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How do you successfully describe a perfume's scents? What words explain the three layers of a perfume's smell?

Updated on June 5, 2013

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

The marketing people for the perfumier's have to think long and hard about what smells people want to have in a bottle and how to name these smells and market them with the right presentation and branding. Funky and on-trend, zesty, citrus tangs or stylishly sophisticated vanillas, cinammons, patchoulis and musks. Lemon and lime coloured liquids and packaging for spring and summer spritzy sprays, or dark red and purple velvets, with golden fireside-glow hues for those Christmas gifts for older ladies. Once you have decided on the smell that you think your target audience is going to like, you need to make sure that you've picked the right words to describe the smell and the right name for the perfume.


Choosing the right words to describe a smell.

In his book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, the author, linguist Guy Deutscher, looks at how language can influence our thoughts and perceptions. He looks, for example, at Homer's classics, the Iliad and the Odyssey and the lack of reference to colour, with the sea being described as "wine red". Were the ancient Greeks actually colour blind? Was Homer colour blind? So what colour IS the sea? Or the sky? Are they blue? Are they green? Green-ish blue? Grey? Brown? If the sea is brown or grey, will the sky be blue (or is it reflecting it?). Also, if I see the colour that I call grey, and you call it grey too, how can we be sure that we are actually both seeing the same colour? If I decide to look at the spectrum and invent lots of new names for different shades of grey, shall I assume that before I did this, no-one could see all those different shades of grey, it was all just black and white?

Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet said that " a rose by any other name would smell as sweet". Horticulturalists may spend a lot of time breeding different types of roses and giving them different names, in the same way that perfumiers do with their scents and fragrances.How influenced are you by the name chosen? The lady in the store was helping me choose a new perfume. She quickly brushed aside the scents that are named after younger celebrities (I'm in my mid-forties). Maybe those perfumes smell OK - I don't actually know, but she decided that they weren't the ones for me. Does celebrity endorsement help sell perfumes or hinder it, I wonder.

In 1983, a perfume consultant called Michael Edward invented the fragrance wheel which categorised perfume smells into the following: Floral, Oriental, Woody, Fougère, and Fresh.

A friend I worked with pulled a face when a colleague walked past. "I can smell boiled carrots" he said, which did seem to sum up the heavy scent of Poison, and although it is not an unpleasant smell, this isn't a perfume I would wear, simply because I don't really want to smell like Sunday Dinner. The lady in the videoclip above, on the other hand, wanted to smell exactly like roast beef (there's no accounting for taste!)

What about the people that try to describe those smells. I often wear Kenzo Flowers, but I did stop wearing it for a while after an older lady I worked with approached my desk, turned her nose up and said she could smell nail varnish or pear drops. I'm guessing it was ethyl acetate that she could smell, but although I love Kenzo Flowers and I like to picture myself wearing it in floaty summer dresses, going for a summer evening meal out, I knew the smell that she meant, and it did put me off wearing it for a while.

Paris was the perfume that a dear friend always wore. I teased her that she smelled like an old lady who had been eating Parma Violets. It is actually quite a sophisticated smell, but once someone has put the silly idea of what the smell reminds them of into your head, it's difficult to perceive that smell in quite the same way afterwards. It's rather like when a TV commercial takes classical music and uses it to sell everyday products, the value of the classical music becomes worn down, as you start to associate it with the product that you saw on the advert (which is obviously why marketing teams choose memorable tunes to help sell their products, because they know the brain will automatically start to make the connection once it's heard it enough).

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