Sunday, March 4, 2012

The New (Complex) Smell of Clean

It's no secret: We gingerly open up the fabric softener's and even the floor cleaner's cap to take a whiff of the liquid inside in the super-market to make sure we approve of the scent. We check with our nose, since our brain cannot register how analytical chemistry can help get us a cleaner laundry basket at the end of the day or a shinier floor just by briefly looking at the label. Eschewing logic over emotion is all too human. Big conglomerates are aware of it. And no other sense is more emotional than our sense of smell.

"Fragrance today helps define the choices in consumer specialty product categories as varied as automotive, air care, laundry and household cleansers. The truth is, consumers have been trained to seek out the fragrances they love. As a result, people's passion for how products smell—and how they feel about particular scents and accords—has reshaped the consumer landscape. [...] Just as ‘clean’ and ‘fresh’ are two words that say the most about air care and household cleaning products—and while pine, citrus and lavender still are working their hearts out in homes—defining what clean and fresh actually mean today has become the overwhelming creative challenge.
[...]P&G’s big winner New Zealand Springs—which is a fresh, green fruity-floral [aroma] ‘inspired by New Zealand's South Island where springs feed glacier-carved streams and verdant vistas’—is making money for Febreze room and fabric sprays, oils and home fragrances, Mr. Clean’s hard surface and multipurpose cleaners, Dawn ultra-concentrated dish liquid, and Cascade dishwasher detergent. [...] If a limited-edition fragrance truly connects with consumers, the scent can be upcycled—perhaps even renamed—and made part of the brand’s offering long term. This is a strategy that strategically improves marketing effectiveness. [...] Expectations for great fragrances have never been greater"

~from an article by Lori Miller Burns, director of marketing, Arylessence, on Perfumer & Flavorist Magazine.

The intricasy of developing complex scents for non fine fragrances (i.e. fragrances for functional use, such as detergents, air care, shampoos etc.) is increasing and for good reason: There is an intense competition between the big companies into who will release something that will grab the consumers and can then become (by the standards of recycling the same scent in new names, as delineated above) a lifestyle product. Smell and scents have become a firm element of lifestyle; an experience that seals a moment of living. If this isn't the height of commercialisation, I don't know what is. But let's proceed with a specific example.

"In the commercials [of odor-eliminating Procter & Gamble product Febreze], each setting is shown being treated with a Febreze product, like fabric spray or room spray, before the blindfolded subjects are led in. In one spot, two women approached on the street in the SoHo section of Manhattan are led blindfolded into an abandoned section of a building, where they are seated on an old, torn couch that has clumps of dog hair. As two dogs dart around the room, they are asked by an off-screen interviewer to take deep breaths and report what they smell. [watch the Febreze couch experiment clip here, part of their Breathe Happy campaign]
One of the women says, “Light floral, lilac,” and “Like when you have fresh laundry.” The other adds, “Maybe even a little bit of citrus,” “a little bit beachy” and “wispy white curtains.” They are told to remove their blindfolds, and the squalor of the room registers on their shocked faces, with both saying, “Oh, my god,” before two members of the film crew approach them wielding Febreze. [...]
Tor Myhren, president and chief creative officer at Grey New York, said the impetus for the campaign came from a consumer focus group. “Someone said, ‘You can close your eyes, but you can’t turn off your nose,’ and that’s a brilliant insight,” Mr. Myhren said. “We said that’s a big, big, big idea that we need to bring to life.”

~from an article on the advertising of Febreze in New York Times

Procter & Gamble swears their product is "absolutely non-toxic", safe to use in homes with pets and acts on the power of beta-cyclodextrin to bind big molecules into its own doughnut shape, thus disallowing the dispersion of malodours molecules into the air where they would be perceived by human noses. Some sources state that Febreze also contains zinc chloride, which would help to neutralize sulfur-containing odors (e.g., onions, rotten eggs) and might dull nasal receptor sensitivity to smell, but this compound is not listed in the ingredients (at least in the spray-on products).

Interestingly, a cultural aspect enters the marketing and distribution of Febreze.  Even though P&G reaches hundreds of countries around the world, some markets are excluded from this artificial smell of clean. Pat from Olfactarama recounts how the original formulation of Febreze died a slow death in the US when it was first introduced, as the cultural mantra is to feel (intellectual and sensory) elation at the cleansing task after it has been actually performed. The re-introduction of Febreze to staggering sales numbers currently is largely attributed to re-introducing the product with added fragrance!

"A breakthrough came when [the product development & marketing team] visited a woman in a suburb near Scottsdale, Ariz., who was in her 40s with four children. Her house was clean, though not compulsively tidy, and didn’t appear to have any odor problems; there were no pets or smokers. To the surprise of everyone, she loved Febreze.

“I use it every day,” she said.

“What smells are you trying to get rid of?” a researcher asked.

“I don’t really use it for specific smells,” the woman said. “I use it for normal cleaning — a couple of sprays when I’m done in a room.”

The researchers followed her around as she tidied the house. In the bedroom, she made her bed, tightened the sheet’s corners, then sprayed the comforter with Febreze. In the living room, she vacuumed, picked up the children’s shoes, straightened the coffee table, then sprayed Febreze on the freshly cleaned carpet.[...]
“It’s nice, you know?” she said. “Spraying feels like a little minicelebration when I’m done with a room.”

~from an article in the New York Times about mapping consumer behavior

In Greece, Febreze never caught on: it was introduced sometime around 2000 if memory serves well, promoted in super-markets as just the thing for difficult to wash car seats, but the Greek culture that adbhors "masking" dirt instead of getting down on your knees and scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing that floor to a shiny shine quickly purged it. No attempts for re-introducing it have been made, added fragrance or not, and I would assume that with our national streak of disliking "artificial" scents that are not actual perfumes for one's own skin it would not have sustenance.Unless it promised a mini-celebration of discovering the surefire way to make away with sovereign debt, naturally. P&G, there's hope yet.


  1. These Febreze ads are ubiquitous now, with more and more smelling circumstances. Good point with cultural associations - I guess the idea fits well with the twice-daily shower ideals and the sanitization of living environment.

    I bet in any case that these Febreze smell better than the hospital cleaners for men or the antiseptic cupcake florals for women. I'll try to smell and verify.


  2. I can't stand Febreeze, I've used it but always found the smell off- putting somehow. So then, why bother using it for a fake clean smell?

  3. M,

    the cultural standpoint is of extreme relevance in my mind. It perfectly fits with the sanitization of surroundings and I'm impressed they didn't try to inject that aspect into the advertising. But then I immediately checked myself: they have OTHER products to tackle that. (double the gain!)

    It's an inoffensive floral aquatic. Very generic. Can be potent though in big doses.

  4. TFC,

    excellent question! That's my qualm as well. (why not just clean/wash/get it cleaned/whatever the item in question?)

    My theory is that Febreze works on 2 distinct (and contradicting) types of consumers:

    1)the obsessive/compulsive sanitasion types who -like the woman in Arizona- don't feel that something is clean enough unless they can smell it too!
    Example: My mil sniffs bleach and smiles to herself contendly that "it smells clean in here!" (the only one in my entourage who finds the smell of bleach pleasant) ~coincidentally this is a pattern she carries to everything: it should be shining white (therefore she uses those "white sparkling" detergents that literally melt towels away after 10 washes, so she has to buy new ones), it should smell strongly of detergent (uses the most powerful-smelling fabric softeners), be spotless (she washes winter wool coats in the machine after one wearing, for crying out loud) etc.
    These types are far more numerous than they'd like to admit.

    2) the kind that wouldn't mind postponing washing those jeans if they could find a way to get rid of the cigarette smoke remnants.
    These types are far more numerous than they'd like to admit.

    Do you agree?

  5. How interesting that compulsive cleaners are attracted to Febreze. I always assumed the product was used only by people too lazy to eliminate the sources of bad odors (who, me?).

    The Febreze commercials are enough to make me yell at the TV. As one of many people sensitive to artificial scents, I feel like Febreze makes the physical world more hostile.

    I use essential oils, dispersed in a nebulizer or a simmer pot, to imbue my home with the scents I enjoy. As expensive as essential oils can be, I stay away from the most expensive ones and use just a few drops at a time, so I think they're actually cheaper to use than Febreze and similar chemical-laden products.

  6. Elizabeth,

    it's rather de trop, but I "get" the reason for the confirmation of the mini-triumph (when one does the daunting task of cleaning up a whole house, they deserve their little badge).

    It seems to me that with your method of using essential oils you're having a much more varied smelling environment and with the added bonus of warding off bacteria and insects as several essential oils serve as a cleanse on many levels (especially spicy, herbaceous and hesperidic scents).
    I also use a neroli & lemon essential oil mix for bathroom and kitchen (diluted in perfumer's alcohol, so it serves as a paneling wipe too) and it smells much better than anything store-bought.

  7. Yes, I do agree! Very funny and spot on.

    That is probably why, one day I asked myself why am I using this stuff! I clean, but I'm not a fanatic about it and therefore everything is clean enough not to need covering up..or "purifying". Huh, I think "purifying" is the operative word...and very American.

  8. TFC,

    great, so you probably don't need it in the first place, so come and sit by me, especially if you're not fanatical about it. :-) (Clean things smell nice on their own, don't they? Clean pets too).

    Here's an idea: Why don't you save that money to buy some real perfume? (enabler? who me? perish the thought!)

    "Purification" does harbor a sense of Puritanism lying low (purify from one's sins etc); many claim that claim when talking about the "clean" obsession of America, though I always kinda remind myself of that Sarah Jessica Parker comment that "Americans love their body odour" (said in a positive way), when launching her Lovely and explaining her layering perfumes technique.
    It has always intrigued me, do you remember it?


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