Top left: Rebecca, Kate.
Kate Williams (perfumer) and Rebecca Mulcahy (evaluator) work for Seven Scent in the UK.
“My mum always says ‘you could have a proper job – like a vet or a doctor!’ with the years I’ve spent training,” says Rebecca Mulcahy, fragrance evaluator at Seven Scent.
“And every day you still come across things that are new,” echoes Kate Williams, perfumer at Seven, and the current president of the British Society of Perfumers.
I met with Kate and Rebecca to talk about their work and careers.
“When I first came for my interview, I didn’t know there were people born into this; practically training from birth – that’s what I was up against,” Kate reminisces.
She had a series of interviews and smell tests at PZ Cussons, the parent company for Seven Scent – this was after Kate had completed a masters in evolutionary psychology. Kate’s special area of interest was the role of smell in mate choice and whether males could detect female fertility levels. This led to the obvious question – why do we use fragrance? Is it to mask body odour or to advertise it?
“I sort of stumbled on the fragrance industry through that,” says Kate.
Turns out, the answer to that burning question was that we seem to choose fragrances based on advertising our natural body odour; not masking it. When we choose a fragrance – be it a deodorant or a fine fragrance – based on our genuine preferences (rather than pure advertising or marketing), we are amplifying our natural, unique body odour fingerprint. This also leads to increased confidence, positive body language, and enhanced sexual attractiveness.
When Kate arrived to her smell test, she was faced with endless rows of smelling strips set out on a shiny mahogany table at the old PZ Cussons office. “We were told to sit one chair apart and write down our answers and suddenly I thought- what am I doing here?” says Kate and laughs.
“I suppose in a way it was good that I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t do – and how much time it takes until you are allowed to create something,” says Kate.
Rebecca studied forensic science at university and her industry placement was at Unilever. This gave her a glimpse to what it’s like to formulate deodorants and antiperspirants and opened the door to an interview for an evaluator role at Seven.
Evaluators have become increasingly important in modern fragrance supply houses due to the vast number of fragrances to keep track of and to select from, and due to the hectic schedule and other pressures perfumers have to work under.
In many fragrance houses evaluators are project leaders, assign
fragrance briefs to perfumers, as well as manage the company fragrance
library and sit down with perfumers to evaluate fragrance modifications. Read more at Perfumer & Flavorist about what the role of an evaluator involves; what makes a good evaluator & routes to the job – and how Rebecca and others work. This is the launch of my new monthly column “The Juice” and the first column has two parts; online and in print. The May print issue features insights from independent fragrance evaluators in the article “Fragrance Evaluation for Niche Brands – Passion Above All”.
“If you are working on a laundry detergent fragrance for the African market, you have to test the fragrance in its base in water because you hand-wash so much over there. In the UK, you’d smell the scent on the clothes as they came out of the washing machine,” says Rebecca.
Kate and Rebecca have travelled all over the world to test their fragrances in real-world conditions and to conduct market research. There are many issues to consider – right from the creative language and clarity in communication to better understanding of the actual ways in which the finished products get used by consumers.
“Our biggest customer is Nigeria,” says Kate, “and they have the most wonderful concepts. They asked for a smell that was like an angel descending from Heaven. On a shoestring! I want that, too!”
“It is a great feeling when you’ve managed to achieve that level of creativity with all those cost and other constraints,” says Rebecca.
Kate nods: “More constraints can in fact make you more creative.”
We talked about the difference between producing something beautiful, practical, best-selling and commercially viable for a detergent product versus creating a fine fragrance.
“I suppose there is some artistic quality in plucking a fragrance from your mind,” says Kate, “it’s amazing when you think about it. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn into the fragrance industry – I love words – I love describing things and I think that’s been absolutely key for me. It’s an industry where you talk a lot,” Kate says and bursts out laughing.
“All that describing and different ways of saying things to make people understand… I had a stage where I couldn’t smell the individual materials in a perfume, just the whole perfume – and eventually I got to this point, like Magic Eyes, where I could switch between smelling the individual raw materials and the full perfume. That, to me was an amazing step. I could go oh, it’s a peach, but I can also pick out that lactone – it was a massive step,” says Kate.
Understanding fragrance descriptors and what clients actually expect is not a one-size-fits-all skill and working with international markets means constantly having to be on your toes about what your customers really mean. Market research is an important part of the process at Seven Scent.
“We were doing competitor analysis for another brand in Nigeria and the slogan was ‘wrap yourself in passion’ and we thought – who wouldn’t want a fragrance with that sort of a theme? What a demand from a talcum powder fragrance! I think fine fragrance terminology is coming down to all levels and people expect a lot more from their fragrance in every other product, too – their shower gel and body lotion and fabric conditioner. They expect the fragrance to support how nourishing it is for the skin, or how suitable for sensitive skin it is, or how high-quality the brand is, so there is a lot riding on it,” says Kate.
It is a well-known fact in the cosmetics and fragrance industry that the type of fragrance chosen for a product can and does alter consumer perception of the product’s effectiveness. If a shampoo marketed as ‘deep-cleansing’ has the correct type of fragrance, consumers will perceive the deep-cleansing effect to be stronger. If a ‘nourishing’ body lotion has been matched with just the right sort of soothing scent, its users will feel their skin is smoother.
“We even have differences in each geology on how these claims translate, but we test for that,” says Kate.
“There is also a difference in the language on descriptors – if the team in Nigeria ask for ‘fruity’ they don’t mean what we mean,” says Rebecca.
“Citrus vanilla! Fresh spicy” laughs Kate, “But what’s fresh to them? When we think of fresh, we think of watery, green… I once took a presentation to Lagos for them to give me colours of freshness. They didn’t understand the green, lush freshness that we were trying to do. We’d been giving them all these green grass top notes and they just didn’t get them. They also had only a very vague concept of what we would think of as watery, marine freshness, but fruity freshness – yes! So we went with that.”
“Images really helped, so we took along an image of a waterfall,” says Rebecca.
Kate travelled to Indonesia to investigate how consumers were actually using products in the baby ranges.
“It was such an eye-opener what they do with those products – I don’t know how they get their kids to stay still!” says Kate, “They do this twice a day: a full body wash, shampoo, body cream, face cream, nappy cream, oil on the chest. They use a separate detergent and fabric conditioner on their clothes. They use oil on their hair. Then sunscreen and anti-mosquito. That’s the minimum products for a child under the age of seven. I can’t get mine to have a wash! Teeth – they use gum wipes if the children haven’t got any teeth yet. So the product usage is enormous. This has implications on fragrance development. If you’re going to use all of your fragrance budget into the body wash, it’s going to be drowned out ten minutes later. And they don’t layer the fragrances; they choose different fragrances. So understanding stuff like that is absolutely great.”
Kate and Rebecca also experienced how consumers in Lagos use their detergent products.
“I melted… I had to just go ahead and do the washing on the hot roof to see what actually happens in situ with the fragrance,” says Kate, “and it was tough, really tough. The water smells. So I had to make sure I understood the smell of the water. Understood that this water was then used for different functions in the house, with my fragrance in it. So, fine, we might be providing a fragrance used in a detergent powder, but after it’s been used to wash the laundry in smelly water, it’s then going to be used to wash the floor, then it’s going to be used to wash the kids, and then it’s going to be used to clean the toilet. And it has to perform all the way and leave a nice fragrance on the floor as well. So that’s your challenge – and you suddenly understand why your client has been rejecting your previous fragrances,” explains Kate.
“It makes such a difference getting there, seeing how people actually use the product,” says Rebecca. “You can take something that you think smells great here in the UK, but once you’re there and open the sample, the humidity can just crush it and you can’t smell a thing. We also went around different locations in Lagos and smelled the environments in which people were living in and saw some people washing their laundry in buckets by the busy roadside with car fumes mingling in – and you realise you’ll have to try to counter that somehow as well.”
On arriving to Lagos, Kate and Rebecca got stuck at customs. “We were flying Air Nigeria which in itself was the maddest experience, ever,” says Kate, “we weren’t sure whether we’d make it or boil to death. And the customs were grilling us, too: ‘why are you here?’ – ‘fragrance’ – ‘what sort of fragrance?’ – ‘Zip detergent powder…’ – ‘That’s your fragrance? Well, why didn’t you say so! Come on through, ladies!’ and they treated us like stars.”
Zip detergent powder is a big brand in Nigeria; as well-known as Persil in the UK and people have possibly even a closer relationship with the fragrance there than with any kind of detergent fragrance in the UK.
“That fragrance has a massive following – and how many people is it on? These people are wearing it and relying on it. It’s a crazy climate, so it’s an important part of their lives,” says Kate.
“You are genuinely making a difference to people’s lives – I know that sounds a little bit cheesy, but it’s true,” says Rebecca and smiles.