Working with the nose : Sophie Pierre, haircare project manager at IFF

DSC_0642People like her make our everyday life fragrant. A haircare fragrance development manager for International Flavors & Fragrances
Sophie Pierre invents the smell of our shampoo bottles. And thus the smell of our bathrooms, here in France as well as in the whole world. A crucial mediator between perfumers and the clients for whom they compose fragrances, the manager puts his indispensable technical knowledge at the service of a creative process that’s much more anthropological than one would expect.

What is your job?
The company I work for, IFF, is American. So my business card reads: “fragrance development manager”. A job sometimes called “project manager”, too.

What training do you have?
We usually have the same training as perfumers. I went to the ISIPCA school in Versailles. At some point, this program splits in two and we are free to choose what we want to become, but the education remains the same. We have to know raw materials, we have to have a sensibility and interest for fragrance, we have to know about every new product in every sector: shampoos, deodorants, perfumes…

Sur le bureau de Sophie

On Sophie’s desk

As a fragrance development manager, what do you do exactly?
The perfumer handles creation. He’s the one who actually writes the formula and composes the fragrance. What the manager does is manage the project. As a perfume house (IFF ranks third worldwide, behind Swiss leaders Givaudan and Firmenich), when a client has a need, several of us are put in a competition with one another. The client sends us a brief in which he will tell us, say, “for my damaged hair line in Indonesia, I will launch a shampoo claiming deep nourishment and hydration”.  Every now and then there will be olfactory guidelines, but that’s very rare. The brief also entails a few things that are less fun but which we need to take in account, legislation, toxicology – some clients will allow us certain raw materials, others won’t – and depending on which region of the world you create for, legislations vary. It also gives us a price we must stick to. Once the brief is received, the perfume houses in competition will all work at the same time and the only one who wins is the one who gets the deal. Only that one will get paid in the end. This is true of perfume as well (perfume houses such as IFF distinguish between fine fragrance, i.e. perfumes, and beauty care, i.e. shampoos, body creams, shower gels and other body products. There are other departments dedicated to detergents, laundry products, house fragrances….)

My mission as a manager is to receive the brief and try to understand it from a consumer’s point of view. I’m sort of in between: half consumer, half developing fragrances. I try to understand what the client wants in order please which consumer and what he’s going to need olfactory speaking. Then I turn to the perfumer. I need to remember what all the perfumers I work with have in their collections: we sometimes work 3, 4, 5 years on the same project – yes, even on shampoo – and since the project that wins is the only one that gets paid, we must keep everything in mind so we can reuse things that didn’t win the competition they were created for. 

Le salon de coiffure dans lequel les équipes haircare testent leurs projets en conditions réelles

The hairsalon in which the haircare team test their products in real life conditions

I will also help the perfumer readjust his work. We develop new ideas, new notes. With the perfumer we smell, make modifications, decide it’s too green, not fruity enough… We need to really know the brand’s DNA. And we smell in many different ways: from the bottle, in conditions similar to the POP, the point of purchase, meaning just like the consumer will smell the bottle in store. It is the first contact with the product, so it is a crucial moment. Then we can smell it diluted in water, we can smell it on a strand of hair – we have very expensive strands of genuine hair coming from everywhere, depending on the project we need them for: Asian, Caucasian … Then we test on head: we have a hair salon and a hairdresser who comes at least once a week. It allows us to smell the foam, to smell rinsed hair, conditioner, before and after rinse, and finally to smell on dry hair. For some countries who care about it very much, we even smell on dry hair after 24 hours.

What countries are you referring to?
Brazil and especially Southeast Asia. In China, it also has to smell after 24h but it must not smell too strong. In Southeast Asia it has to smell strong and fresh: this is where the difficulty lies since this is conveyed by head notes that are hard to make last. This idea of long lasting freshness is very popular in Asia.

What about Japan?
Completely different. It musn’t be powerful because they don’t want to disturb each other in the public space. For China, it has to be delicate, subtle. There will be apple, melon, a little citrus, a nice floral bouquet, a little lily of the valley, some jasmine, some wood, a little musk, many things but nothing too present. It has to smell on dry hair without being a bomb either.

You always have to think from the perspective of the country you address: in Indonesia the temperature never goes below 30°C, there is 80% humidity. In India it’s the same and we can dare more powerful notes, have declinations of masculine perfumes in shampoos with very powerful, woody notes, masculine fougeres, because the atmosphere all around is very fragrant: Indians use incense, talc powder, etc.
Despite the heat, women in Indonesia will wash their hair at least once a day: they have very long hair so their scalp can’t breathe. The kitchen is open, the bathroom is right next to it: I wash my hair while my mother is cooking and frying things. Thus I need a shampoo that will cover the smell of fried onion. Indonesia is a country that’s mainly Muslim, women wear the veil, and the perfume must radiate through it. When they take their veil off at night, there must be a nice remaining smell there. And these are huge markets.

DSC_0640Can you tell me a little more about what people like according to the region of the world they live in?
In South America, the biggest market for haircare is Brazil. It follows the US, first haircare market worldwide, very closely and should replace it soon. The product they use most in Brazil is not shampoo, it’s conditioner and all leave-on products. Brazilian women have this product called creme para pantear, literally a cream to comb, but it mostly hydrates the hair. They spread a very big nut of product on their hair, at least four times a day: they always carry a bottle in their purse. I’ve seen them do it, they can use up to seven different products each day. Huge market! The Brazilians love to try out new products, but if they don’t like it they won’t give it another chance. As far as smells are concerned, they are rather open, with lots of what we call trickle down of fine fragrance.

Meaning declinations of perfumes that are on the market?
Precisely. They love chypres, creamy florientals, with base notes like Lancôme’s Hypnôse: cosmetic-like, creamy, to convey the notion of hydration. On top of that we’ll add some fruit for the haircare signature, the clean aspect, the freshness. Because it remains washing before it is anything else.
For the United States, we can come up with very, very sweet fragrances. The sweet level in the US is unique and very high: no need to refrain ourselves. When consumers test a product and say it is sweet, as much as it will be a bad thing for the Asian woman, it will be a good thing for the American woman. This said, there has to be fruit, the idea of good health: healthy and refreshing are two words that often come back. It will be, for example, a crispy, acid green apple.
In China it is very delicate, like impressionism: there are many things, lots of ingredients but everything is delicate and in balance.

In Japan I’d say it’s the same as China except you can divide proportions by half. In Southeast Asia it is the long lasting freshness. In Thailand and the Philippines, we can dare fruitier, sweeter, more tropical notes.
And in India we can just go for it. They have ancestral notes that have been on the market for years and that are very hard to beat in the heart of the consumer, Dove for example: they are old chypres with aldehydes, very powerful, a little dusty but impossible to beat. But India is starting to open up, and everything starts to co-exist. Notes like Fructis are gaining more and more shares of the market.

What about Europe?
Europe is a very mature market. And this market is dominated by l’Oréal, whether it be Elvive (here called Elsèveor Fructis. Very pretty notes with lots of facets, or fruity notes but with a real construction behind them. In Germany there are very musky, powdery things. For the United Kingdom we can think fruity, tropical exotic: there is a real connexion to the US. Italy and Brazil like similar things. Major brands will mostly conduct their tests on consumers from France, Germany and England. Russia starts to matter, too. Their forever brand, Calina, is based on very natural products, with herbs, the kind we had in France in the 1980s. Grandma’s recipes, with yeast, eggs, camomile, lime tree… Same in Eastern Europe, where you find jacinth, galbanum, this kind of fresh notes.


 Under the offices, the lab

If you compare to fine fragrance, where you create from scratch, what does it change to create a smell for the precise shampoo base the client provides? Do you need additional knowledge?

We have a department here that handles integrating such fragrance into such base. For every project, our clients provide us with a fragrance-free base. We need to make sure that the fragrance won’t change its physico-chemistry. But shampoos are not the hardest bases to deal with: you can get variations in pH, but that’s pretty much it. Hair dye is more complicated because some materials smell very strong, like ammoniac, or they react a lot, like peroxide water. And if you change the base of that kind of product, there is a risk you will alter the result on the consumer’s hair, and that just cannot happen. All this is handled by the lab and the perfumers.

How many projects can you work on at the same time?
Dozens. But there are different types of demands; sometimes it will be for a country or a region of the world in particular, with well defined olfactory themes and a client who will be quick to choose. It is the case with salon products such as BedHead, TG: the client will ask for a caramel, a lemon pie… Very fun notes.

And then there are what I call the big blockbusters, and for these we do a lot of consumer testing. And we need to please the majority. Pantene, Head & Shoulders, Dove, Clear, Elvive… it is not the same dynamics as on the other projects, which can go very fast: there are always small modifications, things to re-work, but the answer comes in fast, it’s a matter of a few months. On huge projects with lots of consumer tests and big financial stakes, we can be working for a very long time. At the moment there’s this project I’ve been working on since 2007. Yes, it can be very long.

How many trials can big blockbusters like Elvive need?
A lot. It’s huge!

As many trials as fine fragrance perfumes can need? I can imagine the financial stakes are just as high…
My colleagues from the fine fragrance department will tell me off for saying that, but the stakes are actually higher with beauty care. In terms of potential, beauty care is bigger because it is an everyday product, because we are in everyone’s bathroom and that, in countries that cannot afford perfume – I think of India, where people will perfume themselves with deodorant because fragrance is too expensive and meant for a particular social class – hair products are in almost every household. 

Genuine hair is used for testing

Do you remember any project that was particularly exciting?
Yes, many! There is a lot of creativity in shampoo. It may not feel like it, because we often end up with green apple, but beautiful things can be done. Most of the time, we play around the fruit, which is infinite. And even if we evolve around the apple, we can make it sweet, acid… We have a very strong interaction with the aromas department and that’s fascinating. In perfumery, it’s very difficult to make the fruit smell natual: with a strawberry, for example, it’s hard to avoid the candy-like aspect. A simple melon can be Cavaillon, it can be the yellow kind from Spain, it can be cantaloupe… And then there are all the other notes, jasmine, chocolate… Seda, in Brazil, had an amazing chocolate. There are some brands with which you can create very figurative things. Everything is doable, what is fascinating is to be looking for the fruit of tomorrow. In Southeast Asia, the market leader is a green, very powerful melon note. What I care about is finding Indonesia’s melon of tomorrow: rhubarb? Back to green apple? Tomato leaf? We have to try.

What do you like most about your job?
Creativity. As a project manager, I started working at Mane’s fin fragrance department, then I moved to beauty care – I did deodorants  -then I went back to fine and now I’ve been doing haircare for ten years. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.


What attracted you more in beauty care than fine?
I love that we are getting into everyone’s bathroom, all over the world. I like knowing we reach such a wide range of consumers.

And why choose project management?
Because I am in touch with the client who gives me the brief, but also the perfumer I work with. With him there’s a very strong relation, we work as a tandem and that’s great. I am also in touch with the marketing department, who nourishes me and keeps a market watch.  Together, at least once a week, we’ll smell the ten, twenty new products of the market worldwide. I also love the relation I have with the consumer insight department, who tests consumers and analyzes the results. Sometimes we’ll come up with a fragrance, say it is powerful, and then realize the consumer doesn’t find it powerful enough although we were sure to be right. The consumer insight always brings us back to facts. There are figures. Each product gets smelled by 100, if not 200 consumers, and these are in-use tests: the consumer will use it for 15 days, live with the product, so if they tell me the fragrance isn’t powerful enough, that means we didn’t do something right and we need to get back to work. Finally there’s the relation I have with the commercial team, as I often go with them to meet the client. As a project manager, we are at a crossroads between all these different departments, and that’s what is very interesting.

How many other project managers do you work with?
In beauty care, there are 8 of us for 4 perfumers. But I, for example, work for only one client and I’ve got 4 perfumers here, 5 in New York, 4 in Brazil, 5 in Asia…

Does each manager get assigned to one specific client?
Not all of them, but close. I have Unilever. That adds up to a lot of brands.

Is there a piece of advice you’d give to someone who’d be interested in doing your job?
It takes a lot of organization. And the more organized you are, the more you can face urgent demands, and there are lots of rushes. Easy to say, not so much to do! You also need objectivity because in the end we are the ones choosing which fragrances we’ll introduce to the client, it’s not the sales team, not the perfumer either because he can’t be judge and party. Our decision must be thought through and based on solid arguments. You also need to be humble because this is not a very well-known job: you don’t want to do it for the glory. If the project is lost, they’ll know where to find you; if it is won, the perfumer will get the credit and that’s normal. We are not on the front stage, and that’s what I like. Working in the shadow.

What’s the part of your job you like most?
What I love is to imagine smells for the whole world. Putting yourself in the shoes of the Indian woman, understanding what she wants, that’s fascinating. I’ve been lucky to travel a lot in order to understand all this, and that’s great. Seeing a woman in Indonesia wash her hair, go to a salon in China because they don’t wash hair like we wash hair, that’s amazing. What is also really cool is seeing the TV commercial for a product you’ve been working on. “Wait, I did this!”. I’ve been doing this job for the past fifteen years and the magic still works…




Photo © Sarah Bouasse 


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