What the Somerset House Perfume Exhibition teaches us about branding

Photo by Natalia Luchanko on Unsplash

Fragrance – something you smell. Seems obvious, straightforward – and all you need to know, you’d think. But when I went to A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent perfume exhibition at London’s Somerset House (open until 23 September 2017), it blew my mind…

Photo by Natalia Luchanko on Unsplash

This multisensory exhibition challenges your perceptions of perfume. You walk through 10 rooms that showcase obscure objects – beds, logs of wood, Catholic confession booths – each smelling of something different, from summery florals to unsavoury wafts of smoke. The whole point is that you don’t know what you’re smelling, and the objects you see are distractions.

Lauren at A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent perfume exhibition

So what’s the message? Without being able to see what the smell is, you become MASSIVELY confused. I may be a perfume expert, having had intense training from the likes of Roja Dove and Azzi Glasser, but this perfume exhibition muddled my brain, causing a conflict between sight and smell that I’ve never experienced before.

When you’re faced with a smell and given no clues of its origin, your brain goes into overdrive, questioning what could it be, what does it remind me of, what familiar smells is it similar to?

Challenging our senses

And it got me thinking – this exhibition goes back to the core of fragrance, the art and creation of smell without the big branding. It’s where the history of fragrance started – do you think the Egyptians would have cared for brand names like Calvin Klein or Jimmy Choo (not that they existed) when all they really loved was the smell of jasmine petals (yes, they used to put in in their baths too to help them relax, FYI). Exactly.

So flash forward to 2017 when branding is basically written in the fragrance bible. Today, what we see has become more important than what we smell: we buy into the bottle, packaging and sales pitch of the notes. Incredibly hot man on the advertising campaign of the new Paco Rabanne scent which you spot on the advert break of your fave TV programme? Straight to the shops for you…

But really we should be appreciating the smell first and the sight of the brand and packaging afterwards, which is what this exhibition taught me. I’d like to think that I’d still love my favourite scent, Issey Miyake L’Eau d’Issey Pure (orange blossom and jasmine) if it was packaged in a metal tin. Or that I’d still wear the classic Giorgio Armani Si (mandarin and rose) for important events if it was presented in a holiday souvenir shot glass.

My challenge to you next time you buy a new fragrance? Forget about the branding, the adjectives and even the price. Is it a smell you’d like to wear every day? Then you’ve met your match.

And remember, it’s not what you see, but what you smell…

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