Like many perfume lovers in London I spend a lot of time in Liberty, which has one of the best selections of perfume in the metropolis, covering everything from legendary classics to the latest obscure niche brand. Their staff are pretty good too: friendly and helpful, and generally more knowledgeable than your average department-store sales staff.
But it seems that even they aren’t entirely immune from the corrosive effect of marketing bollocks. According to Liberty’s beauty buyer Sarah Coonan, the store’s best-selling beauty product at the moment is Molecule 01, from cult company Escentric Molecules (yes, it’s meant to be spelled that way). Its gimmick is that it is, allegedly, entirely composed of a single chemical, called ISO E Super, which is normally used as an ingredient in other perfumes – Terre d’Hermès is a good example.
So far so boring. But what takes a gimmick into the realm of comedy is the marketing. On more than one occasion recently I’ve been minding my own nose in Liberty when a fellow customer has asked a sales assistant whether they stocked ‘that perfume that doesn’t smell of anything’. I’ve also, equally amusingly, heard a member of staff tell a customer something along the lines of ‘now this one is really special: it has no smell’.
OK, so you want to spend £30 on 30ml of a perfume that smells of nothing? That would be idiotic, wouldn’t it? But that’s what at least some people seem to want to believe, and what Liberty seem to be happy for people to go on believing.
As sales pitches go it’s one of the daftest on offer, but what I don’t like about it is that it’s not actually true. For Molecule 01 doesn’t smell of nothing at all. It might not smell of very much, and what it does smell of might not appeal to everyone (to me it smells mainly of photocopier fluid), but to tell credulous customers that it smells of nothing is surely just wrong.
As it happens, not even Escentric Molecules claim that Molecule 01 is odourless, though their sales shtick could hardly be described as hard sell. ‘Molecule 01,’ it reads, ‘is created solely from the aroma-chemical Iso E Super, which works as more of an effect than a fragrance. The scent has a subtle, velvety, woody note which will meld with your natural pheromones, vanish, then re-surface aftersome time, making it totally individual and personalised to the wearer. You will rarely smell this on yourself, Molecule 01 is more about the effect it has on others.’
Nonsense about pheromones aside, why anyone would want to spend good money on an, ahem, ‘effect’ that you can’t actually smell on yourself is slightly beyond me, though in fact there’s nothing unusual in a perfume that you can’t, after a while, smell on yourself. In fact that’s true of most perfumes, and if it wasn’t they’d probably drive you nuts.
So what, in the end, is special about Molecule 01? It’s a rather faint perfume that – like most perfumes – smells a bit different on different people, and that you can’t necessarily smell on yourself all the time. It’s not exactly the perfume equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes, but it appears that a lot of people would like it to be. If nothing else it demonstrates the way that marketing and design can convince us of almost anything. Most intriguing.