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.


5 thoughts on “The futility of perfume sales copy

  1. Dear Nukapi
    Your description sounds so much more appealing than the No. 9 fluff, it’s actually made The Dandy want to try a Bond scent… which I can assure you is a first!
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • Hilarious 😀 There is another Bond No9 perfume that reminds me of Finland (Eau de New York). It brings to mind long, light evenings spent at my grandparents’ summer cottage by the lake. Because it smells quite a lot like the bug spray we used to use back in the 70s and 80s. I love the perfume because this is a very positive association for me but it’s not usually the done thing to say that a perfume reminds you of bug spray. Some people might think it’s rude.

  2. Nicely put! I think too many sales assistants are trained to be a little too married to the sales copy and official imagery. And one could argue that there are a lot of perfumes out there which need those in order to stand up at all.

  3. […] love it when the name of a scent is completely at odds with what pops into my head when I smell it (as regular readers will know). The image Miel sauvage conjured for me was that of a saucy pinup lolloping about in an abundantly […]

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