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.
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.
Numerous other companies remain, including Thymes, Illume, J.R. Watkins, Intelligent Nutrients and Wyndmere Naturals. "I can't think of another city besides New York and L.A. that produces so many unique fragrance products," said Carly Winslow, vice president and general manager at Ampersand in the Galleria mall in Edina.
Thymes, known for its Frasier Fir scented candles and other Frasier products, has seen double-digit sales increases in the past five years, said the company's president, Anne Ward.
The prestige candle market, where Illume is a big player, grew 6 percent in 2012, said Karen Doskow, director of consumer products at Kline Management Consulting Market Research. Add the personal fragrance market in the U.S. to the home fragrance market for candles, diffusers and room sprays and it was a $10 billion business in 2012, according to Kline.
For Anemone, a new Illume fragrance, the company said it was looking for a floral fantasy fragrance that couldn't be identified with a single note such as gardenia. When the fragrance house presents the fragrances, a team of six at Illume evaluates them.
Gen Cusic at Illume is known as a "nose," or fragrance expert who can smell the top, middle and base notes in a fragrance. As she's smelling a test fragrance, she's taking notes, circling the scents she detects and noting which ones may need to be pushed harder (patchouli) and which need to be pulled back (anise). "I might have the color of the fragrance in mind, too," she said. "Does it smell blue?"
Working in a small group, noses such as Cusic are careful not to make remarks about a scent until everyone has evaluated it. "If I say it smells like cough syrup before someone has smelled it, it's nearly impossible to get that out of your mind."
Manufacturers also tell the perfumers the feelings they want to evoke. When J.R. Watkins considered its new line of body products with anti-aging properties, the team described the product to fragrance houses in terms such as "nourishment" and "comfort."
"We want to them to think complex, warm and natural without thinking of a single note like an apple," said Melissa Christenson, marketing director of product development for J.R. Watkins.
In search of a name
Sometimes the name arrives early in the process, as it did with Illume's Anemone, but it doesn't have to. Manufacturers aren't too quick to slap a name on the fragrance, because names can be polarizing, said Christenson. "Consumers can't always get past it," she said. "A chocolate-scented candle, for instance. It can evoke positive or negative memories."
Jade Matcha was an easy name for Thymes, given its green tea origin, said Thompson, but the process is typically a big challenge. It's the hardest part of the process after picking a scent, she said. "It has to be interesting, evocative, familiar but not too familiar and pronounceable."
If the name flies over a customer's head, packaging should help, suggesting the image of a tropical flower, for example. Effusive prose can enlighten consumers to the complexity of scents from bergamot, lemongrass, cardamom and sugar cane, as in Jade Matcha.
Both Thymes and Illume also develop packaging in-house, trying to design colors and graphics to represent an artful expression of the fragrance. For Matcha, Thymes chose several hues of jade contrasted against a simple yet sophisticated white textured box. The packaging and container are designed to convey "giftability" because many consumers buy their products as gifts.
As the spring fragrances are released in retail stores, manufacturers are already developing new scents for spring 2015 to expand the brand, said Barrere. But because even a simple note such as vanilla has scores of variants, she said, the process never gets old. "We're all product junkies who love fragrance."