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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

Vodacom swindled out of more than R24m worth of Apple...

A former employee allegedly ran an intricate scam to steal 8700 phones from the cellular giant

Come what may, the UIF will pay

The fund – the main safety net for unemployed workers – will run at an almost R20-billion deficit

More top stories

We will find resources to ensure the Zondo commission completes...

Justice Minister Ronald Lamola says his department will ensure the state capture commission is afforded the financial resources to complete its work, despite the treasury’s uncertainty

Covid-19 variant may protect people against reinfection and other variants,...

The 501Y.V2 strain produces strong antibodies, but it’s not known how long immunity lasts, so being vaccinated remains essential

Tobacco industry calls Dlamini-Zuma’s bid to appeal ban a...

The minister could spend the state’s money on fighting Covid-19 and cigarette cartels, tobacco manufacturers argue

Zondo commission: Glencore sold Optimum to portray me as a...

Former Eskom chief executive paints himself as the victim of a plot at the hands of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s former business associates
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…