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Designing the smells that sell household products

Aug. 24, 2010
Courtesy of the American Chemical Society
and World Science staff

Craft­ing a fra­grance for de­ter­gents that leaves laun­dry smell­ing clean and fresh. De­vel­op­ing a room fresh­en­er, scented oil, or scented can­dle that whis­pers “cool spring air.” Giv­ing tooth­paste or mouth­wash a re­fresh­ing af­ter­taste that lingers and lingers.

The pro­cess for put­ting the smell that sells in­to thou­sands of con­sum­er prod­ucts is much like com­pos­ing a sym­pho­ny, ac­cord­ing to fra­grance de­sign­er Mi­chael Pa­pas, who spoke at the an­nu­al meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Chem­i­cal So­ci­e­ty in Bos­ton Aug. 24.

Ar­o­mat­ic com­pounds are at the heart of the multi-billion dol­lar fra­grance in­dus­try, which re­lies on art­ist­ry as well as chem­is­try to cre­ate those sa­vory and sweet scents. (Cred­it: Juan­mo­ni­no)


“We’re talk­ing about the har­mo­ni­ous mix­ing and match­ing of po­ten­tially hun­dreds of in­di­vid­ual aro­ma chem­i­cals,” Pa­pas said. “Com­posers have their mu­si­cal notes, and we ac­tu­ally use what are called ‘fra­grance notes’—three of them—that un­fold over time to the nose like stan­zas of a sym­pho­ny to the ear.”

Pa­pas said that few peo­ple are aware of the all-pervasive na­ture of smells. Scents are a part of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence from the time peo­ple awake in the morn­ing to the time they fall asleep at night. Child­hood mem­o­ries stay with peo­ple through­out life. And smells can have a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence on hu­man emo­tions.

“Fra­grances can make peo­ple feel good,” said Pa­pas, who is vi­ce president-executive per­fum­er at Gi­vau­dan Fra­grances Cor­pora­t­ion, in East Hano­ver, N.J. He spe­cial­izes in de­vel­op­ing fra­grances for eve­ry­day prod­ucts, in­clud­ing laun­dry prod­ucts, scented oils and can­dles, room sprays, and house­hold clean­ers. 

“Fra­grances are part of what has been called ‘nasal nos­tal­gia’, bring­ing back long-forgotten mem­o­ries of pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ences for peo­ple to en­joy once again,” he added. “We strive to con­nect with an emo­tion that makes the con­sum­er feel good and could be per­haps a lit­tle nos­tal­gic.”

Pa­pas cites as in­spira­t­ion the computer-animated film Ra­ta­touille, which is about a rat, Remy, who dreams of be­com­ing a gour­met chef. In one scene, Remy im­presses a prom­i­nent food crit­ic with a del­i­cate, but plain, meal that evokes fond mem­o­ries of his child­hood.

“It was a very sim­ple meal, but it dealt with emo­tion,” Pa­pas said. “It’s the same with fra­grance. A suc­cess­ful fra­grance, much like a fa­vor­ite mov­ie, food, or song, must cre­ate such a strong con­nection with the con­sum­er. It is im­por­tant for fra­grance de­sign­ers to try to trans­port cus­tomers to an­oth­er, per­haps bet­ter, place or time.”

Find­ing that emo­tional lev­el while cre­at­ing sooth­ing scents is not sim­ple, said Pa­pas, a vet­er­an in the in­dus­try for al­most three dec­ades. For starters, he ex­plained even the most bas­ic of fra­grances is com­plex. Each is a un­ique blend of syn­thet­ic and nat­u­ral sub­stances, in­clud­ing es­sen­tial oils ex­tracted from flow­ers and plants. Sub­tle scents found with­in the fra­grances, called notes, char­ac­ter­ize the odor pro­file. These notes, si­m­i­lar to mu­si­cal notes, must work well to­geth­er as build­ing blocks to form the bou­quet.

Top notes are light, dis­si­pate quickly and are of­ten cit­rusy, whe­reas mid­dle and bot­tom notes are deeper aro­mas and could be de­picted as fru­ity or woodsy. Anywhere from 800 to 1,500 chem­i­cals, all with their own un­ique pro­files and char­ac­ter­is­tics, could be found in a prod­uct, de­pend­ing on its com­plex­ity, Pa­pas said.

“Cre­ati­vity is such a fun­da­men­tally im­por­tant as­pect to what we do,” Pa­pas said. “Look at some­one like the pop sing­er La­dy Ga­ga. Some crit­ics might think she’s un­usu­al, but she’s cre­a­tive, and she crosses bound­aries and is able to in­spire. For me, de­sign­ing a fra­grance is about amaz­ing the con­sum­er in un­ex­pected ways, and I try to cross bound­aries.”

But a good de­sign, he said, is much more than a pleas­ant aro­ma. De­sign­ers need to tai­lor their crea­t­ion so that it’s cohe­rent with the prod­uct’s ul­ti­mate ap­plica­t­ion. The smell of air fresh­en­ers must add am­bi­ance and fresh­ness to the home. Like­wise, laun­dry fra­grances must have notes that are light and clean.

In re­quests to de­vel­op a new fra­grance, clients of­ten re­quest de­vel­opment of a fra­grance that con­tains de­scrip­tions of a par­tic­u­lar scent and al­so in­struc­tions that the aro­ma cap­ture dis­tinct per­cep­tions or even help re­call cer­tain emo­tions.


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Crafting a fragrance for detergents that leaves laundry smelling clean and fresh. Developing a room freshener, scented oil, or scented candle that whispers “cool spring air.” Giving toothpaste or mouthwash a refreshing aftertaste that lingers and lingers. The process for putting the smell that sells into thousands of consumer products is much like composing a symphony, according to fragrance designer Michael Papas, who spoke here today at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston Aug. 24. “We’re talking about the harmonious mixing and matching of potentially hundreds of individual aroma chemicals,” Papas said. “Composers have their musical notes, and we actually use what are called ‘fragrance notes’—three of them—that unfold over time to the nose like stanzas of a symphony to the ear.” Papas said that few people are aware of the all-pervasive nature of smells. Scents are a part of human experience from the time people awake in the morning to the time they fall asleep at night. Childhood memories stay with people throughout life. And smells can have a powerful influence on human emotions. “Fragrances can make people feel good,” said Papas, who is vice president-executive perfumer at Givaudan Fragrances Corporation, in East Hanover, N.J. He specializes in developing fragrances for everyday products, including laundry products, scented oils and candles, room sprays, and household cleaners. “Fragrances are part of what has been called ‘nasal nostalgia’, bringing back long-forgotten memories of pleasant experiences for people to enjoy once again,” he added. “We strive to connect with an emotion that makes the consumer feel good and could be perhaps a little nostalgic.” Papas cites as inspiration the computer-animated film Ratatouille, which is about a rat, Remy, who dreams of becoming a gourmet chef. In one scene, Remy impresses a prominent food critic with a delicate, but plain, meal that evokes fond memories of his childhood. “It was a very simple meal, but it dealt with emotion,” Papas said. “It’s the same with fragrance. A successful fragrance, much like a favorite movie, food, or song, must create such a strong connection with the consumer. “It is important for fragrance designers to try to transport customers to another, perhaps better, place or time.” Finding that emotional level while creating soothing scents is not simple, said Papas, a veteran in the industry for almost three decades. For starters, he explained even the most basic of fragrances is complex. Each is a unique blend of synthetic and natural substances, including essential oils extracted from flowers and plants. Subtle scents found within the fragrances, called notes, characterize the odor profile. These notes, similar to musical notes, must work well together as building blocks to form the bouquet. Top notes are light, dissipate quickly and are often citrusy, whereas middle and bottom notes are deeper aromas and could be depicted as fruity or woodsy. Anywhere from 800 to 1,500 chemicals, all with their own unique profiles and characteristics, could be found in a product, depending on its complexity, Papas said. “Creativity is such a fundamentally important aspect to what we do,” Papas said. “Look at someone like the pop singer Lady Gaga. Some critics might think she’s unusual, but she’s creative, and she crosses boundaries and is able to inspire. For me, designing a fragrance is about amazing the consumer in unexpected ways, and I try to cross boundaries.” But a good design, he said, is much more than a pleasant aroma. Designers need to tailor their creation so that it’s coherent with the product’s ultimate application. The smell of air fresheners must add ambiance and freshness to the home. Likewise, laundry fragrances must have notes that are light and clean. In requests to develop a new fragrance, clients often request development of a fragrance that contains descriptions of a particular scent and also instructions that the aroma capture distinct perceptions or even help recall certain emotions.