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Unilever and Fragrance: Emotion and Function

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

page 5 of 9

“For other [projects], you really want to break the rules,” she says. “You want to develop a breakthrough [like Axe].” In such conversations, she says, the focus is on setting trends. “The challenges are at a completely different level, because you have a different understanding of consumers. You have to understand what they have as a need that is unexplored so far—it’s a bit like fashion. You are actually building on a need that they have not been talking about, but which is there. You need to find out the need in conjunction with your brand.” Here she cites the example of the Axe Dark Chocolate Man fragrance, which was notably gourmand and warm—both a huge success and a rule breaker. Whether Unilever’s fragrance projects are looking to lead or follow trends, the result is the same: “When the consumer talks about Dove, they talk about something very specific.”

Meanwhile, translating consumer feedback into something that can be “elaborated” into fragrance is a serious hurdle. “Unfortunately,” says Bartoletti, “fragrance is, amongst all the senses, the one which is most difficult to verbalize from the consumer perspective. It’s a major effort. You really have to find methodologies and ways to understand when [consumers] say ‘I like it.’ They might like, but not necessarily love it.” Bartoletti explains that the goal is to achieve consumer “love” of fragrances, something that perfectly fits a specific brand. Ultimately, this feedback will be shaped by personal experience, interpretation and expectations of the brand. “We pull all this together from the olfactive point of view, making sure that the signature exactly fits the brand.”

In essence, signature is not about producing subtle variations of successful scents—“a bit of this or that,” as Bartoletti puts it. Signature in fragrance is more important than ever, she says, as consumers increasingly expect products to feel tailor-made to their specifications. “You should really find a way to make sure they see you are fitting with what they want.” Bartoletti notes that even as channels of communication and culture are more open than ever, fragrance doesn’t travel quite so easily. “Communication is making the world more flat. However, fragrance preferences don’t travel quite as quickly as music and fashion.” And so, in creating fragrances for products, development teams must ask, “What does New York smell like, what does London smell like, what does Shanghai smell like?” and so on.

Fragrance as Brand Communication

“We’ve put lots of effort and attention into making sure we listen to consumers,” says Bartoletti, “because ultimately they pick up your product in the marketplace and decide whether to buy it.” She warns that an “OK fragrance” can potentially close a sale, but won’t inspire loyalty or repurchase. Truly effective brand communication, Bartoletti says, requires an effective olfactive signature. And the bigger the brand is, the more it must have validity across a range of geographic locales. Here, Unilever’s Axe brand provides a salient example. First launched in France in 1983, the male grooming brand has expanded into more than 60 countries. Axe’s Dark Temptation deodorant is now marketed in more than 50 countries using a single scent.

While Unilever makes the most of its global reach, it possesses local consumer insights to match local tastes. Unlike Axe, Bartoletti says, some brands have an “imprint from the local olfactive heritage”—traditions or habits that are highly specific to a single country or region. In these cases, the olfactive heritage must be preserved in order to meet consumer expectations. In some cases, a product scent may be rolled out in one country and will eventually be rolled out on a broader basis once its olfactive efficacy is verified by the marketplace.

Fragrance in Real-world Scenarios