The futility of perfume sales copy

I’m going to tell you a little story about a perfume that made me laugh out loud. It begins at Basenotes, where, through the kind actions of the endlessly generous perfume community, one can sometimes obtain samples as part of swaps and ’round robin’ parcels that were not asked for; just added for funsies. As part of such a parcel, I received a few Bond No9 samples a few years ago. Prior to sniffing them, I decided to look for the official descriptions of the scents (although I don’t always do this – depends if you want your imagination and olfaction to be primed by what you see and read). In this case, I did.

One of the samples was of a perfume called New Haarlem, described by Bond No9 like so:

Northbound with the A-train to cabaret-jazz club-central… a scent so brazen it was barely captured in a bottle. Molten liquefied swank with androgynous appeal, to wear after midnight, in — and on — hot-spots. Notes: Lavender, bergamot, green leaves, coffee, cedarwood, amber, vanilla, tonka, patchouli

Interesting, interesting. Swank, you say? A brazen, wild scent to wear after midnight, you say? The image that goes with it suggests a smoky jazz club in New York.

How do we smell things, exactly? I don’t mean the theory of olfaction (which is still debated about and not entirely set in stone), but how do we experience it? Well, we smell largely based on three things 1) how our olfactory genes have been expressed in each individual, 2) how our scent associations, starting from our mother’s diet while pregnant with us and continuing to develop through life experiences and cultural influences, shape our scent preferences and 3) how we are manipulated by colour, words, packaging, bottles, brand associations and circumstances in which we experience the smell.

The first two are usually the strongest of the three influences. Especially the second. So, to me, New Haarlem:

Finnish cinnamon and cardamom buns served with a cup of coffee, via

Finnish cinnamon and cardamom buns served with a cup of coffee, via

When I smelled the perfume, I burst out laughing. Jazz club in New York? A dangerous, androgynous midnight predator; out to sex you up? Naah. It was “kahvi ja pulla” (Finnish cinnamon and cardamom bun and coffee); the safest, most common, most pedestrian and comforting snack; the Finnish equivalent of tea and a biccie.

The overbearing impression is of sitting in a Finnish coffee shop – a very old-fashioned one at that – and smelling not only the bun you are about to take a bite out of, but the percolator coffee machine behind the counter, left on for a couple of hours too many with the coffee starting to burn and turn bitter. I see the wooden chairs and the gingham-style tablecloths. The metal wire stand with red-top tabloid newspapers by the till. The jugs of cream and milk by the counter.

When the scent developed, I started to think that maybe the coffee had been served with milk after all and I’d spilled some of it on my blouse. Maybe it had even been a new-fangled cappuchino? Maybe the cafe had been one of the modern ones in Helsinki. I was getting whiffs of that spilled-cappuchino for a couple of hours. The coffee note persists throughout the scent’s lifetime and the drydown warms into something still spicy, but less foody.

Did I mind that the scent didn’t match the – no doubt – carefully crafted marketing message and sales copy? Did I heck; when I got to visit New York, I made a point of popping into the Bond No9 boutique (even though I was clearly not their target market, judging by the coolness with which the sales assistants there treated me) and bought myself a big bottle of New Haarlem. Now I wear it when I get homesick for Finnish cafes and want to wear something that makes me smile.

Bond No9 boutique detail in New York

This shows that while it’s impossible to effectively sell a perfume without some kind of sales copy (or is it? At least for as long we won’t be able to smell through our computers it is); sales people shouldn’t worry if the customer’s impression of the scent is as far from the intended image as a Finnish coffee shop is from a jazz club in New York. This is also why cultural nose-calibration is quite a key issue in international perfumery; why perfumery schools are keen to get people from the target markets they are interested in (because what smells “fresh” in the USA might smell repulsive in China, or what smells like Christmas in Germany might smell of the dentist in the States). Is it possible to really influence people with perfume sales copy? Absolutely. But only when the copy has enough cross-over with the target audience’s imagination and scent associations – and the perfume itself.

If you get your perfume sales copy right, it will match the perfume and its target customers’ expectations fairly closely and if you get your sales and marketing team right, they will approach any views that differ with humour and honesty.

Our blood cells have odourant receptors – what could this mean?

Blood cells by Bruce Wetzel and Harry Schaefer via Wikimedia Commons

Blood cells by Bruce Wetzel and Harry Schaefer via Wikimedia Commons

There is still so much we don’t understand about how our sense of smell works and a recent report on the findings of Peter Schieberle, Ph.D., suggests things are even weirder than we thought.

Our team recently discovered that blood cells – not only cells in the nose – have odorant receptors,” said Schieberle. “In the nose, these so-called receptors sense substances called odorants and translate them into an aroma that we interpret as pleasing or not pleasing in the brain. But surprisingly, there is growing evidence that also the heart, the lungs and many other non-olfactory organs have these receptors. And once a food is eaten, its components move from the stomach into the bloodstream. But does this mean that, for instance, the heart ‘smells’ the steak you just ate? We don’t know the answer to that question.”

What does this mean? We don’t know yet. Why would our blood cells need odorant receptors? Does this discovery offer any insight into why our flavour preferences differ?

The implications for flavourists and food technologists could be huge. The way we perceive foods depends on not only flavour and olfactory signals, but on texture, temperature and colour of the foods.

For example, baked beans and beans in foods like chili provide a “full,” rich mouth-feel. Adding the component of beans responsible for this texture to another food could give it the same sensation in the mouth, Schieberle explained. Natural components can also interact with substances in foods to create new sensations.

This research was presented on the 7th of April at the 245th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical society.

Read the Science Daily report here.

Is your perfume Elvis or Belvis?

Elvis and two impersonatorsBack at the birth of modern perfumery (which is generally accepted to be the 19th century when materials such as vanillin, coumarin and aldehydes became available) it was easy to mesmerise people with exotic names and fantastical stories about perfumes. The world of perfumery was alchemical, secretive, competitive – and any information released to the public domain was likely to contain deliberate red herrings. Analysing the competition depended on early chemical testing techniques, gossip and the nose.

Since it is not possible to patent a smell (although people have tried), perfume success relied on a good name and a unique product – until someone managed to corner the market by creating an improved variation of your theme. And of course this is healthy and no different from what has happened in art and music over centuries; copy, twist, mix, renew, and regurgitate the popular themes of the day ad nauseaum until the perfect mix of brave risk-taking and talent creates a new trend. So the oriental category was born of Western imagination of what “the Orient” smelled like and the fougere category from a theme created around an artist’s impression of fern. Cultural and political themes have influenced trends but the availability of new raw materials has had just as much (if not more) influence on where our noses have been led and what each decade has smelled of.

Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry; the “oven”-technique that can analyse forensic evidence or, if correctly calibrated, the chemical signature of perfumes, changed the game. Perfumers had to throw their red herrings into the juice and hope that competitors wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exacly how they had put the scent together. Nevertheless, the ability to see the perfumes in their underwear allowed the chemists and perfumers in other manufacturing facilities to easily estimate what they would look like naked.

It became possible to colour in the photocopy of a photocopy, steal a bit from here, a bit from there – and maybe add a slight twist or a dollop of a new synthetic material, and fast perfume is now just as real as fast fashion – fleeting, copied, cheaply made under enormous pressure to keep generating something new, new, NEW. The economic pressures from shareholders of big corporations and increasingly strangulating safety regulations are making it really difficult for the mainstream perfumers to do anything but a passable Elvis impersonation. Maybe with a different pair of plastic sunglasses.

Taking a calculated risk and trying to set a new trend used to be more common in perfumery. An over-dose of a new material, or a totally new, bold accord – but now it seems that the indie perfumers and niche brands are the only ones brave enough to experiment. I find it frustrating that the “industry” often reacts with cool detachment at best, or sneering contempt at worst, towards the success of some classically untrained perfumers but then doesn’t manage to support genuine risk-taking and innovation within its own domain. If the classically trained perfumers aren’t allowed to experiment and aren’t given the time or the budget to create a totally new trend (unless they run off and start their own brand) then what will happen to mainstream perfumery? Will it keep going increasingly towards fast fragrance, novelty value and functional fragrances or is a bit of a renaissance long overdue?