Friday, January 11, 2013

The Ugly Reality of Fragrance Sameness: Insights into Stagnant Practices

The homogeneity of fragrances in the marketplace is markedly poignant, especially lately. If you have shopped for perfume yourself (and who hasn't) you have surely noted it, despairing at the lack of what could be different enough to jolt your senses into a eureka moment. It seldom happens. If you have followed out Twin Peaks articles comparing smell alike perfumes you are equipped with solid argumentative aces. Back in 2008 I had devoted space into why it's so difficult to protect a perfume formula as a unique intellectual property with all rights stemming from this and why formulae are copied, more or less.

There are reasons however that are increasingly more relevant than just the historical explanations or the "shooting" of the scent juice that goes on behind closed doors. Those reasons have to do with both marketing research and with chemical intricacies going on in the laboratory. Let's take them one by one.

How Perfume Marketing Tests Work

 Modern perfume development for the mainstream invariably involves focus groups. Each perfume "draft" is presented to a randomly chosen public segment, stratified according to their social status. But they are not presented with the draft free to comment on it the way an evaluator works. There is no free association or technical comments, if only because there is no specific knowledge of how to go about the latter and the former would be practically useless and highly individualized anyway. Instead people are presented with a couple of fragrance "mods" juxtaposed with a benchmark perfume that has been performing very well in the market for some time (an Angel, a Tresor, a Dior J'Adore, a Cool Water...). They fill out a predefined questionnaire which will further dictate the twists in the formula that the evaluators will demand of the perfumer. This is why best-selling/popular perfume lists based on market research are somewhat skewed to begin with, exactly because they commence with certain givens within the parameters of which the subjects are allowed to move. This is why so many fragrances smell like tiny variations of the exact same design.

And because time and financial pressures are huge, often the direction of the perfume (the "brief") is given not to one team headed by a single perfumer, but to many, in different companies. If each of them modifies a small part of the whole, then more than one perfumer takes credit for the finished product. This is you end up with not knowing who masterminded what, which in a way devalues the artistic authorship.

The Ubiquitousness of the Same Raw Materials

 One can complain about the endless tirade of pink pepper or oud in the listed "notes" of any given perfume press release, but the truth is that the notes list bears little resemblance to what actually goes inside the perfume formula ingredients-wise. Basically no more than 20 manufactured raw materials (natural-identical or synthesized anew) get recycled endlessly. These include citronellol, phenyl ethyl alcohol, hedione, heliotropine, ionone, methyl ionone, hydroxycitronellal (despite the IFRA reductions it can still be used in very small amounts), coumarin (ditto), Lilial, salicylates, patchouli, Iso-E Super, synthetic sandalwood, vanillin, synthetic musks, and ambroxan. They potentially have the ability to build diverse "effects" when put into context, but the reason they're preferred has to do with two very important reasons.

One is their unchanging nature; they are stable, technically dependable materials, linear, practical and always of the same quality standards (unlike the wavering quality of natural materials or less stabilized ones which are making their way out of the perfumer's palette as we speak). Therefore they're produced in gigantic quantities and supply dictates usage. They have effectively become perfumers' currency.

Not only that, but the vast supply and subsequent widespread use means that the public has been accustomed to them via familiarization; and familiarization, in matters so inextricably tied to memory and emotion as smell is, means that the public seeks them out again and again.

A vicious circle exacerbated by the avalanche rhythm of fragrance releases in the last decade.


  1. I'm so glad to read this - sometimes I think I am crazy, or just a poor sniffer, because perfume after perfume will strike me as the same few things. I never get tired of learning more about perfume production.

  2. Perfume is considered to "come from nature" so it really is difficult for a single person to claim ownership of a scent. With that said, the discount perfume and copycat industry is running wild because of this. For that reason, we have high-quality discount perfumes becoming diluted by the average dime-a-dozen pharmacy perfume. Sometimes, it's best to stick with what you know will perform well.

  3. U,

    you're absolutely NOT crazy or a poor sniffer! (Haven't we discussed how people are supposed to trust their noses?) It's the perception and the vocabulary to communicate that perception which are varied and difficult to zoom in, the smelling part is more or less accurate (unless one has a head cold, suffers from anosmia etc)
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  4. Gabe,

    well, I don't think the problem lies so much with the nature claim as arranging things from nature (if we go on with that direction) can different a lot from another arrangement of things from nature (effectively putting human creativity above just amassing things haphazardly).

    Now, I don't have a problem with exact dupes which set out to do just that and don't take the same after the name in order to avoid lawsuits etc. What especially bugs me is luxury/designer brands issuing the same thing with an antagonist with only a minor tweak, labeling differently, putting a famous face as endorsement on the billboards, slapping on an obscene price tag and selling as luxury on glossy pages. Sorry, that ain't luxury.

  5. brie10:43

    ha ha I just wrote in your most current post why I don't gravitate toward mainstream scents (they all smell alike to me). this is why I love to blend essential oils- you never know the outcome and it always smells unique and different on various individuals. I also love artisanal houses (Sonoma Scent Studio being my absolute favorite) as they manage to keep their scents relatively "unique".
    Interesting post...

  6. Thanks for letting the cat out of the bag on this subject! Oddly it seems like niche houses are also using the same palette, or are they using a different group of ingredients available to those working on a smaller scale? Regardless, it is rare to smell something that doesn't smell like something else? What do you think? Happy new year! Xxx

  7. Luckily there is still enough non-mainstream and vintage stuff out there to discover. I collect scents since ...forever and went through several ennui phases. The days when I lusted after an hour in the duty free are long gone, though, but those were the days when Jungle L'Elephant was a mainstream release....

  8. Miss Heliotrope06:47

    The set up of surveys is always fascinating - do you know this classic?

  9. Brie,

    just saw that! Yes!
    I agree that artisanal has become synonymous with luxury. It's not a bad thing!

  10. Wendy,

    thank you, glad you enjoyed.

    Well, niche companies do use the same stuff as everybody else, although they are in a position (due to limited distribution) to also more upscale stuff as well. (for instance Carnal Flower with so much pure tuberose absolute wouldn't be possible in the mainstream market, SL is losing money each time a bottle of FdO is produced due to the raw materials etc).

    Some niche companies (such as small small artisanal ones) are also in a position to slightly bypass restrictions and indulge a bit in non conformist ingredients, rebelling sorta. ;-)

    But even within niche, I do smell some things which are vaguely familiar. Not because they're copying bestsellers in that particular case, but because perfumers have brought in their discarded mods from mainstream perfumes and saw a fit for them in niche lines. It happens. :-)

  11. Andrea,

    it's absolutely true what you say. Some years ago mainstream dared to issue some things that today are unthinkable. It's funny but the affordable mainstream of old ends up smelling better than the luxury niche of today!! :-D

  12. C,

    will go and take a look, thank you!!

  13. Another fascinating article as usual. I'm not surprised perfume companies are putting out more and more of the same type/ genre of fragrances. This is very disappointing, however, we all control where we spend our money and can choose not to buy these recycled mass produced scents. Maybe this will force them to be more creative and think outside the box and produce something worthwhile.

  14. Another great article and some good comments too...i would however argue with "commercial" vs "niche": there are some really, great "commercial" creative, well-build fragrances like this year's Fragrance Foundation Consumer Award Winners (Armani Acqua di Gio Essenza and Justin Bieber's - yes, THAT Justin Bieber - Girlfriend). And, there are just as many good AND bad "niche" launches!

    Also, "artistic authorship" (as in: created by one perfumer vs a couple): i personally love it when creative people collaborate!

  15. DK,

    thanks for your comment and sorry for replying late. I sincerely hope that companies will start getting more creative; but one needs to chop off the numbers of releases first... :/

  16. Bart,

    thanks for following up.

    You know, the more I read and try niche lines coming out like a thunderstorm all the time, the more I have become disillusioned myself. Commercial perfumes can be just as credible. Though I wouldn't have expected it from the Bieber, but what do I know? This thing doesn't circulate here (nor would it ever would, since the B is unknown relatively) so...

  17. There are only 2 solutions for whom wants a new perfume that is good.
    he can have a custom fragrance made for him by an indie perfumer or he can make it himself with the perfumery raw materials easily available online.


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