately their facial expressions changed. "Ugh, I don't like it at all," says one participant, "mmh, sensual," says another.

The reactions can be measured not only through words, but also - and more directly - through physical changes. The company involved in the study, HCD Research from New Jersey, USA, specializes in measuring such psychophysiological reactions. As part of the study, the HCD team examined changes in heart rate, heart rate variability, galvanic skin response and facial muscle activity in response to the two perfumes. If, for example, the heart starts beating faster, the hands become moist and the smile muscle is active, this is an indication of positive arousal. Earlier studies were able to show, for example, that the change in skin conductivity sometimes provided a better prediction of the market success of a product than the statements of the consumers questioned. Again, what we feel sometimes has not had a chance to crystalize into words, the visceral response being quicker.



Electrodes can measure the movement of facial muscles.


The faster the reaction, the stronger the connection

Sven Henneberg and the research team approached the measurement of emotions with two further methods: semantic priming and implicit reaction time.

Semantic priming traditionally describes the following process: If we perceive a word such as "happiness", then the processing of this word (the so-called primer) also influences the processing of the following word. If the second word is "pleasure", people who have previously heard "happiness" react to it more quickly than people who have previously heard "unhappiness".

Instead of a word, the team used a scent (one of each of the two perfumes) as a primer in this experiment. The study leader then presented the participants with a series of words that were associated with feelings. The experimental participants were then asked to indicate on a monitor which words matched the scent. The assumption of the research team was that the reaction time when clicking on the selected feeling word would be shorter if there was a strong automatic association between the feeling word and the scent.

Happy, confident, free?

Implicit reaction time is a method that isi employees know particularly well. "We have been researching the topic of implicit methods for many years, because we want to know what happens beneath the tip of the iceberg, i.e., in the nonconscious, when consumers encounter products," explains Sven Henneberg. This part of the study was therefore led by him.

The Implicit Reaction Time method is based on the knowledge that people react more quickly to something if the associated associations are strong. For example, a short reaction time can provide information about whether Apple is more likely to be associated with the fruit or with a smartphone.

This part of the study took place during the Pangborn Conference in Edinburgh. Sven Henneberg handed eighty-six workshop participants a scent strip with the perfume Pop or Nomade. The participants sniffed the scent and then, under time pressure, tapped on their smartphone the feeling word that most closely matched the scent. The feeling words on this list included words like happy, confident, sensual, and free. The faster they associated the scent of a perfume with a word, they hypothesized, the more strongly ingrained the association with the perfume. "This method is simple, fun, and invites spontaneous response. There is no need to reflect for a long time," emphasizes Sven Henneberg.

08 filling out the online questionnaire

Quick and convenient - an implicit test also works on a smartphone.


Implicit tests reveal hidden differences

So, what does a comparison of the three methods used in this study tell us? All three methods are so-called implicit tests. In contrast to explicit tests, which give the test subjects time to think, they are intended to provide information about more nonconscious and spontaneous processes and thus possibly reveal hidden assessments and preferences.

In fact, the classic explicit test, which asks how much the perfume is liked on a scale of 0 - 7, revealed no significant differences between the perfumes.

Here, however, the implicit tests used here showed differences in terms of emotional responses. For example, the scent of Pop led to an increase in heart rate and greater activation of the smile muscle. Both responses are indicative of Pop receiving greater attention and a more positive emotional response than Nomade. Not only biometric analysis, but also semantic priming revealed differences. Thus, the experiment participants responded significantly faster to emotion words when they sniffed Pop. Since all feeling words were positive, this is further evidence that Pop is more strongly associated with positive feelings. The Implicit Reaction Time Test conducted by isi also revealed which perfume came out on top, because Pop was more strongly associated with feelings and specifically with feelings deemed nostalgic and calming.

The Implicit Reaction Time Test provided a more differentiated picture of the two perfumes, clearer than semantic priming and biometric measurement. "This simple test is therefore well suited for measuring implicit reactions," reports Sven Henneberg.



Sven Henneberg is presenting the results shortly after the experiment at the Pangborn conference. 

The (cautious) measurement of emotions

In summary, the study shows that implicit tests have the potential to measure spontaneous emotional reactions to products. This opens up an important field in consumer research. Not only can emotional reactions to fragrances be measured, but this testing can be applied to packaging, brands, and advertising as well. However, as the research team points out, measuring emotions is such a complex field that interpreting the data should be done with great caution. "The discussions during the study have once again made me realize how important it is to be able to draw on an interdisciplinary team when dealing with this topic in order to avoid misleading conclusions," explains Sven Henneberg. The findings of this study are already being planned into new research projects. The aim is to further reinforce what we have learned about measuring emotional responses in consumer research and secure it on a scientific footing.

- - -

The text is based on the publication:

Effect of context on fine fragrance-elicited emotions: Comparison of three experimental methodologies. Christelle Porcherot, Sophie Raviot-Derrien, Marie-Pierre Beague, Sven Henneberg, Michelle Niedziela, Kathryn Ambroze, Jean A. McEwan. Food Quality and Preference, Volume 95, 2022


You want to know more?

Alexandra Kraus, isi Associate Director and expert for implicite methods will send you the book chapter "Measuring implicit associations in food-related consumer research". Alexandra A. Kraus, Betina Piqueras-Fiszman in: Methods in Consumer Research, Volume 2, Editors: G. Ares, P. Varela, Elsevier 2018

Contact her via e-mail: or download our summary via the button below

Pros and Cons of Implicit Methods


- - -

Photos: Fabienne Hübener


Blog posts

Related Articles.

Image of Fabienne Hübener
Fabienne Hübener

Overview: Sensory Profiling & Corona

How isi succeeded in managing a nearly seamless transition from onsite Lab testing to in-home...

Read more
Image of Marie-Theres Kerl
Marie-Theres Kerl

Sensory Lab vs Real-life Testing

Which is the most suitable location for your test? 


Read more