I’ve started introducing myself to some of the professionals in the perfume industry, which so far has been really encouraging: everyone’s said positive things about The Sniff Box, but just one comment caught me slightly up short.
I’d been talking to someone who I guess you could call an important player in the perfume world. She’d been complimentary about my attempts to write about perfume in a straightforward, easily accessible way, but when I asked her what she thought of my illustrations, she paused then said, ‘I think you could find that some of the perfume companies might have a problem with them.’
In fact none of the brands I’ve talked to so far have ‘had a problem’ with them, but I thought that was such an interesting thing to say, and rather revealing too.
Perfume brands, just like their compatriots (and sometimes owners) in the fashion world, spend vast amounts of money and effort on creating an image for their brand, which often disguises the fact that there’s really very little to distinguish one brand from the next. So much of the perfume and fashion industry’s profits, in the end, are about mystique, and mystique is a fragile and evanescent thing.
Brand building is all about control, in the end: control of your brand’s image, and anything that might dent that image in any way is a threat – which is why big brands are often so litigious.
The problem (looked at from a brand-manager’s point of view) is that little thing called freedom of expression. You can police your brand as fiercely as the KGB, but once it’s out in the public domain there’s little you can do about people’s opinions apart from muttering vague threats and taking legal action if they do something rude with your logo.
It’s all very Wizard of Oz, when you come to think of it. You remember how (plot spoiler warning!) the wonderful wizard is finally revealed to be a very unimpressive little man cranking away on a lot of levers, all hidden away behind a curtain?
Most branding works on exactly the same smoke-and-mirrors principle, and a lot of brands are terrified that the rest of us (the consumers, as we’re so dismissively called) might one day see behind the curtain and realise how we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes. Ideally they’d prefer us to repeat what they say about their products and always to use the pictures they provide – which is why, I think, I was told that drawing perfume bottles might be ‘a problem’.
But actually I think that seeing behind the curtain is a great thing, as long as there’s something interesting behind it. And I also think that the more people know about something, the more interested in it they’re likely to be. Create a great brand and great products and brand managers have nothing to fear.