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Fragrance startup Snif won’t tell you what their perfumes smell like. You have to sniff them for yourself

Snif wants to be relatable to young consumers who find traditional perfumers pretentious.

Fragrance startup Snif won’t tell you what their perfumes smell like. You have to sniff them for yourself
[Photo: courtesy Snif]

Picking a new fragrance, much like picking wine, requires a lot of specialized knowledge. What’s the different between a perfume, cologne, and eau de toilette, for instance? And can you tell the difference between the base notes and the heart notes? Phil Riportella, a self-described perfume nerd, wanted to create a label that takes all the complexity from the fragrance-buying process. That’s why he built Snif, a direct-to-consumer fragrance targeted at a new generation of consumer that has no patience for pretension.

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Riportella left his career as an investment banker to join forces with his friend Bryan Edwards, a former management consultant, to launch Snif. “Neither of us has any experience in the fragrance world, but we think that’s an asset,” Riportella says. “Professional perfumers make the process of buying a fragrance needlessly complex, and we wanted to speak to consumers like ourselves, who love fragrance but aren’t experts.”

As they did consumer research, they found that young consumers—Gen Z and twenty-something millennials—have different tastes than older generations when it comes to fragrance. For one thing, they don’t care for gendered fragrances, since it seems fairly arbitrary what notes are considered masculine and feminine. They care a lot about product safety and want to avoid things like phthalates and parabens. And having grown up with the internet, they expect shopping for products to be as seamless as possible. Snif’s co-founders designed their company to meet all of these needs.

[Photo: courtesy Snif]
Several new brands—like Byredo, Skylar and Phlur—have tried to simplify the buying process by selling fragrance testing kits that customers can enjoy at home before buying the full-size bottle. Snif does this as well, but tries to simplify it further by sending the customer three full sized bottles plus three testers. They can keep any scent they like, and return the rest. Each bottle costs $65, but you pay $150 if you keep all three. “This satisfies the desire for instant gratification,” Riportella says.

In a radical move, Snif doesn’t bother trying to explain the fragrances at all. Many brands have long, poetic descriptions of their fragrances, but Riportella and Edwards felt this was a little pointless. “In our consumer research, we discovered that people tend to experience scents very differently,” Edwards says. “What smells subtle to one person might smell overwhelming to another.”

Snif highlights the subjectivity of scent by giving customers a pack ad libs cards in the box, so they can describe it in their own words. “Our testers came back with phrases like, “This scent is like a hipster tapas bar with soft lighting,” Riportella says. “What does that even mean? It just highlights how ridiculous describing a scent can be.”

Snif doesn’t want to overwhelm customers with too many choices, so they’re launching with three, but expects to drop new scents every few months to keep the lineup interesting. Riportella believes that today’s consumer isn’t interested in buying a single, expensive fragrance and wearing it every day. “The concept of having a signature scent is passé,” he says. “Consumers want to change their scent based on their mood or their outfit.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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