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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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In matters both emotional and functional, geography matters, says Esser. “Smell is a sense that is related to emotion, and therefore your history or cultural background will emotionally connect you to a smell,” she says. “We do a lot of trend analysis and consumer evaluation/insight work to really understand what hygiene means in the different olfactive maps. Once you pinpoint that, you ask, ‘Does that fit with the brand? Is that the signature that we want for the brand for that kind of consumer and for the functionality of the product?’” The result is that consumer, trend and cultural background are reflected in the final product. Thus, just as Lysoform bears the specific olfactive heritage of Italy, Persil is the essence of fresh and clean in the United Kingdom, while the Indian market embraces hygiene with Lifebuoy. Of the latter, says Esser, “You cannot translate that smell for the United Kingdom or France, for example. That would be a very harsh smell that is not related to clean. The fragrance has to deliver, both functionally and hedonically.”

Global Formulation Challenges: Bases and Ingredients

The global nature of Unilever’s business exposes it, and its fragrance partners, to a number of formulation challenges. For instance, says Bartoletti, the odor of a product base may interfere with fragrance performance. “You have personal care products where the base itself has a very strong odor,” she says. “In some cases, it is something useful that you want to keep, to dress up. In others, it really doesn’t work. Base odor does not have global validity by itself.” Meanwhile, bases produced in different parts of the world may have differing odors, even if they have the same specifications. “That’s mainly linked to impurities that ultimately create differences that in some cases you perceive,” she says. “Unfortunately, they may have other issues like fragrance stability. So maybe in one case you’re working on covering the base odor and it’s working well and the fragrance in storage is perfectly stable on the long term— no discoloration, no separation, no cloudiness—and then suddenly the same base containing impurities in another place in the world has some kind of an issue.”

One thing that doesn’t vary by region, though, is Unilever’s commitment to safety and sustainability. The company says it applies the same safety and environmental standards globally and requires all its partners to apply those same standards. It maintains its own approved list of both natural and synthetic ingredients and claims its standards are often set tighter than the fragrance industry norms and regulations require, even if that does mean restricted palettes. It obtains natural ingredients from sustainable sources where possible and applies the same safety standards to naturals that it does to synthetics.

“With scale like ours, acting responsibly is an absolute must,” says Bartoletti. “One-hundred-sixty million times a day someone somewhere chooses a Unilever product— we have to be absolutely focused on consumer safety and minimizing environmental impact. Besides, vitality is what Unilever is all about: our brands are all about bringing benefits that help people feel good, look good and get more out of life.”

Bartoletti points out an official Unilever document pledging product safety and efficacy. The document underscores the company’s safety and environmental assurance center, which focuses on human, environmental and occupational safety worldwide, in addition to issues of toxicology, microbiology, chemistry and life cycle assessment.

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