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Noses for Hire: Serendipitee NYC's Founders on Being Scent Whisperers

Published April 24, 2022
Published April 24, 2022
Serendipitee NYC

Corporate fragrance creation is akin to a marriage: finding the right partner takes time, and there are many factors which can determine a successful (or not so successful) outcome. Kathryn Balcerski and Tami Katz, founders of boutique fragrance consultancy Serendipitee NYC, are the olfactory matchmakers for brands looking to bring their branding to scented life. Both honed their craft working for leading fragrance producer IFF: Balcerski as Global Category Manager, and Katz as Senior Fragrance Developer Manager. Their clients span from mass market to the luxury category, including the likes of Calvin Klein, Degree, Marc Jacobs, and Bath & Body Works.

The challenges of scent creation are not just in the fact that we all have different scent perceptions, but also varying vocabulary around smells. One person’s “fresh” is another person’s “spicy” or “citrus.” There is no universal ratings system for fragrance, nor an identical wear from skin to skin.

Balcerski and Katz bring their decades of industry experience, working on the lavender, mint citrus, cucumber, and orange blossom scents for hand sanitizer brand OLIKA, alongside the giants of fragrance production like Estée Lauder, L'Oréal, and Parlux. The duo are also the training partners of Cinquième Sens in Paris and The Fragrance Foundation in New York, educating industry professionals on the art and language of perfumery. With the global fragrance and flavors market set to reach $35,914.3 million by 2027, their endeavor appears to be exponentially expanding.

BeautyMatter sat down with the busy team to discuss the demand for clean fragrances, translating brand essences into perfumes, and grounding through scent in times of uncertainty.

What have been the biggest challenges in developing scents for clients? 

As fragrance consultants, we find that even the most enthusiastic and well-versed perfume lover is amazed at how complex and intricate the process is for fragrance creation. The process takes time, care, a strategic plan, and serious resources. There is no “one-size-fits-all.”

People call us all the time saying they want to launch a scent—and ask if it can happen in six months. It's like any other business from the perspective that you need to answer questions like, “Where and how am I going to distribute? What are my volumes? Who am I competing against? What does the packaging look like? Who can I get a bottle from? Who is actually making the product? Is my offering compelling enough?” And that is just the operational logistics. Creatively you have to think about, “What should it even smell like to stand out?”

As good as the idea might be, it might fail because these details weren’t thought through. 

What are the most frequent client requests?

The single most frequent request is “I want to launch a clean fragrance.” 

However, there is no industry standard or legal regulation for what “clean” means. The word is an idea that everyone really believes in, but the complexities behind the definition—or lack thereof—are vast. Clean means different things to different entities, and navigating that as a brand is not easy. At the end of the day, consumers truly want products that are enjoyable, effective, and safe for them and the planet. But how do you execute that with no clear definition?

To be “clean,” you will need to grapple with safety and toxicology, sustainability from packaging to ingredient sourcing, synthetic versus natural ingredients and their renewability, social responsibility efforts, and the level of transparency on these issues with the consumer. This area is constantly evolving and there are no black-and-white answers. Our role is to work with a brand to define the values that are important to them, choose a lane, and stay in it.

How much of a barrier do differing noses and vocabularies around scent present?

A huge part of what we do is communication. Brands work with us to transcribe their DNA into a fragrance and then act as an interpreter for creating a scent that lives into its ethos. We translate the vocabulary of a brand’s essence into the language of perfumery. It’s a very specific language, and can feel like being in a foreign country where you can’t converse well. 

The better you communicate with perfumers, the better your product is going to come out on the other end. “I don’t like it” is not helpful feedback. This is why we always introduce ourselves as “noses for hire”—people bring us in to help conduct the creative process through smelling, translating, and communicating. There are a limited number of perfumers in the world, and they're expensive and highly specialized, so it’s important to make the process efficient.

"We translate the vocabulary of a brand’s essence into the language of perfumery."
By Kathryn Balcerski + Tami Katz, co-founders, Serendipitee NYC

What are your thoughts on fragrance in skincare: potential irritant or necessary part of the product experience?

Fragrances bring joy. We think not including one is a missed opportunity for an emotional connection with a consumer. Scent is processed in the same part of the brain as emotion and memory, so it’s intrinsically linked. You probably see it in the products that you use yourselves. There are ones that you love the smell of, so you reach for it over and over again, whatever the category—from home goods to perfume.

And you can still develop fragrances for people who have chemical sensitivities, or who just aren’t fragrance seekers, and it can be done safely. There are ways to subtly convey all kinds of emotions through fragrance, and it doesn't have to be big and loud. You're missing an element if you don't leverage scent. It’s like products have different colors because each person will resonate with a different one. 

How can a brand stand out in the fragrance category given the huge influx of monthly releases?

Fragrance should not be accidental; it should be very intentional. Accept that not everybody will like it. We recommend creating “passion” fragrances so when someone smells them, they either love it or know it's not their thing, since scent is all about emotion. You can’t create something that everybody just kind of likes, which is a misguided strategy for a lot of brands. If you formulate something that a broad group of people will like, there is never a hook for anyone to love it. Also, look at the white space for where you want to be. Analyze the competitive set to understand exactly where you should and shouldn’t be.

For example, we work with OLIKA, a clean hygiene brand that creates hand sanitizer. OLIKA means “differently” in Swedish—the whole idea is that its fragrance DNA should also be different. Looking at the hand sanitizer landscape, we noticed two trends: the fragrances were very boring or nonexistent (and the product smelled like chemicals), or were sticky, sweet, and overdone to a point of acridity. We developed different lines of fragrances so that everyone can find one they will not leave the house without. It's almost like their signature fine fragrance. The intent is that every person will fall in love with at least one of the fragrances in a range. And while all the products have a clean element to them, it’s without the functional, medicinal smell people expect. 

What is your opinion on the natural vs synthetic ingredient conversation? What opinion have your customers expressed on the issue?

The transparency movement has helped our industry educate consumers in terms of what goes into perfumes. The openness shows that not all naturals are great and not all synthetics are bad. It comes down to safety and sustainability. Part of the education on naturals is explaining the use of safe materials that don't deplete the environment, that doesn’t harm the farmers who are growing the materials. And, when using synthetics, that the ingredients come from renewable raw materials. 

For example, OLIKA has strict regulations on what ingredients are allowed in their formulations, excluding more than 2,000 substances. Everything must be cruelty free, vegan, gluten free, non-GMO, and they work with a third-party toxicology firm that analyzes the cleanliness and safety of the formulation. The perfumer has to be very thoughtful about what they put in their formulations to meet the brand objectives for clean and transparent.

How has COVID impacted the fragrance industry?

Most fragrance houses’ manufacturing was open through COVID because they were making the fragrances for hand sanitizers, wipes, and all the cleaning products. But the creative teams were working remotely, and that changed the creative process dramatically because not only do you smell together, but you smell on each other's skin. There's a lot to be said about the experience of being in the same place, smelling the same fragrance on the same skin or same hair and in the same room. So the process became virtual—everyone involved in a particular project was sent their own samples to smell. We all smelled separately, but together. This required unbelievable logistics, putting pressure on labs and shipping departments, and like other industries, it took its toll on the people involved. 

How has self-taught perfumery, and an emphasis on challenging colonialist, Western-centric fragrance production, affected the industry?

People didn't talk about perfumers until the last 20 years or so. In the past, perfumers were the ghost writers for the brands. Now consumers want to know more about who created that fragrance and what’s in them. That's one of the genius things about National Fragrance Day—it’s exposing the consumer to the artistry behind the creation. Perfumers take about 10 years to study, and there are only about 650 classically trained perfumers in the world that create the fragrances for every product that you use in your life, from dishwashing liquid and laundry detergent, to hand wash and fine fragrances. It takes a really long time to learn how to use those ~3,000 ingredients and make them smell really good together. It's like becoming a chef or a musician. You have 88 keys on the piano, and it can sound really bad if you get it wrong. Perfumers have to know how to use those ingredients in a way to make a beautiful composition, just like a pianist has to learn how to put the right keys together to make a song. It’s not that the industry is hiding bad things. It’s more that the ingredients used and the science behind them are very complex—it would take a lot of consumer education to be able to understand the 50–150 ingredients that might be in their fragrance.

Perfumery is as much an art as it is a science, and not every ingredient smells pleasant on its own. It's very much like cooking. If you have flour, sugar, raw egg, baking soda, chocolate chips on their own, these ingredients don't necessarily taste good, but then you mix it all together, stick it in the oven, and you have some great chocolate chip cookies. 

Some people purchase essential oils and mix their own fragrances, but this can be extremely dangerous because there is no safety evaluation. It’s critical to have the regulatory and toxicology resources to ensure a formulation is safe for skin. If someone is putting something out on the market that they're mixing in their kitchen, there's no quality control there.

What are the future fragrance trends?

We saw some overriding themes that are really driven by COVID. In 2021, fragrance sales were up nearly 50%, indicating consumers were buying and using more frequently. We also saw consumers were willing to spend more on fragrance.

Olfactively, we are continuing to see consumers look for fragrances that provide comfort and reassurance; that gives them confidence and a sense of safety. The other trend is toward fragrances that transport us to the places we haven’t been able to visit or that elicit fond memories. 

The other reason we think consumers dove into fragrance is that COVID brought the sense of smell to the forefront. Prior, most people took their sense of smell for granted. People are appreciating smells, whether it’s a fine fragrance, candle, beauty product, or cleaning product. We do a lot of fragrance training and had a few students that lost their sense of smell, which they describe as very disorienting. The sense of smell is grounding and gives comfort, joy, and confidence—things that all really matter in a time of uncertainty.


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