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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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To successfully incorporate scent into a product, says Bartoletti, Unilever compiles “a complete understanding of the consumer experience—what they think at the different stages of product usage, starting in the marketplace.” For example, she says, consumers in the developed world tend to smell products in the marketplace— for example, opening the cap on a shampoo bottle to take a test sniff—much more than consumers in the developing world. Every step of product interaction is crucial, she notes, and ultimately drives the choice and application of fragrance. Continuing the shampoo example, Bartoletti says, “You need to make sure that once [the product] is taken home and is being used, the blooming in the shower is exactly what the consumer likes, that the notes that are being developed—top, middle and bottom—are in line with their expectations and that the performance, which is ultimately what they have on their hair when it’s dry, is really a fresh, clean smell that is long-lasting.”

As mentioned, global consumers have varying habits using the same products. In some cases a fragrance may be embraced in one region, spurring thoughts of leveraging it elsewhere. “But,” says Bartoletti, “if the consumer experience is upside down, where the key moments are not the same, then they might not work.” For example, water is extremely important for laundry care and the different stages of cleaning. With a detergent powder in a developed market, a consumer will open the box and smell the product and then put it in the washing machine. At the end of the cycle, the consumer will place the wet clothes in the dryer. In these markets, the consumer will expect to smell the “clean effect” not when the detergent is interacting with water, but later, when the clothes emerge from the dryer. Not so in parts of Asia where washing laundry by hand is common, says Bartoletti. There, consumers are in direct contact with clothing during washing. The blooming effect in water, then, becomes crucial.

Scenting the Essence of Hygiene: Function and Emotion

Launching products in more than 200 countries, Unilever poses the question: “How does ‘clean’ smell?” In addressing this “essence of hygiene,” as Bartoletti puts it, questions of fragrance strength and subtlety take center stage as formulators seek to communicate efficacy via scent. “You have categories where hygiene is the brand itself,” she explains. “If you think about Domestos in the United Kingdom or more local brands like Lysoform in Italy, the smell of hygiene is extremely important. The way you communicate it is essential. Hygiene is very functional; in some cases the consumer really wants to smell ‘hygiene.’” Domestos, Bartoletti says, is characterized by the smell of hypochlorite, which communicates the hygienic effect of killing germs. To cover up that smell with an overbearing fragrance—no matter how pleasant— would destroy brand value. “You have to make sure you’re not killing the essence of hygiene, which is a must for that brand, but at the same time you’re not losing the opportunity to give a distinctive signature to the brand, making sure the brand is differentiated on the marketplace.”

Lysoform, on the other hand, which is sold only in the relatively small Italian market, doesn’t contain hypochlorite. “The signature that the fragrance is delivered through defines the hygiene concept for the Italian market,” says Bartoletti. “It is so winning and powerful that … nobody would think about changing it. The hygiene of that brand is being delivered through that signature. The consumer would get extremely disappointed if it changed. They can enter a house and smell that fragrance and know it’s a very hygienic [place].”

“We try to develop fragrances with outstanding olfactive signature for the brand,” says Esser. “We always start with what the consumer wants and needs and design the product holistically—fragrance is a vital part of it, functionally and hedonically. For example, cleaning and efficacy is absolutely a must for Omo, a washing powder, or Cif, a floor cleaner. It’s also very important as far as efficacy for a deodorant like Sure or Rexona. But then, if you talk about the smell of efficacy for a skin care brand like Dove, it’s a very different thing. We really try to understand what will give this fragranced brand signature and then develop a fragrance which is emotionally connected to the brand, but also gives some functional benefit.”