Perfume Reformulation: Why Perfume Companies Mess with Success

December 16, 2012 Update

A big thank-you to Kafkaesque for catching the following factual errors in the original post from December 15, 2012:

  • The fragrance industry regulatory body is the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), not as previously stated ISIPCA, which is a post-graduate school for fragrance and flavour formulation.
  • The last name of the LVMH’s Chairman and CEO is Arnault, not Renault as previously stated.  Bernard Renault is a French slalom conoeist, who won a couple of medals but is not yet running a major luxury conglomerate.  

One of the surest ways to rile up perfumistas across the world is to take their favourite perfume and change it without telling them.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the numerous threads and posts lamenting the now deceased original Dior Homme Intense or Kouros Body or Mitsouko.

When reformulations happen, perfumistas don’t have much sympathy for the perfume houses.  Many of them keep asking: “Why would they mess with an already successful formula?”  It is not always clear why but it is clear that often times the perfume houses have no choice but reformulate certain fragrances.  Below are some reasons why they choose to do so.

Changes in Ingredient Regulations

Every once in awhile International Fragrance Association (IFRA) decides that certain ingredients may act as allergens and therefore must be banned or restricted for use in commercial fragrances.  IFRA’s decisions are not totally erroneous.  They are usually supported by some scientific research, which shows that in theory oak moss, for example, may cause allergic reaction to some people.  IFRA takes into consideration this research and makes a decision whether to ban or limit the use of a certain ingredient in the name of the common good.

Guy in a Lab

One common sense question that immediately comes to mind is: okay, let’s say oakmoss causes allergies to some people.  Fragrances like Chanel No. 5 have oakmoss, they are hugely popular and yet there has been no major allergy breakout among the users.  So, even though research shows that oakmoss may act as an allergen in some cases, empirical evidence shows that in fact it has no such effect in most cases when used in perfume.  Why then, would we deprive the majority from enjoying the original Chanel No. 5 for the sake of the unidentifiable hyper-allergic few?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to label a fragrance for potential allergens than just ban them altogether?

en: Chanel No.5 parfume

Regardless, changes in ingredient regulations present a real problem for fragrance companies.  In order to keep their perfumes commercial, fragrance companies must comply with the latest regulations.  It is either this or they have to discontinue the fragrance altogether.  Of course, fragrance houses can always ignore the regulations and sell their fragrances anyway.  In this case, however, they risk losing distribution and their good standing with IFRA.  In simple terms, the risk is exclusion from the “club”.

In almost all cases, it just makes business sense that fragrance houses reformulate their perfumes to comply with regulation.  Sure, the perfumistas will gripe about it but the new release will still hit its sales target.

Cost Savings

Another reason for fragrance houses to reformulate their perfumes is to save money.  This is a very common approach in the age of democratized luxury brought to us by LVMH and Mr. Bernard Arnault.  When LVMH, P&G or some other large corporation buys a luxury brand, the first task at hand is to trim the fat and turn the brand into a lean money-making machine.  When LVMH acquired Parfums Christian Dior their first job was to cut production cost in order to increase profit margins.  Therefore,  the lavender does not have to be the real lavender and the iris could be replaced with a cheaper synthetic.  Inevitably, the reformulated fragrance usually smells differently.  Such differences, however, may not be necessarily evident to the general public.  Also, the corporations have figured out that the mass market consumer does not buy J’Adore for the particular indolic nuance of the jasmine note in it.  They buy it because it is Dior.  In the grand scheme of things, this is okay as long as the fragrance hits its sales targets.

Dollar Bills

Fragrance connoisseurs have every right to be upset when fragrance houses compromise great pieces of art for the sake of maximizing profit.  It is similar to making a caprese salad with canola oil and greenhouse tomatoes – it is edible but definitely doesn’t taste the way you had it in that small town outside of Florence.  Using sub-par ingredients to make a fragrance cheaper diminishes it from a piece of art to a mere mass market product not different than a widget.

Perfume Modernization

The third reason why fragrance companies reformulate perfumes is keep them relevant in an effort to boost sales.  This is particularly true for popular fragrances originally created many years ago.  Dior Fahrenheit, for example, was originally released in the 80’s and then reformulated to meet ingredient regulations and match better recent fragrance tastes.

Modernizing a fragrance to meet market demand makes business sense.  Regardless of what some people say about the timeliness of certain fragrances, many carry the DNA of the decade they were created in.  Take Azzaro pour Homme – it is strong and loud and one can definitely associate it with the 80’s.  Knize Ten has a certain vibe of a fragrance from the 20’s.  The features of these fragrances reflect the trends, attitudes and thinking at the time they were created.  They represent a certain era and stand for something.

From a marketing point of view, however, these fragrances smell dated and they do not sell as much.  Therefore, fragrance companies try to update the feel and vibe in order to make them more appealing to the consumer nowadays.

If you look at perfume as art, then reformulating a fragrance to make it more relevant would be the equivalent of repainting Mona Lisa wearing a halter top because it is more relevant.  The whole idea sounds absurd.  Why should it be any different about reformulating Azzaro pour Homme or  Fougere Royale?

Fern
Fern

These are some of the main reasons why fragrance companies mess with success and reformulate great fragrances.  Considering the commercial interests of all fragrance houses, reformulation often makes sense.  I believe most fragrance connoisseurs understand these reasons and can be even sympathetic with the challenges companies face to keep their favourite fragrance alive.  What bring frustration and criticism, however, is the unwillingness and flat-out denial of many companies that they have reformulated the stars in their lineup.

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15 thoughts on “Perfume Reformulation: Why Perfume Companies Mess with Success

  1. Well, speaking for myself only, I am most definitely NOT sympathetic to any part of their arguments for voluntary reformulation. Don’t even get me started on this issue. It is beyond a sore point! Seriously. (In fact, I was actually going to write a post on this issue later in the upcoming week. You and I are so much on the same wave-length!!)

    BTW, I think you meant to say Bernard Arnault, not Renault. (Perhaps a Freudian slip for how he acts like a used car salesman for lemons when it comes to perfumes? 😉 ) How does ISIPCA differ from IFRA? Did you perhaps mean IFRA with regard to the regulations, particularly those that were passed in 2008 and to be effective as of 2010?

    Back to the reformulations, I know plenty of people who like the supposedly “dated” nature of certain fragrances. There is simply no marketing excuse for messing and gutting timeless classics. None at all, in my very heated, biased opinion. The companies who do voluntarily reformulations deserve nothing but curses and invective hurled at their heads.

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  2. Thank you for the catches on both – ISIPCA and Bernard’s last name. Actually, there is a logical explanation to his approach to luxury – before he bought Louis Vuitton he was in real estate business and his family was owned a large engineering company.

    I confuse IFRA and ISIPCA quite often myself. Now that you brought up the question how they are different, I looked more into each one and you are right: IFRA is the regulatory body and ISIPCA is a school for fragrance and flavour.

    I agree with you – fragrance companies shouldn’t touch classics. You may have heard of Coca Cola messing with their Classic formula based on some blind test result. The outcome of this was a major backlash from the Coke consumers. I’m not sure we’ll see a similar backlash if Chanel tries to reformulate No. 5 because of the recent recommendation to limit the use of oak moss.

    What I personally find annoying is the way companies secretly reformulate their fragrances and spin the story – it is the same good old juice. Parfums Dior is notorious for reformulating pretty much every year.

    What do you think of the following approach of keeping everyone happy when it comes to vintages: keep in production the original formulations and release separately 2.0 versions that appeal to the mass market.

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    1. The secrecy is annoying, if only because of the implication that they think they’re pulling the wool over the eyes of the stupid consumer. As for your approach, a male perfume friend and I had this discussion just last week where he profferred the same suggestion. I agree. I mean, it’s not as though there aren’t 18,000 different flankers for some perfumes as it is. (*cough*Angel*cough.) That said, I’m still bitter enough that I can be quite illogical on the issue of reformulations and part of my illogical heart just wonders why they have to go along with the IFRA rules to begin with!
      There is just no end to this travesty, too, with the new EU thought of possibly banning some perfumes (like Miss Dior, Chanel No. 5 and perhaps one or two others) FLAT OUT. A total and absolute ban. That is what they’re contemplating. Oakmoss is already going to be further impacted with the 2013 IFRA rules, but this is going to a whole new extreme if the EU ends up implementing it.
      I simply have no objectivity when it comes to this issue any more.
      As for Arnault, I have read that he’s actually been surprisingly interfering with the perfume line for Guerlain. Whether it’s true or not, I’ve read that he’s partially the reason for the lighter, almost Eau versions of many scents put out by the company. Less ingredients, lighter scents and concentrations, marketed more expensively=more money. He’s also had a real thing for Dior perfumes from the very start. It’s surprising that a CEO of such a massive conglomerate would interfere in such a small part of his empire, but that’s allegedly the case. You don’t see L’Oreal interfering in quite such a hands-on way with YSL (whose amazing fragrances were some of my favorites and which have now been totally gutted), but Arnault is apparently very different and supposedly has a real thing for, and involvement, his perfume divisions. I’ve even read that he’s made some versions of perfumes impossible to buy online within France itself: http://1000fragrances.blogspot.com/2011/01/several-forbidden-perfumes-in-france.html
      This whole subject simply enrages me, if you had not already gathered that by now. ROFL.
      Totally OT, a small suggestion? Perhaps you can fix the formatting for replies so that they can be nestled 3-4 degrees long, instead of perhaps 2? That way, if you reply to this, and I reply to that reply, it won’t get messy for any subsequent commentator who comes along and wants to have a totally separate discussion?

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      1. I guess the whole thing around reformulation secrecy makes me feel cheated: I think I’m buy the original version when I’m buying some imitation of it. And then, it’s not like perfume companies approach them as “oh, yeah, we forgot to tell you we switched the ingredients”, many of them flat out lie they haven’t messed with the formula.

        I see your point about the reason companies comply with IFRA. They are probably annoyed too when IFRA whimsically switches the rules on them. After all it costs them money to reformulate. Being IFRA compliant must be part of the distribution requirements in some countries. It would be interesting to find out.
        I didn’t know they are contemplating banning No. 5 and Miss Dior completely. It is very extreme, uncalled for and unfortunate. It seems to me, they make these decisions considering the least common denominator. They seem to look at these research studies, figure out that maybe 0.05% of the population may have an allergic reaction, so they decide to ban the ingredient and the fragrance. Following this logic, they should have banned tobacco and alcohol a long time ago but then such a ban would mean no lobbyist money. I guess the luxury industry should build a stronger lobby. Not a bad idea considering that fragrances keep many designer brands afloat. I heard the Armani fragrances drive 80% of the brand’s revenue.

        So far I haven’t heard anything good about Arnault. Most of his deal making practices can be described as back-stabbing. I heard that’s what he did with Jill Sander. He acquired the company, promised the founder to keep her on and then canned her a year later. Now I heard, he had to call her back in because Jill Sander was going down the drain.

        To your point about Arnault messing with Guerlain, I’m not surprised and now that you bring up the formulations of the new releases, indeed they are more on the light side. He probably puts very tight budgets when developing a new fragrance. To stay within it, the perfumers have to use only synthetics in a very low concentration.

        Haha, I see you are very passionate about the subject. I feel turned off by all the politics around designer fragrances. So, at least ideologically I’m drawn to the niche houses. I watched an interview with James Heeley where puts it bluntly: “I make fragrances I like. If people like them, great, if they don’t, oh well, you can’t please everyone.” Not exact quote, btw.

        Good point about the margins. I’ll try to play around with them. Not sure if it’s doable with the control I have over the template but I’ll look into it.

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    1. Thank you. 🙂 Mine will be very different, however, as it will probably just explain the basic issue at hand and then provide a long list of fragrances that have been known to be or strongly believed to be reformulated. I think that will help basic consumers who aren’t perhaps as in tune with the perfume world and its changes. I suspect that the length of the list will make me end up needing to take a valium….. *grin*

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      1. i live a country of dieing economy. though my salary is fine, but in comparison with dollar and perfume prices associated, i ve to carefully choose the fragrances i plan to buy. and it makes me sick to the stomach that companies would deceive the consumers who, put their hard earned money into their hands. i would be waiting for you list of reformulated fragrances. and if its already been done then kindly post the link to your list. regards..

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      2. Hi Yasir,
        What country are you from? I’m sorry to hear about the economic situation in your country and I’m glad to hear you are doing well.

        Perfumes are pricey almost everywhere nowadays, so I am careful about what I buy too. One way to reduce the cost and still get to experience new scents is to get decants instead of full bottles.

        I’ll definitely look for a list of reformulated fragrances. It’s hard to keep it updated though because companies do these reformulations in secret and you really have to trust your nose to detect if the scent is different. The other way to find out is through word of mouth, which is never a reliable source.

        As a rule of thumb, most classics have been reformulated. Many reformulations are quite successful and others just have killed the scent. The best way to go is to try before you buy. The latest reformulation I heard about was Terre d’Hermes. Apparently, they’ve messed with it and the new version is paler.

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  3. A long list of potentially reformulated fragrances would be great. It’s a little bit of a twilight zone when it comes to that. I’m never too sure what’s original anymore. It would be good to share your opinion anyway. The more discussion there is on the topic, the more likely things will change. Not putting money on it but hey, hope dies last.

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  4. I will right away grasp your rss feed as I can not discover your e-mail subscription hyperlink or e-newsletter services. Do you’ve any? Please allow me know to ensure that I might subscribe. Thanks.

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  5. It makes me furious. If someone is allergic to fragrance then they shouldn’t wear it. If you’re allergic to peanuts, don’t eat peanut butter, doesn’t mean you outlaw it for the rest of us.

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  6. Heello there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wahted to give a quick shout out and say I genuinely enjoy reading
    your blog posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that dedal with the same subjects?
    Thanks a ton!

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