Soap Stars: Kate and Rebecca at Seven Scent

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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.

AFRICA_ELEPHANTKate 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.

AFRICA_WATERFALL“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.

Indonesia

INDONESIA_childrenKate 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.”

Lagos

AFRICA_VILLAGEKate 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.

A Moomin interlude

Finland moomins volatile fictionI’ve just had a wonderful two week holiday in my native Finland and returning to the UK after what was, apparently, the best weather for the whole summer has been quite the culture shock. It’s like being inside Tupperware here. Grey and moist. I had a bath yesterday morning, opened the window to ‘let the moisture out’, and the air got wetter.

The first week was gloriously sunny and spent at Villa Eino at Hawkhill Nature (which I can’t recommend enough – though take my recommendation with the disclaimer that these cottages at Nuuksio National Park are owned by my husband’s cousin). The water was warm enough for daily morning swims. We grilled sausage. Picked litres of bilberries (the smaller, purple-fleshed ‘wild blueberry’). Enjoyed many sauna sessions. Then my husband flew back home and I spent another week in Helsinki and Tikkurila meeting family and friends.

The markets and shops are bursting with fresh berries and mushrooms right now. Due to the late arrival of warm weather, we hit the bilberry season head on and the lingonberries should be arriving soon – lots of partially ripe berries everywhere. Lingonberry is not too dissimilar in flavour to the cranberry, but sharper. I really miss them over here (they go wonderfully well with meat and liver dishes, as well as baked into delicious pies). Finnish strawberries are wonderful and still available in abundance. They get the nightless nights of summer and have a muskier flavour (similar to the wild strawberry) than the British and Spanish varieties we eat over here. Chanterelles are another delicacy; my friend made a delicious sauce with chanterelle mushrooms in butter, served with new potatoes. Simple things like that – and the bread, the glorious variety of different kinds of bread – is what I miss most from Finland, food-wise. I also miss some of the junk foods and flavours from my childhood (meat ‘donuts’ filled with rice, onion and minced beef; pear flavour ice cream, Fazer chocolate).

The things to look out for when over there are all things textile design – Marimekko, Vallila and so on – and even normal supermarkets can have a lovely selection of home textiles. There are outlet stores with good discounts so if you get a bit of local guidance, you can make some great discoveries. Then there’s Iittala glass design and wooden jewellery, and Moomins everywhere, of course.

I brought back lots of books and sourdough rye bread and chocolate and they’ll keep me connected to Finland a little while longer. I’m already planning my next trip (which will probably be a family gathering in 2017 – and I might need to do two trips that year, seeing as the Helsinki WorldCon bid was successful!).

York Stinks! (Okay, the Jorvik Centre does). Happy Yorkshire Day!

We were pining for a short break away from familiar surroundings and decided to head to York for a few days. It’s a stunning city – Timo commented that any of its main buildings would be THE “good” building in almost any other place. I scoured TripAdvisor for attractions, restaurants and tips in advance and we found a nice little hotel via the Visit York website.

The two main disappointments: 1. Every restaurant or cafe I had selected based purely on TripAdvisor reviews turned out to be poor (food, service, ambience or all of the above). I guess I must have just been unlucky or there are hundreds of fake reviewers squirreling away at TripAdvisor. One does wonder. 2. The Jorvik Viking Centre smells of hot, boiled piss. It’s also completely underground and has low ceilings, so you’re trapped in a stinky dungeon. Whilst this might probably make it the ideal location for an 18-year old lad’s birthday party, it wasn’t a pleasant “historical experience” as much as it was the waiting room for Hades. Apparently they have chosen to “pump out the authentic smell of Viking times” throughout the centre but I really feel that one room of it or a special smelling cubicles might have been a better choice. It wasn’t too far from what I had imagined the Bog of Eternal Stench to smell like although that aroma would have needed more boiled cabbage. I wasn’t the only one who was distressed; there was a little girl in the queue outside, getting increasingly anxious at the smell wafting from the entrance. Her mother reassured her “it’s coffee you can smell, now be quiet.” No. It’s boiled piss you can smell. If you are sensitive to bad smells, don’t go. I wasn’t able to focus on any of the historical artefacts or storytelling and we missed out on a lot of it.

The absolute highlight of the trip was the National Railway Museum. I think making a trip to York is worth it for it alone. As a fan of the Poirot-aesthetic I was able to get my fill of glossy steam engines and twee English train carriages of yore. They also have an art gallery charting the development of railway advertising, ranging from Art Deco posters to a new Virgin Trains one that mimics them. Of course one can also sit inside a Japanese bullet train and learn more about Eurostar (my feet are itching to hop on it to Paris but my credit card has given me a stern talking to and reminded me of how dangerous that would be, given the perfumeries there). Incidentally, we also had the best meal of our trip at their “food carriage” restaurant in the central room (chicken chasseur with broad beans and new potatoes, followed by a strawberry tart).

The York Museum was also brilliant, had a fun exhibit about mass extinctions and many interesting Roman artefacts. I also did a bit of shopping and visited Burgin’s Perfumery and the Travelling Man comic book shop. We went to the cinema, too, and saw Pacific Rim. One has to balance the museums somehow. I feared it might have been another “Transformers”, but no – it managed to take itself above the rim (badoom-tish) of its genre and provide the expected entertainment with a bit of flair and without taking itself too seriously. I also really enjoyed having a central female character do something other than need rescuing.

A little London perfume tour (featuring tea and cake at Fortnum’s)

One of the best things about the internet is how it’s brought fellow fragrance nerds together and allowed us to get to know each other. People from all sorts of backgrounds can become fascinated by scents and it’s great to have the opportunity to hang out with such an interesting bunch. I’ve been running small perfume tours in London for a few years and yesterday I met up with a few friends in Spitalfields and visited Angela Flanders, Bloom and Patisserie Valerie (yes, cake is an essential part of any decent perfume tour). Then we headed to Piccadilly Circus and walked to Geo F. Trumper’s perfumery and had afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason. Fortnum’s perfume and toiletries department is opulent, old-fashioned and a must-see for any perfume fan heading to London. I bought Angela’s Precious one and Trumper’s Ajaccio Violets (which sounds like a spell from Harry Potter). I might write about Angela Flanders and Bloom a bit more in the future, but here are some photos!