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A crucial time for the subconscious emotion business: Several classics of the fragance industry are being given a presentational spring clean. Roger Tredre follows the scent of the perfect marketing ploy

The mistress of H G Wells reportedly found him irresistible because he smelt of honey. Before beginning to write, Guy de Maupassant would set before himself a bowl of ether and strawberries because the scent inspired him. Yehudi Menuhin once claimed that scent was more elusive than music, conjuring up all sorts of subconscious emotions.

This is a crucial time of year for the subconscious emotion business, otherwise known as the fragrance industry. In the two months up to Christmas, the perfume counters of the department stores traditionally make up to 50 per cent of their annual sales, as they market fantasies by the thousand.

New perfumes are launched every month, but the most recent phenomenon is the repackaging and relaunching of classic old names. The theory is that the long-established names have proved their worth over the years. All they need is a brisk presentational spring clean for the modern generation.

Polly Sellar, beauty editor of Vogue, says: 'It's a way of keeping the classic scents alive. Fragrance companies need to remind people that the old names are still as good as ever.'

It also saves them the heavy costs of researching, developing, and marketing a new product, which can run into tens of millions of pounds.

And so this Christmas sees the rebirth of Miss Dior, a fragrance first launched in 1947 when Christian Dior's New Look was the talk of the fashion world. Forty-five years on, the scent remains the same, but the black-and-white houndstooth box has been redesigned in white with houndstooth texture and pearl-grey trim, and the glass flacon is now embossed in houndstooth. Meanwhile, Parfums Christian Dior is spending a hefty 45m French francs ( pounds 5.6m) on advertising its revamped product in Europe alone.

Also relaunched recently is the ultra-expensive Joy de Jean Patou, first marketed in 1930. The new magazine advertising campaign depicts a young woman jumping for . . . well, joy. It is pitched directly at a younger customer, trying to rejuvenate the image of a fragrance traditionally bought by middle-aged women.

An even older perfume enjoying a new life is Soir de Paris. Launched in 1929, it was translated into English (Evening in Paris) for the British market - until this autumn, when the French name was restored, presumably in the belief that British women will find it that little bit more sophisticated.

Relaunches are not a guaranteed way of boosting sales. Within the trade, it is accepted that the recent revival of Vent Vert, a Balmain scent dating from 1947, was a mixed success. More encouraging was the relaunch of Y, Yves Saint Laurent's fragrance from 1964, repackaged in a white vellum box that is thought to impart a new sophistication to the product. The biggest relaunch planned for next year is expected to be Lanvin's 1927 Arpege.

If this sounds like an unsophisticated con trick, it is a remarkably effective one. Recent research has revealed the extent to which women (and men, for that matter) are seduced into buying a fragrance by the packaging and image. The smell itself often comes low on the list of priorities.

The research confirms what marketing executives in the pounds 240m-a-year industry have been saying for years: what consumers buy is not the scent but what it stands for. The woman who buys Joy believes that she is acquiring not simply a classic fragrance, but also a stake in a legend, an entry into a fantasy world of sophistication and elegance.

A survey team working in Munich and Gottingen, Germany, asked women to give their opinions about unidentified fragrances, then tested responses to exactly the same perfumes once the packaging and name had been identified. One unidentified scent was dubbed 'strong', 'overpowering' and 'sweet'. But when it was revealed as White Linen, a perfume that is sold in distinctive white-and-blue packaging, radically different reactions were recorded. Now this strong, overpowering scent was judged 'light' and 'unobtrusive'.

Likewise, the scent of Opium was considered to be far less 'sensual' when tested by itself than when accompanied by the deep red and purple packaging. And the researchers noted that approval ratings for Chanel No 5, Loulou and Ysatis shot up when the brand names were identified.

Why don't perfume companies ensure that scent and image marry more closely? This is precisely the direction in which the industry is heading. Ivor Shalofsky, director of market research at Firmenich, a Swiss firm, points out that the industry has been rather like the fashion business: 'Neither is characterised by a very systematic marketing approach. New fashions are created not as a response to the needs of the consumer, but rather from the ideas of designers.'

Altering the smell of a long-established scent is risky, but many perfume houses are doing precisely that. The strong lemon of Monsieur Balmain, a scent for men, was recently softened by adding a woody element. In 1990, Rochas revamped its celebrated Femme scent. The company called in Edmond Roudnitska, the 'nose' who devised the original fragrance in 1944, to update his creation for a modern woman. 'Nothing was subtracted,' said an insider at Rochas, 'but he tweaked the peach and plum top notes.' Femme doubled sales worldwide within a year.

Now, perfume researchers are trying to come to a closer understanding of the requirements of their customers. Groups of 'average' women are being invited to free-associate about their desires and fantasies. From these encounters, the fragrances of the future will evolve.

(Photographs and graphic omitted)