South African native and world-renowned fragrance expert Sue Phillips took BeautyMatter on a scentsational journey in her TriBeCa space, The Scentarium. As we descended the stairs we were amazed by the vast collection of beautiful paintings, perfume bottles, books, and wooden furniture that filled the room. It was as if we had been transported to a Parisian perfumer’s creative workplace—every item in The Scentarium has a story. But what intrigued us the most was the self-made scentpreneurial woman who took us on a multisensorial voyage while simultaneously giving us an in-depth history lesson on the fragrance category. Below are our questions for Sue Phillips, and her illuminating responses:

One of your first jobs was working as a fine fragrance trainer for Elizabeth Arden in 1978. Can you describe what the fragrance landscape looked like at this time?

My first foray into the fragrance industry was with Elizabeth Arden in 1978 and the beautiful CHLOE fragrance with the bottle design inspired by the Calla Lilly. Karl Lagerfeld was the master designer for the House of Chloe and the fragrance was complex, beautiful, sophisticated, feminine with tuberose, orange blossom, ylang-ylang, bergamot, jasmine, narcissus, and Orris root at the heart of this distinctive perfume. After my orientation at retail stores to learn about “sales,”  I was promoted to National Training Director for the designer fragrance division, and at that time the European designer “wars” were in full force with Chloe, Chanel (of course), Shalimar, Calèche, Calandre, Lanvin, and Givenchy perfumes.

Arden promoted the perfume brands under their “designer” division Parfums Lagerfeld which also included Lagerfeld for Men. My job as National Trainer was to train, “motivate” and “inspire” the fragrance consultants behind the counters to understand, love, and to sell the perfumes from the House of Chloe. With all the European designer fragrances on the market, we had to differentiate our training, and I always created a memorable MOOD and a CHLOE “ambience” with lovely music, beautiful peach color displays (to match the packaging design), and gave everyone an overview about the world of fashion and fragrance from Karl Lagerfeld and the House of Chloe. When the consultants left our training breakfasts and cocktail parties, they were so psyched that they couldn’t wait to get back to their counters to impart their newly found knowledge to their clients. They were so motivated and inspired about the “world of Chloe” and we noticed an increase in sales thereafter. What I discovered then was that in order to stimulate sales, it was important to tell a fragrance story and to weave an interactive experience about the connection between fashion and fragrance.

Also in the 1970s, American designers, not to be outdone, launched their own perfumes: Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Charlie (named after Charles Revson, originally launched to compete with Estée, a fragrance released by Estée Lauder). The rivalry was fierce and all the perfumes were distinctive, bold, filled with distinct character, and appealed to women who relished their femininity.

The ’80s gave rise to opulent and bold fragrances such as Opium and Poison that reflected the fashion and lifestyle of this era (e.g., power-shoulder scents). How do time periods impact the evolution of fragrance?

The opulence and exuberance and state of the economy of the 1980s was reflected in perfumes. Everything was bold, sumptuous, opulent, wealthy, extravagant and uber luxe, from big hair to big shoulders (remember Dynasty and the wealthy families who feuded over their fortunes and their children?). Conspicuous consumption, designer clothes (Louis Vuitton’s iconic LV Logo bag), excess, sex, drugs were all reflected in the social, political, and economic morés of the time, and distinctive fragrances like Opium (heavy spicy oriental); Poison (strong bold blackcurrant); Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion (the first “celebrity” scent—strong floral oriental), Obsession (spicy, oriental) were the rule of the day. Giorgio Beverly Hills was an American brand founded by Fred and Gayle Hayman. Named after the luxury boutique whose sunny yellow- and white-striped awning inspired the perfume’s packaging, the fragrance of the same name would go on to become one of the most iconic fragrances of the 1980s. The fragrance was so distinctive, recognizable, and sought after but was actually banned in restaurants because it was so overpowering!

The ’90s went through a period of retrenchment and rethinking in art, fashion, perfume and economy—the value of everything was being questioned. The psychology of the ’80s was excess; in the ’90s it was about reduction and conservatism. Ozonic, watery, discreet fragrances were emerging as a reversal from the luxurious ’80s, as consumers were now disregarding their extravagant designer duds, logos, and flashy jewelry. The first of these was L’Eau d’Issey, launched in 1992, which reflected “the pure scent of water.” How original to create a fragrance which embodied a perfume that was “as clear as spring water” combining a waterfall, fragrance flowers, and the scent of springtime! It symbolized timelessness, purity, and movement. Its sparkling “watery,” airy, fragrance, with its floral, fresh, and woody notes, was a revolution after the bold fragrances of the ’80s.

You eventually became VP of marketing at Tiffany & Co in 1987. What was your creative process in developing new fragrances for Tiffany? How does it differ from your process today?

Launching the Tiffany perfume was both a surprise and a dream come true. If you would have told me growing up in South Africa, that I would one day develop and launch the Tiffany perfume as VP Fragrance Marketing, I would never have believed it! I had been at Arden for 6 years (in Training, Product Development, and Marketing), then to Lancôme as Marketing Director for Fragrance and Men’s Skincare) and then I was hired by Tiffany & Co to develop and launch their new perfume for their 150th anniversary.

At the time several submissions had been developed and were contenders for the launch. When I arrived as VP Marketing, I felt that some of the contenders did not reflect the quality, originality, and heritage that Tiffany embodied as a brand. Tiffany had signed a joint venture with Chanel, and in order to create a fragrance that reflected all the hallmarks of Tiffany, I was given the mission to develop the fragrance with Chanel’s chief perfumer Jacques Polge in Paris, and ultimately the fragrance we created was original, luxurious superb quality, feminine, distinctive with a heady floral impression of tuberose, jasmine, and orange flowers.

In order to enlist and engage the comments from Tiffany clientele, I felt it was important to conduct a qualitative and quantitative market research focus group for the final 3 submissions, and also to be fair to the fragrance houses who had spent so much time developing their submissions. We invited Tiffany customers to participate in a focus group to evaluate the new Tiffany perfume and they were so delighted to be part of the process. Ultimately, the results concluded that the submission that Jacques created was the leading candidate. That particular research process was very unusual, but I felt that instead of a focus group with anonymous participants, it was important to involve the Tiffany clientele. This particular strategy was effective and conclusive, and the fragrance was launched and exceeded sales expectations in the first full year.

In the ’90s, Calvin Klein became the first brand to release a unisex fragrance, CK One. How did this all-for-one, one-for-all scent impact the industry?

CK One was the first brand to be positioned and marketed as a “unisex” fragrance and followed the “ozonic, airy” direction of the Issey Miyake fragrance which was launched in 1992. The popularity of the Japanese designer fragrance did not go unnoticed by the American designer Calvin Klein, who realized that a citrus aromatic fragrance for women and men would tap into that “dual” audience, unisex market, after his 1980s dance with Obsession and Sex. CK One was launched in 1994 and was the fragrance that projected the current socio and economic trends—a retrenchment from the bold excesses of the ’80s.

Snowballing off the above question, many of today’s niche fragrances have unisex positioning. Do you think fragrances are gender specific or is this the result of how fragrance was traditionally marketed?

Fragrances, perfumes, colognes are completely different, although many men, unknowingly, use them interchangeably. Men typically have used after shave, which has less perfume oil and more alcohol giving a bracing, stinging sensation. By adding soothing, cooling ingredients such as aloe vera to help soothe the skin after a shave, this also acts as an astringent to “close” the pores, and therefore the fragrance is not very long-lasting. Cologne was saved for special occasions, as the fragrance concentration was higher in cologne and, after shaving, a man would spray a little cologne on his neck.

Perfume is used mostly for women, whereas Eau de Parfum and Eau de Toilette were used by both genders, and cologne referred to men’s fragrances. Lately the definitions have become slightly blurred. Many times, a fragrance house will call an Eau de Toilette fragrance a cologne. Nine times out of ten, in men’s fragrance a cologne will be of EDT strength. The difference in all of these terms  is merely the strength and concentration of fragrance oil as a percentage to water and alcohol.

You mentioned that today more and more men are using the word perfume instead of the traditional masculine word cologne. Why do you think this shift is happening? And what do you think it indicates for the category?

It is interesting that many men contact us and say they want to create their own “perfume.” Millennials particularly refer to “perfume.” More and more companies are offering a selection of concentrations, whereas previously, men’s fragrances were available only in the EDT or EDC strengths. However, in recent years, some finer men’s scents have been offered in Eau de Parfum and even extraît de parfum concentrations. More and more men are now requesting “perfume” for themselves and I always explain that the difference lies in the strength of the concentration.

Within the past decade, we’ve seen a move away from signature celebrity scents and toward niche as the segment driving the fragrance market. Why do you think this shift occurred and what does it mean for the future of the category?

Yes, there has been a proliferation of celebrity scents since the ’80s, and in 2015 WWD commented: “The (Un)Death of Celebrity Fragrance. The American beauty industry’s 13-year love affair with celebrity fragrance is turning sour.” The business wilts as the field of new entries narrows.

Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds is still selling, but not every celebrity scent has been successful. Why? Too many celebrities jumped on the celebrity fragrance bandwagon, launching fragrances at the rapid pace of 18 fragrances over a decade (Jennifer Lopez); and Paris Hilton with 24 perfumes—the earliest edition was created in 2005 and the newest is from 2017; Britney Spears has 23 perfumes—the earliest edition was created in 2004 and the newest is from 2017. Rihanna has 10 perfumes—her earliest edition was created in 2010 and the newest is from 2017. Justin Bieber, who now calls himself a “Designer,” is a new fragrance brand with 7 perfumes. The earliest edition was created in 2011 and the newest in 2014. The consumer has become so confused with all the “me too”-type fragrances, and literally went back to their old favorites e.g., the classics: Chanel, Shalimar, etc., to avoid confusion.

Indeed, many of these celebrities racked up billions of dollars, but the bloom is off the rose in the USA. With the lower price points and many fragrances purportedly giving headaches and allergies, (because of lower-quality synthetics), consumers are looking for higher-end designer and artisanal brands, offering greater quality, and offering more originality, rather than following the “me too” trend of celebrity scents.

You like to take fragrance out of the bottle and create multisensorial experiences, yet newer brands are releasing scents exclusively online. Do you think e-commerce is a feasible approach to fragrance marketing?

The new metrics for commerce are “personalization,” “interactivity,” “multisensory,” “education,” and “entertainment,” or what I call “SCENTERTAINMENT®.” Retail is being challenged right now because e-commerce is so robust. Consumers are looking for transformational experiences and products that will help them connect with the brand. The interesting discovery is that consumers are realizing that they can create their own fragrance online by taking a Scent Personality quiz and then we analyze the results and actually select perfume blends and create a signature scent for someone whom we have never actually met. The response has been positive and fascinating. By taking our quiz, they are engaged in the process of self-discovery and they name their scent and we send it to them. Social media has helped as consumers are seeking authentic products, and if reviews are good, then the trust factor paves the groundwork for the purchase.

We live in the digital age where changes rapidly transpire. How do you think technology has impacted (and will impact) the evolution of scent?

There are apps and devices offering digital fragrance “experiences,” and this will definitely accelerate in the future. For example, setting your alarm to wake up to your favorite scent; or when you go to the movies or watch TV to be able to experience scent in the theater; or even at your own TV or computer with a set-top box that diffuses scents based on software technology. It is the final sensory barrier to be conquered and I am confident that just the way consumers stream Netflix and their programs at will, we shall be able to have a subscription for fragrance diffusion in your home with your favorite TV shows.

With your depth of knowledge in the category, what do you believe has been the biggest transformation to occur within the fragrance sector?

It’s all about personalization and customization. Millennials have paved the way for this as they don’t want to wear what everyone else wears. This demographic is confident in their own decisions, and they don’t follow the trends … they create them. Companies are now offering the consumer a personalized experience. We have been at the forefront of this for 7 years, and people asked me quizzically if we were doing ‘Tupperware parties” for perfume? It’s gone way beyond that. Major corporations are now presenting corporate and team-building events with fragrance—e.g. Lincoln Navigator, Zurich Financial—as they realize that there is a strong connection between fragrance and memory, and by incorporating a sensory strategy, it cements the brand to their consumer.

You were ahead of the times in your belief that the future of fragrance would live in the land of customization and personalization. Using your crystal ball, where do you see the fragrance world going? What will it look like in the decades to come?

As we know, trends come and go, and at some point, customization and personalization will be saturated with everyone having their own unique fragrances. People want newness and, based on current socioeconomic, and political factors I believe that relevant social causes for fragrance initiatives will lead the way to create meaningful brands … e.g., social causes that resonate and link to a brand and that are meaningful and authentic. In the same way that Breast Cancer Awareness has been a cause that Avon and Estée Lauder have embraced, there are many problems in our society and consumers will gravitate towards brands that offer a difference and are compelling.

We know that some of the major social issues that are prevalent in the US will eventually be integrated with fragrance brands to make a difference. While some of these issues are the complete antithesis of “sexy,” it is my belief that the consumer of tomorrow will still want beautiful products and fragrances that will help raise awareness of issues and causes that are relevant. Going back to those early lessons about storytelling: if brands can tell a story to engage with consumers authentically, the sea change will occur, and we will be able to take fragrance out of the bottle and create magical fragrance brands and experiences for people … and by spraying, applying, dabbing, and spritzing, their purchases will help the cause—drop by drop!