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Unilever and Fragrance: Emotion and Function

By: Jeb Gleason-Allured, with Rachel Grabenhofer
Posted: May 13, 2010

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As a result of these sessions, says Matheson, “we came up with some very significant opportunities with each [supplier]. We built them into our needs and wants lists.” And, because the environment encouraged some “blue sky” discussions, suppliers were freed up to present some concepts earlier than they would have traditionally. In fact, some of these were not innovations Unilever had previously anticipated.

“This was a new way to do it,” says Matheson. “We got [suppliers’] top technologists and were able to craft programs of interest to both [parties]—win-wins. It was a way to expedite the work we do; it was incredibly efficient.” Matheson adds that the fragrance development process requires category knowledge and the related technical and fragrance objectives, encompassing both marketing and R&D expertise. “If a fragrance works in one category, something similar will probably work in another,” he says, “but it won’t be exactly the same manifestation depending on the concept. We experiment. For example, one of our categories is using a perfume expert to help make [fragrance] selections. This is a way to try to speed things up and get a higher aspiration for the quality of the fragrance. Is that something we would do more broadly? I don’t know. It will depend on whether that approach leads us to better fragrances that drive business growth.”

Signature and the Language of Scent

“When you talk about perfumers, you are very close to artists,” says Bartoletti. “They’re creating something that is unique, that can take you to different places and make a difference for your brand in terms of the emotional connection between it and the consumer. It is essential to find the right way to inspire those artists in the appropriate way so they have an understanding of what you are driving to and an understanding of whether they are going in the right direction.” Bartoletti has identified “brand ambition” as a crucial tool in fragrance development in order to create the “right fragrance at the right time at the right place.” Yet interpretations of olfactive language have long been the Achilles’ heel of fragrance development. Clear communication can help a perfumer distinguish between a merely pleasant note and one that fulfills “brand ambition.”

“We have developed a language—called Unifragrance— in partnership with the fragrance houses to make sure that we speak exactly the same language,” says Bartoletti. “We have agreed on that language, so when we speak about the main families we know exactly what ‘fruity’ means for all of us. When we have a descriptor, we have agreed exactly what the descriptor is about. When we provide guidance, then it’s far easier to make sure that [fragrance partners] understand what we mean, what we need. We use this language to create what we call the ‘identity card’ of the fragrances in which we put all that information that is essential to make sure we are picking up the signature of the fragrance itself. So you have a description of the families, the descriptors, other information regarding ingredient composition, and information regarding [references to] fine fragrances on the market [or other ‘target’ products].”

Bartoletti continues, “Unless you talk to the right people in the fragrance houses and have the right level of discussions, it will never work. We have improved over the years in getting to that different level and making sure [fragrance houses] have an understanding of what certain brands mean—from their own olfactive territory. It’s important to have discussions about where opportunities could be—even when you’re aiming to develop a fragrance for a certain market that is just an extension of something that you have in another market.” These conversations, she adds, benefit from consumer insights and trend knowledge.