Looking through the lens of taxonomy is a great way to understand fragrance naming conventions.
Scents transport us. They alter our moods and trigger distant memories. This is science. Perfumery is science, too – but also, art. Fragrances are mankind’s way of bottling up the power of smell. And we have done it quite well. A signature fragrance is a part of one’s identity. It can make us feel more powerful or more peaceful, more confident and content.
There is also the power an aroma can have over those around us. Who doesn’t want to “smell good”? Who doesn’t want to invite others in with a captivating concoction of chemicals? A fragrance sends a signal to those around us. It as close as we will come to a real-life “love potion.”
But despite its obvious appeal, “juice” – the industry’s delightful nickname for perfume – still needs marketing muscle to get it off of the shelves and out of the vitrines, especially in today’s crowded and increasingly fragmented fragrance world.
In addition to having an appealing chemical composition and seductive packaging, fragrances need a great name. Perfumers are the magicians, no doubt, but the names of these marvelous bottled liquids can be a kind of magic, too, and can cast a spell of their own. At minimum, they pique a consumer’s interest. At best, they persuade.
And while many steps are involved in developing quality company or product names, understanding an industry’s naming conventions is always the first step in the naming process. Taxonomy – the science of naming things in groups – is a great way to get a grasp on that landscape. Upon a thorough review of the fragrance market, we found that most fragrance names fall into one of the eight categories below.
Given the great diversity in fragrance names, however, not every fragrance name will fit neatly into one of these categories. And given the sheer volume of offerings, more categories could be added. But we believe this is a good start – and maybe a reasonable finish.
So, whether you are a perfume lover intrigued by this legendary industry, or a marketing executive, brand manager, or fragrance founder tasked with the job of developing a fragrance name, this taxonomy should prove thought-provoking.
What’s more important than the smell itself? Fragrance names like Fresh Laundry and Warm Cotton by the eco-friendly company, CLEAN, tell consumers what to expect when they twist off the bottle top to breathe in the fragrance.
These perfumes also exemplify the trend of using all-natural ingredients in fragrances. Or take Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille, described as “reminiscent of an English gentlemen’s club, redolent with spice.” The moniker expertly captures the complexity of the scent.
In perfumery, notes related to fruits, flowers, nuts, spices and gourmands, woods and mosses, and resins and balsams will always be popular, but the industry has expanded its ingredient palette. Today, even “dirt” – perhaps the world’s original raw material and the oldest note – is staking out new territory with fragrance names like Demeter’s Dirt and Kerosene’s Dirty Flower Factory.
Designers often draw on the value of their brand name when choosing a mark, and with good reason. Chanel, for example, is historic. Chanel No. 5, launched in the 1940s, is cited as the first perfume. It would be silly not to capitalize on this brand equity. Plus, most designer labels – Dior, CK, Chloe, and so on – are solid names. They are pleasing to the ear, and lend themselves well to effective perfume concepts. This category also includes celebrity brands.
This strategy is not reserved for larger design houses or celebrities. Niche company, CB I HATE Perfume, for example, is leaning into its creator’s namesake, Christopher Brosius, with fragrance names like CB Beast, CB Musk, and CB 93.
Another strategy is to reference specific ingredients used in the fragrance. This category has some overlap with aroma, but it is a more literal or direct referencing of the ingredient than a name like CLEAN’s Warm Cotton. Examples include Penhaligon’s Lily & Spice and Pure Vanilla’s LaVanila.
Food & Drink
And then there are food and drink inspired names – the first cousins of ingredient names. As is the case with many food-inspired labels, these names are more about memory than flavor. For example, the perfume name, Brown Sugar, by Fresh, was chosen because of the memories sugar evokes. Lev Glazman, co-founder of Fresh, explains:
“There is something addictive and comforting about brown sugar. We associate it with childhood memories of baking with the family, scents of vanilla and peach and lemon pies permeating the air.”
Other examples of these mouth-watering monikers include Zoils Oil’s scent, called Tamale, and L’Artisan Parfumeur’s, Bois Farine, which means “Wood Flour.” Then there is Gin, a “dark and moody” fragrance by the new fragrance brand, Commodity.
States of Being
Marks in this category evoke a feeling – something the perfume will elicit in the person wearing it, or in the people that person encounters. These names often evoke fragrance’s sensual nature and power to attract, as with Calvin Klein Obsession or Guilty by Dior. They signal to customers: “Wear this to fall in love, to feel, or to be something”.
State of being-type names also speak to people’s personal identities. Are you the type of person who wants to feel euphoria (also a Calvin Klein name), for example? Or maybe you want to feel beyond great, as is the promise Tom Ford makes with the scent, Fucking Fabulous. Or, on the tamer side, there is Donna Karan’s, Be Delicious. The message is: “wear these perfumes, and you will experience these kinds of emotions, or better yet, be transformed into these states of being”.
Gypsy Water by Byredo “is a glamorization of the Romany lifestyle, based on a fascination with the myth” for those that “dream of a free, colorful lifestyle close to nature.”
Red Door, Elizabeth Arden’s signature perfume associated with her Red Door salons, appears to have drawn its inspiration from Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese philosophical system that believes the placement and colors of objects and materials invites in certain kinds of energy – in the case of a red door, “welcome”.
Doors, too especially a red one, make one wonder, “What’s behind it?” Monikers like this one are full of fun, intrigue, and creative storytelling potential.
Like many beauty and lifestyle companies, marketing mavens and perfumers – or “noses” as they are affectionately called in the industry – often turn to aspirational concepts when naming fragrances. This category shares some similarities with State of Being, but aspirational names tend to cue to concrete desires, like wealth, beauty, and youth.
Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds, along with Beautiful and Youth Dew, both by Estée Lauder, are aspirational examples. The names of celebrity fragrances – a perfume type now circling the drain in terms of sales – often fall into the aspirational category. Typical aspirational names are Kim Kardashian’s Gold and Lady Gaga’s Fame.
If you do go this route, it is best not to be overly explicit or prescriptive. As the renowned perfumer and fragrance historian, Roja Dove, points out,
“The name should make one think a little.”
These names have larger stories and themes. A strong example of this is the company name, Imaginary Authors. The company brings the idea of fragrances as stories to life with its title-like names, including A City on Fire, Whispered Myth, and Falling into the Sea. The Beautiful Mind Series actually labels its perfumes by Volumes – e.g. Volume 1: Intelligence & Fantasy, Volume 2: Precision & Grace. Each fragrance is a continuation of the company’s brand story.
Another rising star fragrance in the Whole Story category is Zoologist Perfume, a niche brand with fragrance names like Bat, Moth, Dragonfly, and Hyrax. Each fragrance is accompanied by a vivid story that revolves around the animal associated with the name.
(And in case you are wondering, a Hyrax is a thickset, furry, somewhat rotund plant-eating mammal with a short tail.)
So there you have it – eight categories of fragrance names. As mentioned earlier, not every name can be categorized neatly. Some may fall into multiple categories, while others may fall into a class all of their own. And some fragrance names are so linguistically labored and staggeringly mindless that they defy a category altogether.
(Perhaps that is a category – BAD names!)
However, this taxonomy of fragrance names should prove relevant for the majority of perfumes, and perhaps be a useful tool for the next wave of noses and namers who are looking to bottle and brand the next big scent.