July 14, 2022

Scent-making in Brand-building: Celebrating the creative visionaries behind Scentmate and Sowvital’s unique fragrance.

Smell alone amongst the senses can either destroy or quite remake a man

Jerome Cardan, De subtilitate rurum, 1550

Scents tether people to their environment. Even a whiff of something in passing will take you back to that time, place, or person. Whether it be the comforting scent of your grandmother’s perfume, or the smell of your hometown, the olfactory sense has the strongest link to our memories and emotions. It is a wonder, then, why there are not more creative collaborations like Sowvital and Scentmate focusing on developing scents in brand-building.

From the humanities to business and the sciences, people are realising just how vital our sense of smell is to our holistic experience of the world. Though intellectuals, like W.J.T. Mitchell, have been claiming for decades that there are no purely visual experiences, it seems easy for people to ignore the importance of fragrance, perhaps because it goes unseen. While in many ways ‘invisible’, it is far from indispensable; fragrance is at the new frontier of brand marketing and world building, and it is here to stay.  

“If you are interested in plants and the plant world, you are also interested in how they smell.” - Isabelle Van Ingen

Jack Lewis, Founder and CEO of the recently launched Sowvital plantcare brand, joined up with fragrance consultant Isabelle Van Ingen, and Pablo Lechado from Scentmate to take brandbuilding to the next level. Sowvital focuses on reconnecting people with their house plants through its curated collection of products and unique three-step system. Its brandworld is rich with tales of botanical voyages, playful illustrations and tactile textures, which bring elements of nature and the beauty of plants into one unified narrative. When designing such a complete world, how could they possibly forget about smell? 

“'The fragrance we developed for Sowvital is a well balanced, elegant and luminous blend of orange blossoms with bright and green aspects. The fragrance opens with some fresh petitgrain and zesty bergamot, followed by orange flower, neroli and tea leaves. The drydown is very soft and well rounded with white musks, cedarwood and amber.'” - Sebastien Lacouture, Scentmate Technical Perfumer

Jack contacted Isabelle Van Ingen in 2021, an independent fragrance consultant with 25 years experience in the fragrance industry. Isabelle works on  global projects for the main FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies, and with the top 3 fragrance houses in the world. According to Isabelle, startups usually don’t have the volumes that bigger businesses have in order to develop these types of scents, so it is hard to get that type of quality work in startups or small businesses. “Luckily,” Isabelle remembers, “I was just introduced to Scentmate, the first AI-enabled fragrance house by Firmenich, launched around the same time that Sowvital and I met. ” The Scentmate team’s aim is to easily serve entrepreneurs and new brands offering the same quality that big fragrance houses offer along with craftmanship, perfumery expertise and consumer data, all with the ultimate agility derived from digitalization.

Photograph by Charles Negre

This turned out to be the perfect fit. Scentmate was able to create great quality fragrances thanks to Firmenich’s more than 125 years of extraordinary perfumery know-how and customer experience. With the fastest development time on the market and, unlike other big fragrance companies, Scentmate was able to accommodate small volumes. While scents have been used in marketing from the 1920s when Coco Chanel asked her Chanel No 5 Perfume to be sprayed all over the store to international retail companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hugo Boss and Jimmy Choo developing their own differentiating scents, Isabelle cautions that “this only works when you develop the right scent that conveys the right message, so it should be done carefully!” Professor of Sociology, Anthony Synnott likewise reminds us, “Odour is many things: a boundary-maker, a status symbol, a distance-maintainer, an impression-management technique [...] but it is above all a statement of who one is” [1]. A tricky task indeed. 

Isabelle explains the memory of a fragrance is much stronger than the memory of other senses. For example, after 6 months our brain remembers only 25% of visuals compared to 82% of fragrances. With this in mind, it is powerful to use scent as a key part of your brand building. Professor of Psychology at Brown University, Tygg Engen, writes that “like a bad habit, [an] odor connection is difficult to unlearn and forget.” Professor Engen explains this may be due to “the overlap between central olfactory pathways and the parts of the brain – in particular the hippocampus and amygdala – that organise and store information from all the senses and provide its emotional tinge” [2]. The careful, creative, technical work that goes into making a scent has higher stakes than a logo or font that could be revamped every few years. It seems that when a scent-affiliation is made, it is there to stay.

When Scentmate, Isabelle, and Sowvital went to work on developing Sowvital’s signature scent, “It was very helpful,” says Isabelle, “that Jack had such a clear vision of what he wanted for the brand.” A major part of the process involved conceptualising how Sowvital’s brand colours, textures, and sounds could be translated into an ethereal scent, something you could fit within Sowvital’s world-building.

In addition to the scent itself, both organisations had to take into consideration the technical and regulatory implications of the final formulation. Could it be used in pop up shops in different countries with different regulatory requirements? In this way, the scent development journey became as much about the identity of the brand reception for people as the commercial practicalities of a globally identifiable scent. 

Jack acknowledged the extreme importance in using the Sowvital scent as a way of creating a connection between consumers of the product, regardless of where they were in the world. Many scholars note how “smell has long been used as a cultural symbol to express the concept of ‘oneness.’” [3]. The new fragrance creation by Sowvital and Scentmate will not only identify Sowvital’s brand, but has already started to bring a community together, bound through time and space by fragrance. “After only interacting with the fragrance a handful of times, mainly in the pop-up shop, I found myself thinking about Sowvital throughout the rest of my day even when I was away from my houseplants and the products,” says Sowvital Chief of Staff Kimberly Glassman. The fragrance develops over time and will continue to resonate with people even after they interact with the product or store location. The key was to create the right scent that would remind people of the key elements of Sowvital’s philosophy.

Photograph by Arnaud Le Brazidec

The process involved months of testing and developing the top, heart, and base notes of the fragrance. “Scentmate sent us from Switzerland many samples and modifications to the UK and Barcelona (where Isabelle is based) and we smelled together,” Isabelle remembers, even during lockdowns they “met on-line, and gave feedback to the perfumers and the professionals involved in the process, until we smelled our final version.” Throughout the process Jack was steadfast in his focus on developing a scent which in his words “had a timelessness to it”. The innovative visual identity designed by Leslie David in Paris, in particular the packaging, draws on classical lettering and colour codes, but with a subtle modern twist. The carefully constructed graphics are designed to carry a brand which sees itself sitting visually unchanged on a customer's windowsill decades down the line. The same is true of the scent. 

More than just a brand-building tool, Sowvital and Scentmate collaborated to bring back the artistry and beauty of fragrance culture whose origins stretch back in time and cross cultures from the fragrance fountains of ancient Rome to the practice of the incense-smelling of the Tang Dynasty in China. Sensational and sensorial, Sowvital and Scentmate’s fragrance is making waves in the brand-building industry. 

Photograph by Charles Negre

[1] Synnott, A. (1991), A sociology of smell. Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie, 28: 437-459. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-618X.1991.tb00164.x

[2] Engen, Trygg. (1991), Odor sensation and memory. New York: Praeger Publishers. ISBN: 0-275-94111-6.

[3] Ngamcharoen, Pitchaya. (2021), Common scents, a social sense of smell. Olfactory Art and the Political in an Age of Resistance. Lynn, Gwenn-Aëll, Parr, Debra, eds.New York: Routledge. ISBN: 978-0-367-54474-1.

For further information on Sowvital’s products and scent journey, visit www.sowvital.com.

For more information on the work of Isabelle Van Ingen, visit www.isafragbrances.com.

To check out Scentmate’s ongoing projects, visit www.scentmate.com.