Expressions by Thought-Provoking Fashion Fiends - Creating the Perfect Scent

Rawya Catto, Founder & Creative Director of boutique fragrance consulting agency and innovation lab based in Dubai, Scent Creatives, explains the polarities between western and Arabian perfumery, strategies behind product portfolio expansion, marketing tips during COVID-19, Gen Z shopping behavior and more.

Creating the Perfect Scent

1. Tell us about yourself and SCENT CREATIVES.

My name is Rawya, I am a classically trained scent designer (or “fragrance evaluator’). After about 15 years in the corporate perfumery world, I decided to take a step back from the corporate career as we know it and take a sabbatical to spend time with my children and reflect on my life choices.

I was planning on traveling around and taking some serious time off, but fate would have it otherwise. Being one of the few scent experts in the Middle East and Africa region, I was quickly contacted by professionals looking for olfactory creative direction.

I agreed to a few jobs, but on my terms, and Scent Creatives was born!

We are the first Fragrance Consulting agency in Dubai and the Middle East. From the early ideation stages to the realization of the perfumed product, we help brands across the board (from fine perfumery, to beauty and hair care) find their scented identity and stand out from the crowd of brands launched every year.

2. Why focus on perfume?

Ever since I was a child, I used to collect the miniature perfume bottles that my dad would bring back from his travels. I used to love those small, crafted creations and all my friends would comment on my collection!

The power of smell is a fascinating thing. It has the strength to bring back a moment, a person, instantly. I always remember Damascus when I smelt Orange Blossom water for example. Or the perfume of that special someone…or even the smell of baby shampoo, universal in this part of the world.

It is the unconscious landscape of our daily lives, and I believe it deserves a little more care than it is currently given.

3. What are the scent trends distinct to GCC versus other western parts of the world, such as EU and USA?

Perfuming rituals are anchored in the culture and heritage of the GCC region, and as a matter of fact, wider Arab world. I used to teach the history of perfumery, and always talked about the fact that some of the first uses of fragrance can be traced back to ancient Egypt.

The word perfume comes from latin “Per Fumum”, through smoke. This is referring to the art of extracting scent through burning – a ritual which is practiced daily today in houses all over the GCC, with Bakhoor!

In terms of the actual hedonics of scent, Arabian perfumery has an identity like no other. Over the past 10 years, Western perfumery has awoken to the Arabian accords, and if you smell new launches by major western brands today, they are starting to incorporate Arabian touches and democratizing these strong smells.

Arabian perfumery is first and foremost genderless. The notion of a feminine and a masculine perfume is very western, whereas here, you are invited to create your own identity through the scents which appeal to you. It is always about creating a bespoke experience that translates your personality, through masterful layering of oils, blends, and alcoholic perfumes.

Arabian perfumery is also complex and powerful. Imagine an inviting luscious red velvet couch. The notes are sweeter, stronger, woodier, and overall less “shy” than in Western perfumery.

Oud and its various qualities are a staple and are now being incorporated into modern perfume structures. The “Mukhallat” accord is a rose and saffron on an oud/woody base, Bakhoor has a musky creamy quality which may also be translated into scented accords.

By contrast, Western perfumery is characterized by a certain amount of freshness in its design. It is hard to generalize, but even sweet notes, “gourmand” edible notes have a touch of freshness on top. The perfumes tend to have floral facets, or aromatic lavender notes for example.

However, it is also witnessing an evolution. Niche perfumery is universally moving towards unisex fragrances, and western accords are merging elements of Oud and strong Arabian notes to appeal to the connoisseur.

4. What is lacking in the region around the education of perfume making? How about perfume buying?

You are touching upon a crucial point in this question.

Traditionally, many GCC based families create their own blends at home. However, to be able to compete on the international fragrance scene, and elevate the regional art of fragrance creation, it is ideal to create opportunities for classical perfumery training, incorporating the French perfumery know-how.

Luckily, as this region evolves, opportunities are being created and the highest level of perfumery training is finally available here. There is a pool of promising talent that needs to be fostered, so Dubai can compete on the international scene and rightfully become a perfumery hub, alongside Paris, Singapore or New York.

In terms of the purchasing experience, we come from a tradition of curated perfume buying. Buying fragrance used to be a social experience, where families would go to the store, drink tea, and sit comfortably, take the time to smell and talk about the stories behind each creation or Oud oil.

Sadly, nowadays we often experience a rather painful retail experience, where we are bombarded by overly eager sales representatives who spray our skin without even a basic conversation on what we are looking for.

We all know how badly Covid-19 hit retail, hence going forward, it is of the utmost importance that the buying experience becomes a moment of solace and carefree fun, through appropriate staff training and brand story building. We relate to emotions and stories, so let us harness the power of the brands and the pillars they were built on to create meaningful buying experiences.

5. Let’s look at two types of purchasers: risk avoiders who stick to their favorite comforting scent, and risk takers who are willing to try new scents to stand out. Which of these two types of customers should brands focus their marketing $ on and why? Is there a winner or are both as important to the brand’s success?

From a brand’s perspective it is the absolute dream to create a success story that transcends generations. The holy grail is to have an iconic scent such as Chanel 5, which has been on the market since 1921, and still has its hard-core loyalists.

However realistically, with more than 1000 launches each year, creating a loyal fan-base is hard to achieve without a solid differentiation point.

This is where we come in. I am a solid believer in Simon Sinek’s “Start with the Why.” Why do you feel the need to create a new fragrance? If the only reason is to expand the line, then it is not enough to resonate with your consumer base.

In the middle of all the noise, customers need to hear your message. So, brands must tailor their message to the group they are targeting. Identify your tribe. Speak with it, connect with your community.

Are you creating a fragrance for Emirati working moms who are rooted to their culture, and yet have travelled the world? Then create a fragrance for them, that addresses their desires, and speaks their language. Or maybe you are an environmental activist, and want to tell the story of the forests of your country through a scent? Then create a fragrance that will tell that story and conjures those nostalgic images.

And once your masterpiece is out, be thoughtful on how you speak about it and who you communicate to. It’s not about the amount invested, it’s about being wise about where that money is being spent.

Invest in your community, and you will create your own success story, and find that loyal fan base.

6. Without as much face to face contact as previous days, how has COVID-19 impacted the way that customers can trial perfumes on? What can brands do to navigate this challenge, since as we know, samples & testers are extremely important when it comes to exploring new scents?

It's time to get creative! In the absence of the sense of smell, there is an opportunity to utilize all the other senses to make the fragrance come to life.

First of all, there is a tremendous opportunity for improvement on how brands describe their scents. A simple example: What is easier to imagine for you, if I say it smells like patchouli and oak moss, or if I tell you the smell is like the soil of a forest after the rain?

These language tips are underutilized. The right selection of images goes a long way too. Imagine a picture of a wooden chalet with a fireplace, and old leather seats, and the smoke of a cigar. Images have smells, let’s make the most of that!

Equally, digital can be the right way to talk about scent. We have all these wonderful VR tools that can create an immersive experience, combining visual and sensorial stimuli.

A simple trick can be to equip retail stores with handheld elegant fans (that match brands) and wave the fan to create a contact free whiff of the scent to experience. It’s about time to get creative and disrupt the way things have been done for too many years.

7. Millennials and Gen Z tend to have different purchasing factors than Baby Boomers when it comes to buying perfume. Can you elaborate on those with regards to price, quality and convenience?

The perfume industry is about 2 generations behind when it comes to fine perfumery (in my opinion). Which explain why in the Western World, Millennials and Gen Z are indeed moving away from traditional perfumery and seeking brands that correspond to their needs and desires.

First of all, the language of perfumery is outdated. Who knows the difference between and Eau de Toilette, an Eau de Cologne and an Eau de Parfum? Perfumery advertisements also need to up their game to speak to a new generation.

The boy meets girl narrative is getting a bit dated. Today’s youth is more thoughtful in terms of what they choose to spend their money on. We wrote a thought piece during lockdown, where we divide millennial consumers into 2 tribes: “Showcasers” and “Experience Seekers.”

We all have an Experience Seeker in our social circles. Those tireless travelers who are always on the lookout for the next adrenaline rush or the latest food joint in town. This set of consumers is primarily driven by a search for internal gratification. The experience can be visually shared but is lived solo by its lead actor.

On the other hand, Showcasers live a big part of their life in the public eye. They document and share their purchases and excursions and are not hesitant to provide opinions or reviews on their encounters. “Instagrammable” moments are key drivers for newness. External validation by their identified peer set can be the ultimate push for product adoption and public praise/referral.

Brands have an opportunity to speak the consumer’s new language and provide them with products and experiences that fulfill their latest aspirations.

An interesting case is the example of newly launched brand Snif, who promises to simplify the act of purchase by selling you an online perfume without any descriptions, and you have the option of returning it back if you do not like it.

8. Often we see fashion brands expand into producing perfume, such as Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, etc. Is this always a logical portfolio enhancement for luxury brands? What criteria should brands achieve before expanding?

There is a strong case for luxury fashion, and even jewelry brand to expand into perfumery. This is a love story that has proven to be successful. It is the aspirational window to a brand. Not everyone can afford a Dior handbag, however, we can all aspire to purchase a Miss Dior bottle, or should we want to break the bank a little more, a Rouge Trafalgar flacon.

And who has a better story to tell than designers? That story comes across beautifully in a fragrance. Elie Saab is a great regional case of a fashion designer, who has been able to associate his name to fragrance successes that represent the Elie Saab woman, with big floral femininity. 

From an investment perspective, a smart fashion designer can build a leather empire on the back of fragrance as the entry investment to create a scent is lower than that of a collection of handbags for instance, and yet may provide a big return with decent profitability.

However, prior to embarking on a fragrance adventure, again, ask yourself, why? Will my fragrance contribute to telling my story as a designer? To sharing my vision for the person of the Middle East that I am designing this new and avant-garde abaya for?

If the answer is yes, then I would encourage everyone who has a strong personal brand & identity to consider fragrance, as we all want to grasp a bit of that stardust…

9. Where do you see SCENT CREATIVES going in 5 years?

Can I say I have a dream or has that sentence been coined by a certain Martin Luther King?

No seriously, there is so much work that needs to be done to bring the fragrance industry to a level that would make me proud, that five years seems barely enough!

There are so many industry changing initiatives that we need to get onto, the task is immense.

We utilize natural resources, so how do we preserve and maintain that biodiversity?

Fragrance inspiration is rendered richer by cultures, so how do we foster diversity in an industry that has been reserved to a certain elite for too long?

Oud is rare, and as expensive as gold, how do we classify and talk about a high value ingredient?

What about fragrance digitalization and modernizing an industry that is disconnected from the realities of today’s consumers? And a cleaner more respectful supply chain?

If you ask me, five years from now, I would want to have a team of elite thinkers that tackle these problems. I want us to use our voice and expertise to harness the power of scent for the greater good, preserving the scents of coral reefs for example, or making cellophane wraps a thing of the past.

I also want us to be a safe place for women of the fragrance industry, of all colors and backgrounds. Most of the perfume creation roles are handled by women, and a big chunk of the products bought are by women, so why aren’t there more women in the decision-making seats?

But before all that, we must survive, so taking it day by day, baby steps, and if we get through this pandemic, let’s talk again!

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© Curated by Rawya via TishTash for Curated ME.

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