The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘perfume industry’

She’s lost control again

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.

Perfume bollocks

There’s a lot of it about.

If most of us have trouble getting a handle on perfume it’s not, I think, because we’re too stupid to understand it. In fact the problem isn’t us, but the perfume companies themselves (or at least the companies they employ to do their marketing).

For to enter the world of perfume is to enter a land where English is no longer English but something else entirely – let’s call it Scentish. Here’s a recent example (I’ll let you guess the actual perfume)…

‘Amidst the emotions of an extraordinary journey, the Orient Express races through dreams. It is the quintessence of refinement on which time has no hold… A time traveller and space explorer. A man of today, in keeping with the memories of yesterday’s adventurers…

‘Seductive, brilliant, classic and refined, he discovers a fragrance that reflects him. An homage to his confident, proud masculinity.’

I know, I know – it sounds like a bad Mills & Boon novel from 1972. But that’s not all: we haven’t even heard about the perfume itself yet.

‘Violet, only seemingly discreet, reveals its leaf and flower in this scent. Amongst the selected woods stands a prince, a king, the highly prized oud wood, a legendary and sensual oriental note whose resinous balsamic accents create a sensual and carnal smoky facet.’

Copywriting this bad is almost an art form in its own right, but it does nobody any favours. It tells us nothing about the perfume. It perpetuates the myth that it’s almost impossible to describe scent successfully in words.

Perhaps worst of all, though, it’s press releases like these that all too often find their way into the magazines and on to the websites that most of us read, thanks to lazy journalists who can’t be bothered to think for themselves.

Is it any wonder that people find perfume confusing, when the industry itself is the worst offender?

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