Hans Christian Anderson, Danish author who wrote folktales and has almost become one himself, published such a tale on 7th April 1837. It was called ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and told of an Emperor and his court who were fooled by two con artists. Spoiler, a plot summary follows. They preyed on the Emperor’s obsession with signalling his supremacy through his clothing by offering to create an outfit made from fabric that was invisible to stupid people. Naturally the Emperor, nor his courtiers wanted to appear stupid and so they ignored their own senses and confirmed that they could, in fact see the miraculous fabric the con artists pretended to make. Suffice to say that the CEO, sorry Emperor paraded his new fragrance, sorry outfit, in front of his massed subjects. Every adult in the crowd being good consumers, sorry, citizens said they thought the new outfit was amazing and it fell to a child to state the obvious. That there was in fact nothing there. The Emperor was naked.
Apparently the kernel of the story and its warning is even older and may hark back to medieval Spain, 1335 and possibly India, 1282. It appears a similar cautionary tale has appeared in different cultures at different times which should tell us there might be something worth noting. It came to mind when I was told about a product that has been sweeping social media and luxury retail by storm and amassing a long list of celebrity and wealthy ‘influencers’ as users, who may or may not have read The Emperor’s New Clothes. It hasn’t yet been confirmed.
The product is called Molecule 01 by Escentric Molecules. What is especially interesting about this product is that it is promoted on the basis that the user can’t sense the core benefit of the product themselves. It’s a fragrance that you, as the wearer can’t smell. Yourself. Your own nose. Obviously no one would buy that, especially at the prices it is retailed at. Now, it gets even more interesting as there is a second and crucial aspect to the promotional story surrounding this product. The manufacturers tell us that as the wearer you can’t smell it, but other people can. Yes. Other people who come near you can smell it but you can’t. Before you think it’s obvious, we aren’t talking habituation here. It’s not a case of your own nose becoming used to the smell after a time, olfactory receptors becoming saturated and electrical signals to the brain weakening or ceasing. No. Many wearers report not being able to smell this scent when it comes out of the bottle. Apparently.
So, to recap, in summary, for the sake of clarity, because it’s a little hard to get your head around, you buy this product without being able to personally discern or even sense its stated core benefit on the promise that other people will.
That is some marketing there.
Is there anything there?
I was fascinated. I had to go and have a look. From a marketing standpoint and from a chemistry standpoint. Let’s start with the latter.
Apparently there is a single molecule in the fragrance which the company call ISO Super E. It’s a ketone that was patented in 1975 as an invention of International Flavours and Fragrances. It’s also known as tetramethyl acetyloctahydronaphthalene. C16H26O. It is used in soap, shampoo, detergents, fabric fresheners, antiperspirants or deodorants, air fresheners and interestingly in many other fragrances at different percentages. It has a sandalwood / cedar wood fragrance. Now what is special about the particular molecule in the product we are concerned with is that it is a specific isomer that no one else uses. So we can only assume that this special isomer has some chemical property that renders it odourless to the human who puts it on their body but not to other humans. There are indeed recognised differences in the way that people smell, similar to the differences in eyesight and other senses but the way in which this molecule is reported to disappear from the olfactory landscape of all who spray it on themselves seems very curious.
I am not a chemist, I am a pharmacist which involves some decent understanding of chemistry but I don’t claim to be an expert on the manufacture of fragrances or their ingredients. I don’t have to be to spot the issues here. I kept searching and reading for long enough to satisfy myself that there are questions to be asked.
I am a marketer and a brand consultant which involves some decent understanding of the ways in which products are built and why. That leads us onto the marketing bit.
Whether there is a strong underpinning science behind this product that I humbly do not understand, and I am open to that being the case, I realised that it wasn’t actually important. What fascinated me is the marketing. Here is an example:
Luxury retailer. Tick.
Beauty supremo. Tick.
Interview style. Tick.
Heavily branded digital environment. Tick.
Confident as hell. Tick.
Hitting the issue head on. Tick.
Challenging you to disbelieve the emperor and his courtiers. Tick.
So much good marketing that I can’t help to admire. Not that I agree with the aim or the claim but it’s done incredibly well and sitting amidst the long, well crafted stream of written, video and podcast (they’ve even renamed them ‘Molecasts’) material, it presents a view of the world that is difficult to disagree with. A world in which it might actually be possible that your own nose can’t smell something but everyone else can. A world in which you might look a bit stupid if you don’t go along with it. A world in which if you play the part of the child who calls it out, you can expect your peers to laugh at you while the whole parade carries on regardless.
What is being sold here is belief. The scent of belief. A bottle of belief. That is what is intoxicating people. Wrapped up in excellent marketing that plays on the tendency of humans to want to be part of the crowd rather than the odd one out. Plays on the fear of being ostracised for not being one of those on the inside. Luckily I don’t live in a world where I worry about that too much.
So how much does belief cost?
You’d imagine that it would be incredibly expensive. Something this special, unqiue and miraculous. Well, it’s currently £76 per 100ml. Not cheap no, but not expensive. Jimmy Choo Eau de Perfume is £82 per 100ml today and Tiffany & Co Tiffany Eau de Parfum For Her is £102 for only 75ml. So what does that tell us? Pricing is a key consideration in marketing tactics. One of the big four. There is a two way relationship between perception of quality and price. At this price is Molecule 1, with all of its unique, scientific wonder at the right price? Should it cost more if the amazing story is true? Or is the price itself a sign that the product owner isn’t telling us the whole story?
I like an empirical test. I am part scientist after all. Or you could say I fell for it but for different reasons. Either way the Emperor, sorry CEO, now has my hard earned pennies if not my belief. My wife first pointed out the product and then understandably got cross with me due to my reaction. Seeing how people use marketing to influence others makes me cynical. I’m working on it. To make it up to her, she has a bottle, that the kids wrapped up last night to give to her this Sunday morning (Mother’s day), or afternoon depending when the oldest one becomes conscious. I think we’ll take turns to spray it on each other and see what is what.
If you are interested, get in touch to find out whether any of us could smell the damn thing.
The gift was received. It was appreciated. It was opened and sprayed. We could all smell it. Whether the wearer or the witness. To be fair the witness could smell it more strongly than the wearer but still, we could all sense its presence. Verdict. It smells good.