At the CIBE Cosmetic Formulator Summit & Award Ceremony in Guangzhou, one heavyweight speaker was Yoshimi Sunohara, founder of Brain Beauty, Japan. As an internationally-known perfumer, Sunohara worked for Givaudan and P&G and has been responsible for several scent related projects including Olay and SKII. She’s also won several international awards, including the American Society of Perfumers’ Best Fragrance for Body & Face. Before her speech, “How fragrances can contribute to the consumer satisfactions and brand equities,” Sunohara spoke with Happi.
Happi: What do you think of the implications of mega consumer trends for fragrance designing, notably natural and online shopping/socializing?
Sunohara: Regarding the “natural” trend, the biggest difficulty does not lie in the availability of natural flavor and fragrance ingredients; instead, it’s the consumer’s misconception advocated by the market promotion; i.e., “natural means safe, and therefore more expensive.”
But the truth, we experts know too well, is that quite a few natural fragrances could cause safety issues like allergy. Furthermore, some natural fragrance, such as orange, is not expensive at all. In my opinion, what matters most here is the actual functions delivered by fragrances. Take body wash, as an example; the major role of fragrances is to mask or eliminate body odor.
When it comes to describing scent for products promoted or sold on digital platforms, more consumer education is needed. The industry must build on common ground and develop a universal language to better communicate the scent stories. Just like music, most people would immediately grasp the essence of the music, if the titles of some pop songs are mentioned.
Of course, it is likely that with advancing technologies, people in the future will smell the scent directly from the virtual world. But at the current time, a more practical approach for product developers is to make scents match a brand’s positioning and make users link both automatically.
Happi: How does one better align scent with brand and product? What is your advice for Chinese domestic brands striving to appeal to younger generations with local elements?
Sunohara: I think that the China market is already huge and holds great potential for beauty brands. As it’s still developing, local consumers have not experienced as much high quality fragrance as in the developed markets. But when it comes to scent preferences, there are quite a lot of similarities between Chinese consumers and those in developed markets. From my knowledge gained while working at P&G, for example, Chinese preference for scent intensity is similar to US consumers, while scent type is like Japanese consumers.
As for designing fragrance for various consumer groups, I actually think that life experience, rather than age, should be more important. As a matter of fact, today’s younger generations are exposed to richer new experiences than older ones. So we cannot take it for granted that the scents of products targeting younger people are simple and naive.
There is an increasing number of Chinese tourists in Japan. But when walking around the popular cities here, you can hardly tell the difference between Chinese young people and their Japanese counterparts in terms of fashion tastes. Because Chinese younger generations has been adopting global trends very quickly. And over the time, the consumers in this country will also come to prefer more elegant and sophisticated scents.
Happi: How about instrumental, and seemingly more objective, assessment of scent?
Sunohara: Our fragrance designing process is still largely based on the results of extensive consumer survey and panel testing. For scent assessment, machines and devices are increasingly playing a role. I have also participated in instrumental assessments of scents when previously working in P&G, and, later on, cooperating with Shiseido. However, I doubt that there’s very solid science behind such assessments. Take EEG or NIRS as an example, how can you be assured that one fragrance is indeed attractive instead of aversive to a participant in the tests simply due to more activations within his/her particular brain regions? The human brain is indeed a very complex organ, and so far, we have little knowledge about its related mechanisms in smell preferences.
Of course, instrumental assessment could provide an edge for market promotion due to its novelty. But currently, expert panels and consumer surveys are more effective approaches toward scent assessment. I also would like to stress that, expert assessment is NOT subjective, as we are well trained to put aside personal biases, and normally rank fragrance in a standardized, and therefore, exact same way. Otherwise, we could not call ourselves “professionals.”
Happi: What do you think of the emerging topic of synesthesia in cosmetic R&D?
Sunohara: It’s my favorite topic! I’ve already done a lot of research on it, such as the correlations between smell and color/shape. I think that our senses used to be tightly connected with each other, but no longer. Of course, some of them are still automatically connected, and in some people, senses are even linked in a rare manner, such as being able to visualize a particular color when smelling an odor, this is what we call synesthesia. The concept of synesthesia has been applied to cosmetics R&D. An example is what I did for SKIl Men in P&G when trying to design an ideal fragrance for a men’s skin care product. Firstly, we developed some models, in which smell, color and car images are aligned and connected. Then, by classifying men into three different types, we chose a corresponding model for each type, and conducted the consumer studies. Based on the final results, we determined the exact fragrance appealing to our target consumer group.
Happi: How can you make sure the correct association during such cross-sensory assessment? Is it possible people from different backgrounds might make very different choices?
Sunohara: Yes, it tends to be the case. But, color is a quite different story. One of the studies I’ve done is that, each time we had people smell a scented lotion, rank how much they like it, and then choose a color aligned with it, interestingly enough, they always had the very same idea in color choice. Such as pink for a favorable scent, and brown for not favorable one.
In short, color is commonly used in my assessment of smell, alongside language. As for sound and touch, I think they are also connected, but so far have rarely been researched. In my opinion, auditory and tactile senses are harder to measure by metrics than visual one. On the other hand, color can be measured by hue, saturation and lightness, making it relatively easy to be quantified.