Product scents hide absence of true innovation

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Call it the sweet, sometimes overpowering, smell of success: Household product marketers are catching the distinct aroma of money when they turn up the fragrance.

In a high-tech age where products claim to do everything from prevent wrinkles to freshen dry-clean-only fabrics in a dryer, making emotional appeals through scents is proving at least as effective as more tangible selling propositions. After succeeding in years past on antibacterial and improved cleaning claims, Colgate-Palmolive Co. last year boosted its liquid dish soap business market share 2 points to a record 39.8% in 1999 on the fragrant strength of Palmolive Spring Sensations, a botanical-scented line inspired by strongly scented Mexican-produced cleaning products.

SURGE FOR GAIN

Procter & Gamble Co., which tried to increase market share of its Tide brand last year with a combination of an antibacterial claim for powdered detergent and a "clean rinse" formulation for liquid detergent, instead saw a much bigger rise for its Gain brand -- powered by a stronger-smelling formula.

Tide powder sales were down 0.7% to $900 million for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 23, according to Information Resources Inc., while Gain sales climbed 14.2% to $220 million. In liquid detergent, Gain grew by 69.8%, while Tide only saw a rise of 10.2%. Hence, P&G's latest laundry initiative: marketing Gain alongside its Bounce fabric softener, adding new "matching" scents.

In many cases, the appeal of fragrance also can be its potential to produce a quick, cheap bump in sales, says Tom Vierhile, president of Marketing Intelligence Service. "It may be an outgrowth of just having less genuine innovation to talk about."

But marketers are going further than just adding more and different fragrances. They're also trying to put a psychic twist on them. With names like Ocean Breeze and Spring Blossom for Palmolive and Invigorating Burst and Calming Mist for Downy, they're putting an emotional aromatherapy spin on cleaning products.

ALL THE SENSES

"I'm seeing more use [of fragrance] across the board by my clients looking to bring in all of the senses," said Doug Hall, president of Richard Saunders International, a new-product development company. Mr. Hall said his research, using a database of 4,000 product concepts, shows the most successful new products appeal on both rational and emotional levels and to as many senses as possible.

Palmolive Spring Sensations "taps into the need to make dishwashing more of a pleasant experience, using more substantive fragrances and attractive packaging," said Suzan Harrison, VP-general manager of oral care at Colgate, who was head of the household cleaning business when the product line launched last year.

Even food-inspired scents are being used for cleaning products. Lines like Colgate's fabric softener Suavitel -- which comes in a vanilla scent -- work because food triggers positive emotions, Mr. Vierhile said. In many cases, such as the watermelon-like scent of P&G's new Physique shampoo, the appeal is never overt.

"Where [fragrance] really helps is as a reason to believe reinforcing a [product] benefit," Mr. Hall said. "It's also helping with, dare I say, old people, as they start to lose their sense of smell and taste."

HISPANIC APPEAL

Besides playing to the graying of America, heavier fragrances also work in growing Hispanic markets, said Ruth Gaviria, VP-marketing and sales of the LatinFusion.com portal and former director of Hispanic and Asian marketing for Colgate. Ms. Gaviria was in charge of bringing Suavitel and Fabuloso hard-surface cleaner from Mexico to the U.S. in 1996, and, more recently, Caprice Botanicals shampoo (See related story, Page S-4).

"Fragrance in the U.S. had not been a big thing" in most household categories, she said. "All of a sudden we see the U.S. open to fragrance. And in the Hispanic market we've been there with fragrance for years."

REVERSING A TREND

Still, the trend to more fragrance flies in the face of a wave of lightly scented and even perfume-free products launched in the 1990s, Mr. Vierhile said, from Unilever's All Free & Clear and P&G's Tide Free and Cheer Free to products like Puffs tissue without perfume.

Pouring on the perfume isn't entirely risk-free, as S.C. Johnson & Son learned with its AllerCare line last month (see story below). Some media reviewers of P&G's Dryel fabric softener have also complained about its heavy "fabric softener" scent.

But consumer fragrance fatigue may actually pave the way for more, stronger scents, Mr. Vierhile said.

"The fragrance industry has lost a lot of sales to bath-and-body shop marketers, who have integrated more fragrances into everyday products. That may have anesthetized consumers and laid the groundwork [for more fragrant] household products."

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