The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘marketing’

Nothing succeeds like… nothing

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.


Obscurity vs. celebripongs

What makes a perfume desirable? Why do we buy what we buy? I think it depends on what kind of person we are, or rather how much we know.

Take the person who doesn’t know much about perfume at all. If you don’t know much then you’re likely to buy whatever scent is being most heavily marketed that month, for where else are you going to get your information? Certainly not from the vacuously rehashed press-releases that count as perfume ‘journalism’ in the majority of magazines.

That might sound like a bad thing, and given the number of awful fragrances out there, on the whole it probably is. But then you have to remember that while it might mean that millions of people are buying the latest celebripong, Chanel No.5 remains the single most heavily marketed perfume on earth, so it’s not necessarily all bad news. The drawback, of course, is that you generally end up smelling like everyone else.

Next step up are those of us (and I count myself among their number) who know their Millionaire from their Mitsouko. We’re perfume enthusiasts, we’ve read our Luca Turin, we love the classics and trying new things, but we really want to stand out from the crowd.

So the perfect perfume for us is something that is, ideally, made by an obscure little company with a funny name, or (even better) is a classic fragrance that has long been discontinued or is no longer available in our country, though fortunately we know where we can still get our hands on a bottle or two. Christian Dior’s Jules, anyone? (Yes please.)

But I suspect there’s still another level above this, a kind of perfume nirvana, rarely achieved except by those fortunate few whose olfactory sense is sufficiently sophisticated to distinguish dross from gold. These higher beings can – and here I can only guess – somehow blank out the ads, the breathless copywriting and all the other extraneous noise that deafens most of us to the only thing that really matters in the end: the smell.

It’s as hard to smell a perfume with an open mind as it is to look at a well-known painting or listen to a famous piece of music with an open eye or ear. But surely it’s an ideal to aim towards, even if you end up wearing Guerlain one day and Lady Gaga the next.

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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