The world of odour and scent presents a unique communication challenge, says Will Andrews

As a scientist working in the beauty industry for the last 18 years, I have experienced first hand how chemistry improves the lives of millions of people, in small but meaningful ways, via the beauty products they use every day. 

I believe scientists have a duty to translate their work for the public, or they become less relevant to society, which then becomes less supportive and distrustful. Translating cosmetic science may seem less relevant than, for example, biomedical research but it seeks to overcome the same issues – the accessibility of science and technology.

In some ways, a consumer products company can be thought of as an expert translator – turning science and technology into familiar and engaging products for a non-expert audience. Innovative chemistry and sophisticated industrial processes convert raw materials into products, which are dressed with scent, colour and other aesthetic features to communicate the product’s value to the consumer. This value is also communicated via advertising, using imagery, metaphor and brand stories.

These touch points become even more critical when one considers fine fragrance. In fact, the problem is uniquely difficult.Here is a beauty product that has no clear functional benefit and on first observation seems relatively trivial. But fine fragrance creation (and all perfumery) is an expert-driven process: the ‘product’ is an artfully constructed, abstract blend of odour compounds in an ethanol solvent carrier, designed to create a coherent and memorable scent. And when applied to the wearer, it transcends the chemistry of its components and enters psychological territory, becoming a ‘scented identity’. Wearers of perfumes forge a strong bond with their chosen scent; it becomes an essential part of their life and weaves its way into their affections, accompanying them through life like an old friend. So despite lacking function, these perfumes do have a purpose. The main issue for fine fragrance is that it lacks the tangibility of other products. Therefore, we face a real challenge in translating its identity and meaning for the audience, because it is truly abstract.

Language of scent

Any form of translation needs an appropriate language, and it is unsettling to consider that there is no simple descriptive language that clearly defines complex perfumes. Yes, the fragrance industry has some commonly used technical language, particularly based around raw material odour classification and fragrance construction, but it is not universal – every company and institution has its own version. Nor is this language easily understood by those outside of the industry: we use elements of it to help shoppers select fragrances in store, or to describe them in adverts and on packaging, but it has not been adopted. Fragrance family classification and key ingredients do not seem to be sufficient to describe a complex perfume. Perhaps oddly, the industry relies more on visual metaphor to communicate a fragrance’s identity, through packaging and images. This attempts to convey the character of the scent, or at least sets an expectation. And yet, shoppers still have great difficulty in finding the right fragrance first time, leading to confusion, disappointment and ultimately disengagement. Some feel that the fragrance industry has failed to connect product with audience, relying instead on glamorous advertising and celebrity endorsement to fill the void. 

Lost in translation

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution because there are various factors that hamper our efforts to consistently describe odours: there is no common vocabulary of odour in any culture in the world, there is no common measure of odour (try counting smells and rating their strength), and its inherent subjectivity plays havoc with any consistency. So perhaps we have to accept that there will never be a lexicon of odour, or a method of describing complex blends of odorants, because there are simply too many variables. But then perhaps this is the vital call to bright scientific minds?

Perfume seems so frivolous and yet it has become an unexpected provocateur, by setting a tough challenge: to define a simple, common language, that effectively communicates the character of an abstract blend of odorants, or any odour that is out of context. Now that would be a wonderful gift to the world.

Will Andrews is a principal scientist and evaluator with Procter & Gamble’s prestige fine fragrance design team