Making Scents: Scent of a car named Maggie

This week I delivered a series of sessions as part of a sensorium, an experiential marketing programme for a luxury car brand.

In the early 1920s, car marketers in the United States launched annual model upgrades to convince car owners to buy new vehicles, even when the old model was working perfectly well. But powerhouse carmakers have moved on from this version of “planned obsolescence” to far more sophisticated and emotional ways of connecting with drivers.

The most sophisticated and subtle of these is smell. We all know the “new car smell”. It started as an environmental (naturally occurring) scent emitted from the materials used in the manufacture of a car cabin. A chemical and natural accord: leather seats, carpeting, wood, the plastic of the dashboard and various adhesives and sealants.

The scent is as synonymous with luxurious motors as clove and mint are with toothpaste. This has been harnessed in a new-car spray fragrance, bottled in the polish used to refresh leather and veneer interiors. The composition centres on castoreum (collected from the glands of beavers) and birch tar oil, formulated to mimic the smell of expensive upholstery.

Carmakers continue to innovate with scent. BMW opts for scenting their leather interiors in a signature fragrance called “shoe boutique”. Lexus, remaining Zen, decided to research scentless glues and introduce nanotechnology to the air conditioning unit to give a clean and odourless air – rather relying on the leather and wood interior.

An “Aha!” moment

What is it that makes us feel special in a car? I remember my grandfather’s Rolls Royce Silver Cloud – it smelled of the ridgeback panting on the passenger seat. I remember an old Beetle: it had a fabric roof with an elasticated curtain-rail doorframe. I can still smell the torn, dusty fabric and the bright yellow and brown plastic seats. Everyone learned to drive in the Beetle on a tar runway on the farm, and we called it the Concorde.

For me, the “Aha!” moment with cars, smell and emotion, happened at 25. I bought a 1971 MG MKII in British racing green with a wooden steering wheel. Her name was Maggie. The mornings were cool and when I slid behind the wheel and sniffed that first gust of black shoe-polish scent permeating from the leather. I felt grown-up and sophisticated.

All of the aspirational notions one has when you conjure a luxury car were in my heart. I’m not exaggerating: every time I smelled that, I felt proud and confident. I had always believed it was design and engineering that made one fall in love with a car. The idea that a scent can make one fall in love with a car at first felt backward. But hindsight is clarifying.

When I look within, at how I am still connected to the MG brand a decade later –and even the colour British racing green – it is linked to a lucid memory of the scent of Maggie. Now is an exciting time for cars and scents, because we can harness smell to tell a story about the beliefs of a brand or a product. We can share an emotional feeling and we can connect. And that is ultimately what we are looking for in a time of over-saturation: the comfort of finding a place to belong.

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