Yankee Candle:
Making Scents of Emotions

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Ever get a whiff of something that hits you with a powerful memory out of the blue? Maybe snickerdoodle cookies, fresh-cut grass, or even a scent you can’t quite put a name to. No matter the specifics, something about a scent from the past seems to transport your mind back to your grandma’s kitchen or childhood backyard more vividly than memories triggered by other senses.

Human brain structures support this more powerful connection between smell and memory. Touch, taste, sight, and hearing all send sensory information through the thalamus – the ‘relay station’ of the brain – which then directs it to other areas for processing. Smell, which developed before the other sensesX, bypasses the thalamus and sends information directly to processing in the olfactory bulb. That area is directly connected to the hippocampus, which is important in processing memory, and to the amygdala, which is important in processing emotionXX.

This direct sensation-to-processing path might also explain why humans struggle to speak about smell compared to other sensory experiences. Consider trying to describe what a pine tree looks like to someone who has never seen one. “It’s green, conical, about 25 feet tall, and has branches every foot or so up the trunk with long needles instead of leaves.” Solid description. Now imagine describing the same pine only by scent. “It, uh…. It smells… piney?”

Scientific studies have demonstrated this difficulty. Compared to written responses to visual or lexical (written words) stimuli, responses to smells were shorter in length. However, they contained significantly more emotional and memory-based descriptors - pretty good support for the “emotional but hard to describe” ideaXX.

Knowing scent and emotion are closely linked but difficult to communicate, it’s interesting see how companies that deal with fragrances market them. Many businesses spend a lot of time and money on smell, from detergents to perfumes to clothing companies. Yet almost none make smell the primary focus when branding or marketingX.

But there is one company focused on selling scents, and specifically selling scents by tying them into emotions and memories. And they’re so good at it that they’re pulling in hundreds of millions in revenue selling a product that really was made functionally irrelevant over a century ago.

That company is Yankee Candle.

If you think about it, their whole business is selling memories and emotions packed into glass jars. They proudly claim that a Yankee Candle scent “brings you back to a memory... transports you to a special place”X. What else would a company with products called “Cozy by the Fire™,” “Home For The Holidays®,” and “Wedding Day® be selling?

Each candle has a few attributes that give us an idea of what Yankee is trying to communicate, what emotion they’re attempting to tap into. Take “Blue Summer Sky” for example - a candle for something that in reality doesn’t have a particular scent.

The candle’s name is the obvious attribute connecting the scent to an emotion or ideaX. Then there’s a description that elaborates on the title, often extravagantly so. Next, for most candles, they dive even deeper and list individual ‘notes’ for different stages of the scent. In their words, “[the] top note is the initial impression of the fragrance, middle note is the main body of the scent and base is its final impression”X.

Finally, there’s an important attribute for every candle that’s not in writing... the color. Because studies have shown that color can help us recognize scents, and that we like scents we can recognizeX, color is an important part of creating a candle that has a cohesive idea (and that sells)XX. And it’s this idea - looking at candles that sell as indicators of emotions or memories that resonate with consumers - that can be particularly interesting.

But why just look at individual candles? Might we learn something about the way American consumers feel, remember, and think by looking for trends in all 100+ candles for sale on Yankee Candle’s websiteX?

For example, there are 15+ candles that refer to the beachX in their name or description. On its face that might not be surprising, but think about the actual experience of being on or near the beach. Frankly, while there are some nice scents like to be found on ocean shores, it’s not always a place full of the most enjoyable fragrances. One could, reasonably, associate the seaside primarily with the smells of sunscreen, sweat, and the occasional rotting fish.

Unsurprisingly, “Rotting Fish” doesn’t seem to have made the cut for Yankee Candle’s shelves. None of the aforementioned unpleasant but accurate smells have, indicating that scent accuracy isn’t the top priority in buying or making candles. Consumers don’t want a candle that really smells like the beach - they want to be reminded of the last time they took a tropical vacation. That reminder doesn’t come from scent alone, it comes from a combination of scent, name, and colorX that evokes that memory/feeling.

Yankee Candle, therefore, isn’t just recreating the most recognizable scents that they can — their job is to find the memories and feelings consumers enjoy the most and then figure out the best combination of candle attributes to elicit them, including scent. So, that nearly 1 out of every 10 Yankee Candles is related to the beach isn’t proof that beaches smell good, it’s an indication that the seashore is something emotionally significant to a lot of Americans.

With that in mind, what about all 30+ candles that have to do with flowersX? It’s pretty universally accepted that flowers smell nice, however it could definitely be argued that they have a wide range of reasonable possible associations from very positive (springtime, weddings, your sweetie-pie) to very negative (funerals, allergies). That 30+% of Yankee Candles are flower-related doesn’t just confirm that flowers smell nice, it also signals that those possible positive associations outweigh the possible negatives for most candle consumers.

We don’t just need to look at one subset of candles, however, we also can use candles to compare multiple different subsets. Who says you can’t compare apples and oranges?

Maybe apples and oranges don’t get compared because there’s not much to be learned from comparing them. A similar number of candles Yankee sells are related to apples and oranges. What if we tried comparing slightly more abstract ideas?

Comparing flavors yields a slightly more interesting result: with “sweet” being a more prevalent candle than “spice” and “salt.” Does this possibly indicate consumers prefer sweets to spices?

Having divided candles by flavors also provides an interesting opportunity to cross the senses. As previously mentioned, color is crucial in keeping a candle’s concept cohesive. This means we can literally look at the colors associated with tastes associated with smells - a candle synesthesia of sorts.

Even if you’ve never considered which color you would assign to different tastes, nothing here is too surprising. Sweet has the lighter, more ‘fruity’ colors like a berry red, while spicy has a more burnt orange and cinnamon red. The colors for salt show some colors related to the flavor - caramel and margaritas - but also indicate that a decent portion of these candles are actually referring to the salty air of the seaside.

Why stop there? We could also look at all of the colors present in all candles, to see which colors are over- or under-represented in general.

Take a look at all of the candles laid out on a circular spectrum (the full spectrum included for reference). Reds and oranges are by far the most prevalent colors, followed by darker shades of blue. Greens are present, but more on the yellow-green end and not teals or blue-greens. Bright pinks and violets are the other neglected hues, hardly showing up at all.

Could this tell us something? Maybe there are more smells or emotions associated with reds, oranges, and dark blues than teals or pinks?

Want to draw your own conclusions? Here’s your chance to take a look at few different ways to break down Yankee Candles.

So, that’s how Yankee describes and markets their candles. But what about the scents themselves? This is where the “Notes” for each candle are useful - they break down the overall fragrance into quantifiable facets for us to explore.

Again, notes are chunked into top (first impression), middle (main scent), and base (last impression) sections - very similar to how wine experts describe the attack, evolution, and finish of a good vintage. Most candles list at least one note for each stage, and many list multiple at each stage. This allows us to examine, explore, and compare candles without using the name and description as intermediaries, essentially offering a more direct comparison of candles based on smell alone. It also gives us a glimpse into the popularity of individual scents.

Let’s take a look at the most common notes for each ‘chunk.’

Starting at the “Top” notes, the most apparent trend is that almost all of the most common notes are related to foods, specifically fruits and berries. This makes sense for a lot of the candles present - obviously “Sicilian Lemon” should be forward with the “Lemon Zest” scent - but also helps connect some candles with different concepts but similar scents. Who would have guessed that the fragrances “Soft Blanket™” and “Midnight Lilac” would both start with blackberry?

Notes also help us understand the smells Yankee Candle has attached to more abstract concepts. “Autumn Gathering™,” “Home Sweet Home®,” and “Summer Wish™” all apparently involve apples, while a surprising number of candles associated with the holidays are related to the smell of oranges.

Curious what “Ozone” smells like? Apparently that’s the smell of an approaching storm, and the fact that “Storm Watch®” and “Meadow Showers” are both in this group supports that. Funny how a pretty universally known smell can have a pretty unknown name.

If the theme of the Top notes was fruits and berries, the Mid notes (the body of the scent) are probably characterized by aromatic plants – flowers and some spices. The color trends we saw when looking at candles related to “spice” seem to continue through to the note groups for “Cinnamon” and “Clove”, compared to the color of, say, “Eucalyptus” notes.

There are some surprises to be found here as well. Apparently “Sweet Strawberry” has peach notes along with its strawberry scent, and the aforementioned “Blue Summer Sky” smells of jasmine.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is found in the Base notes. Apparently a quarter of all candles leave the scent of “Musk” as their final impression. While you’re welcome to research the source and harvesting process of musk, suffice to say it’s probably not the scent you expected “Fresh Cut Roses” to close withX. However, in perfumery as well as apparently candle-making, musk is a very common base note to bring “depth and solidity” to the scent and to boost the top and mid notesX. Perfumery also lends credence to our earlier observations that citrus is a common top note and flowers are often a mid note.

Beyond musk, the remaining Base notes are somewhat all-over-the-place. Vanilla makes sense - it’s a smell universally regarded as pleasant - but fossilized tree resin (amber) and a reportedly delicious but illegal ingredient in United States restaurants (tonka bean) also make appearances. And then, amidst these exotic and high end fragrances sits possibly my favorite note… butter.

Leaving the levels of notes aside, we can look at the most common notes in Yankee Candles across top, mid, and base, to get a sense of the scents most popular overall. Musk still leads the way, with vanilla unsurprisingly right behind. Beyond those two, a smattering of the more popular notes from the levels we just looked at.

Some candles’ notes are a bit surprising. What’s a “Luau Party” without a hint of…. apple in the air? “A Calm & Quiet Place” and “Wedding Day®” – pretty much the opposite of a calm and quiet place — interestingly both have notes of jasmine and sandalwood.

There you have it, a deep dive into Yankee Candles. Whether or not you buy into the idea that the connection between smells and emotions implies an emotional significance to candles for sale, it’s interesting to look at such a wide and varied product line finely tuned to connect with consumers on an emotional level. And if you ask me, Yankee Candle is peerless in their ability to make scents of emotions.

Candle information came from yankeecandle.com.

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