Twin Cities fragrance companies labor over new scents

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 8, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Fragrance companies in the Twin Cities spend months refining their products to stand out in a competitive marketplace.

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Thymes chemists Ashley Eriksen, left, and Coreen Welch in their Minneapolis lab. Fragrance makers’ labs are for testing; the fragrance is developed elsewhere.

Photo: Photos by JOEL KOYAMA • jkoyama@startribune.com,

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Members of the creative team at Thymes soaps and scents knew what they wanted — a multilayered exotic tea base, a leafy green freshness, spiced with creamy honey milky notes.

Their new scent, Jade Matcha, had to be familiar, yet intriguing.

“It should be a bold signature scent,” said Stacy Brown, a fragrance designer at Thymes. “We don’t want it to stand in the shadows.”

Their search for a distinctive yet appealing new scent was part of a never-ending campaign in the fragrance industry, a business that brings in billions of dollars each year in sales of candles, diffusers, room sprays and other products.

Teams like the one at Minneapolis-based Thymes work for a year or more to find a scent that perfectly evokes a particular mood or place and to come up with a name and packaging to complement it.

“A lot of our inspiration comes from beverages, desserts and fashion,” Brown said. “We look for ways to tell stories to appeal to the emotional side of consumers.”

It’s an intensely competitive business. Where a company used to introduce a new fragrance once or twice a year, it’s now common to release multiple fragrances in spring and fall.

Thymes is releasing three new scents this spring and repackaging three more; others in the industry have new products as well. J.R. Watkins, based in Winona, Minn., is adding an entire line of anti-aging body products and one new scent. Illume will have three new scents and a personal care line.

The reason for spreading the scent is simply to build the brand. “We can do that by going deep within one product line, going wide with a lot of different scents or both,” said Liz Barrere, president of Bloomington-based Illume.

At Thymes, the newly released Jade Matcha scent started with Brown paging through Bon Appétit magazine. On one page she found a photo of a tiny cup of Matcha green tea resting alone on a slate tray.

“The color was amazing,” she said. In researching the tea, she and a team of three began to look for a back story on the tea.

In assembling “mood boards” or story boards, they collected photos of a cherry wood whisk used in Japanese tea ceremonies, the jade tea color, and kimono-style fashions from designers Alexander McQueen and Oscar de la Renta. Thinking out loud, Brown and marketing team members Liz Thompson and Amy Banks discussed how the new scent could be on trend — the tea’s color being similar to Pantone’s 2013 color of the year (emerald), the health and wellness and cultural aspects of tea, and the rich culture surrounding tea.

They also knew what they wanted to avoid — there would be no sweet, sugary overpowering perfume-y smell or overly masculine, smoky tea infusion.

While most fragrance manufacturers have their own labs where products are tested for light, shelf and temperature stability, few concoct their own fragrances. Instead, they bring in reps from a fragrance house such as Givaudan or Mane on the East Coast to supply fragrances.

While there are hundreds of houses throughout the world, most manufacturers work with about six. “They visit us several times a year,” said Barrere of Illume, which makes candles, soaps, diffusers, room sprays, lotions and perfumes under its own label and private label products for Target, West Elm and Anthropologie.

Manufacturers supply the fragrance house with a fragrance brief that lists what they are and aren’t looking for. While hundreds of scents can be pitched, the company is quick to divide them into specific scents for specific needs.

Industry cluster

While the strength of the Twin Cities coterie of home and personal fragrance manufacturers is faint compared with coastal stalwarts, experts say the local industry has a strong history of companies that originated here. Aveda and Caldrea started here and were later purchased by larger companies.

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