When Communicating Scents

november 018

written Julia Ahtijainen
illustrated Gary Chew

A friend of mine, who wishes that one day I’d change my field – “start doing something serious and stop wasting my talent and time” wrote me:

“I was thinking the other day that I really don’t like any perfume per se... All of them are just too damn strong... If they are supposed to enhance the person, they should never overpower them, and it seems that they always do. Too much lipstick for a pig... but still a pig.”


My friend verbalized pretty clearly how I sometimes feel about my job. Communication is a weird field. It’s something in between politics (one has to be always polite and politically correct), babysitting (taking care of the journalists and explaining multiple times the importance of social media, the needed cheesy actions and press gifts to the owners or the creators of the brands), and style (you kind of a need to look and sound and be an extension of a brand, otherwise you might lose some loyalty points from both sides of the business). And then – how do you measure the results in between these three? The blood, sweat, and tears one invested in a couple of nice, sometimes forced, words and meetings. The time that’s been wasted or invested?

But I’m not a pig, neither do I like to use too much of a lipstick. I’m a pretty honest and unfortunately for this field a pretty direct lady. And, I don’t like pigs, neither eating pork... unless it’s a symbolic ‘prosciutto crudo’and a night-out with my Italian friends.

“Pig” is a word that smells. A word that has multiple meanings and is heavy in many cultures, banned within some religions. Italian historian Roberto Finzi in his book called “L’Onesto Porco” (trans. “honest pig”) explains “the meaning of pig” from a cultural, religious and linguistic point of view, and funnily in Italian the worst cursings begin always with a word “porco”, which means also “dirty”. Though, the smell of the meat isn’t always delightful and despite the growing trend of vegetarianism, most of the people in the world still eat pork.

Most of the animals become “dirty” when domesticated, while in nature they’re perceived as they are. In this case – anything and everything can become a sign. And here opens up a Pandora box full of the daily struggles of a semiotician trapped in product-related communications.

I’ve been accused of being too opinionated in this field... Yet, if a parfume“per fumum” means “through smoke”, one can easily become volatile while communicating. To understand a phenomenon, a person or a sign, one has to create types, detect similarities and differences. Put the subject into a system. Into a frame, so that it cannot escape, cannot fade away. There is no reason behind the plain abstraction, an empty expression, a delusion while communicating scents. Michelangelo wrote that the greatest danger for all of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it. And one should always aim high.
Communication in perfumery is like leading blind people from the high. Leading them with passion and honesty, at least in my case. Here, I’m talking about the artistic, truthful and humble way of communicating a scent, taking pride in a communication of outstanding masterpieces.


Applied semiotics is ultimately a creative act which helps to communicate and aim high. It involves sculpting one’s tools (frameworks) to make them fit for purpose and applying them correctly to a phenomena. The perfumer judges odors in terms of quality, intensity & duration of perceptibility (volatility). Scent is an entity. Communication of a scent requires the same effort of imagination needed for creation. In order to do this, some sort of power of imagination is required too.

There is probably a frustrated novelist inside many semioticians and once in this field one needs to know how to write, but more important – one needs to know how to read. Reading is a technique not only acquiring knowledge but also for sharpening insight and critical powers. Looking at and comparing the possible oppositions and similarities, reworks, copies and traces.

Semiotic work tends to be more akin to detective work. It requires a need to be provocative. Semiotic theory fragments work well as hooks upon which to hang one’s thinking. Being a “culture vulture” in this case is an advantage and pop culture knowledge is absolutely vital to survive.

The Main Characters or Our (Semiotic) Environment are:

SPEED = messages, responses, feedback, information, execution, rigor, chronicle
CLUTTER = ideas, content, books, music, events, choices, pattern detection
UNPREDICTABILITY = accountability, flexibility, constant changes
DISTRACTION = information overload, concentration, mindfulness
FRAGMENTATION = the niches, subcultures, the big picture, cultural sensitivity
IDEOLOGY = critical thinking, competing, changing ideologies

Now, when I washed away all the possible lipstick hues and revealed the “dirty way” of reading and analyzing the communication of a scent, I shall mention also the style, the taste... or let’s say the intuition. Our sense of smell is indisputably primal: a seat of powerful memory, a scent is an immediate recall and recognition. The most ancient part of our neuroanatomy, the archipallium – is our primitive reptilian brain. Hence – there’s no way to complete any perfume culture detective project or job without an intuition being involved. And one of the best definitions for intuition I found in the field of perfumery.

“Intuition is not a miracle; it is a flame which is sparked only if the necessary amounts of knowledge, experience, reflection, and meditation are available. Perfumery schooling calls for patience, attention, and perseverance.”
– Edmond Rodnitska