How To Translate A Brand Into A Smell

Smell, maybe along with sound, is among the most powerful instigators of emotion. Baxter of California President J.P. Mastey talks about the scents and sensibilities of collaborating with retail brands.


Do people actually bake cookies when they show their homes for sale? Maybe not, but the idea has gotten so much traction because there’s truth in its intention. Smells evoke memories and associations like nothing else, and perhaps none more positive than fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies.

Jean-Pierre Mastey

So how does that sense memory translate for retailers? Once a store has refined its playlist and analyzed customers’ in-store traffic patterns, the next frontier is scent. “You may not remember what song was playing, but when you come back to that scent again, it will be reminiscent of the experience,” says Jean-Pierre Mastey, president of Baxter of California, a growing brand of men’s cosmetics, which was acquired by L’Oreal just over a year ago. “It’s something that evokes more memory than anything.”

After developing the scents for his men’s grooming products and defining the boundaries for those scents (Baxter’s deodorant has a musky citrus smell, while its oil-free moisturizer is scent-free), Los Angeles native Mastey branched out and started a line of candles. But he was careful to separate them from the grooming products: the candle division is called Flammable by Baxter of California. “My idea with our candles is always to remove the grooming aspect behind the brand. I want the candles to be a brand on its own.” After all, do you want your hair to smell the same as your living room?

The new products were so successful (“You’d be surprised how many guys want to buy candles,” Mastey says) that retailers came calling for his services. Colette, Unionmade, and Stussy are three of the boutique stores that have enlisted Mastey for candle collaborations; Hong Kong restaurateurs Ronin, sought out Baxter to make a candle and an exclusive hand wash for its restaurant Yardbird; even Tokyo fragrance brand retaW teamed up with Baxter for a too-cool-for-cabbies hanging car air freshener. “Retailers have this new point of view of, ‘I want to brand something of my own. I’m not just a store, I’m also a brand,” says Mastey.


Here’s how Mastey works with a company to come up with a smell that expresses its brand–both as in-store ambience and as products for sale.

Baxter x Saturdays NYC


When it comes to a sense of scent, some of it’s innate. “I’m one of those people who can smell 20 things and I can tell you that I love three of them, and that’s it,” says Mastey. “I know what I like and what I don’t like so it’s been very easy for us as a brand to use that attribute and sniff and dismiss right away. Or I can smell something and say that’s exactly what I want, with a small modification. I think that’s a personality thing. We blend scents together just like food. Certain things blend together really nicely. You’d never be able to know what’s in it, but a great nose knows how to take a scent and complement it really well.”

And some of it’s learned: “What I learned was the articulation. My vocabulary for scent is getting better and better and I’m able to work with fragrance houses and experts a lot better now than I was at the start. I’m a lot more realistic as to what can be achieved in a scent as before. At first I thought the sky’s the limit, ‘I can make you whatever you want.’ Now I’ve started to get more realistic. I’m able to educate our collaborative partners a lot better so that when they come at me with so many different scent notes, I can say, ‘Oh, oh, you’re making a fruit salad that’s not going to taste good, so let’s narrow that down.’”


Putting Words To Scents

The process of creating a bespoke scent that speaks for a brand is truly collaborative. “I speak with the brand owner and I ask them questions like, ‘What do you like in the market right now? What personal fragrances do you like?” he says. “I love to ask people what they wore when they were a teenager.” [For the record, Mastey was a CK One guy; he credits that unisex fragrance with his love of the clean, citrusy, neutral scents that dominate the Baxter of California product line.]

The trick is to get the terminology straight. “It’s very difficult to articulate scents,” says Mastey. “A brand owner doesn’t have that vocabulary, so it’s a game. Some people think they know exactly what they want, but they often find out that it was something completely different. People will say, ‘I want something very vanilla and I want it spicy and I love fennel.’ And I’ll go, ‘That is terrible. You don’t want that.’ So I break it down. ‘You want something that smells natural but with some spiciness to it.’ We then discuss examples so we can define terms and get on the same page. I like to focus on two or three different things, but it’s very difficult for people because as they start to imagine what they want in a candle or in a scent, they’re going to reference many things that they like. A lot of the things just don’t work [together]. I have more success having people tell me what they like on the market in the version of a fragrance. If I’m not familiar with it, I’ll go to a store and smell it and then I’ll call them back and say ‘Okay, now I know what you like. You really like amber. You were calling it something else, but this is an amber scent.’”

Image: Flickr user Majunznk


Some collaborations are more open ended. When he began working with French retailer Colette, Mastey showed creative director Sarah Lerfel white wax and a blue wick that was exactly the shade of blue that Colette uses. “I just sent her those, no scents,” he says. She loved it. Then she asked Mastey what scent he would give it. “I jumped the gun on the marketing of the candle and kind of gave her a whole pitch: Colette has a series of products that say, ‘We Love Paris’ and ‘We Love [insert object here].’ I said, ‘We Love California. You love our brand, don’t you?’ She said, ‘Of course we do.’ So Mastey cooked up some options that evoke what he imagines Europeans love about California: “A little bit grassy, kind of fresh, tones of citrus. She loved it. That was a very harmonious, very organic collaboration. It all came together easily.”


Trying To Catch A Concept In A Bottle–Or Candle

You can’t always wax poetic. Mastey made a candle for Unionmade, another “kindred spirit” store, in San Francisco, which already carried Mastey’s Flammable line of candles. “Carl and Todd, the two owners, partners who own that shop, have really good taste. You see that in the clothing and architecture, furniture, everything they do in the store is really cool.”

So Mastey began a lengthy back-and-forth process with his collaborators, but the two parties couldn’t arrive at the perfect outcome solution based on sharing samples of candles they loved and trying to articulate the desired scent. So the Unionmade partners started sending Mastey samples from a wide range of sources–fragrances, soaps, “even a Japanese fragrance thing for your laundry,” says Mastey.

“It was the full gamut and we started going over on the telephone what is it that you like about this. I tell them ‘I like this about this. I don’t like that about that. I find this has a sharp note in there like ginger that I really don’t like,’ to get synergy and we dialed into a couple of different products and said, ‘Okay, we’ll take something from this and something from this and we tried to narrow it down to saying, ‘Okay, we’re only going to take from this and this, not this, this, this and this because it’s too difficult.'”


A tough talk yielded a complex scent: “Most people say it’s a very sophisticated, smoky scent. It’s got tones of wood, natural citrus in it that you don’t really get right off the top. It blends. All these other small components help to make it less intrusive, something you’re not going to taste or feel in your throat because some smoky candles can. Nutmeg, vanilla, citrus, even.”

When a scent works, it can be as powerful a brand statement as any visual communication. “You walk by their shop in San Francisco and it draws you in. They tell me people come in all the time and ask, ‘Do you sell what I’m smelling right now?’ They want to create the ambiance and attach it to them, but at the same time, a lot of retailers want to get away from third-party stuff and create their own branded things. It’s a sense of accomplishment and pride to say, ‘This is ours, our brand–yes, we sell other brands, but this is ours.’ We give them the ability to be able to do that. Some of it is being able to brand their own product and sell it and have a skew that is theirs and then some of it is to create an ambiance that is uniquely theirs.”

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.