I had an interesting experience last weekend, one that few people are lucky enough to enjoy. I traveled around London smelling perfumes with a group of other fragrance geeks that included three perfumers. In St James, I visited the Floris shop at 89 Jermyn Street with Karen Gilbert, a respected perfumer, trainer and product developer who has worked for well-known brands and has a phenomenal grasp of the industry.
The oldest British perfumery, founded in 1730, Floris has a very well-defined brand, which draws heavily on its history and tradition for imagery and positioning. The shop is a glorious mahogany-lined High Edwardian vision, with a marvellous dapper French-accented manager who understands the fine line between helpfulness and intrusion. While the point-of-sale materials and window displays are modern, the bottles and packaging are resolutely 1920s in styling, and give an impression of solidity as well as luxury, and the online presence is absolutely in tune with the physical. Both in the shop and online, Royal Warrants from the Queen and the Prince of Wales are discreetly displayed, as are letters from customers including Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill and Marylin Monroe.
The overall brand image is of a very British quiet elegance and insistence on quality, that places Floris squarely in the ‘upper’ bracket of our class system. It is so immaculately curated that it veers close to Disneyfication, but doesn’t quite become a caricature because of the subtle and intelligent use of modern touches, such as simple black and white website imagery, the modern point-of-sale materials and an ongoing product development programme which has seen new fragrances released that fit with current market trends.
This was when it became very interesting to be smelling perfumes with a professional perfumer. While I would spritz a paper strip and say ‘oh, this is modern, nice and fresh’, Karen would sniff several times, mutter mysteriously about Dihydromyrcenol, Galaxolide and Hedione and say ‘this is a nice twist on CKOne, made with good materials’, placing the scent squarely in the context of the successful products on the market. Karen explained that this is something most perfume-making companies do; take the fashionable or iconic form that customers understand, and simply add a half-twist of this or that to keep it from being a straight copy. This is a particularly intelligent thing for a company like Floris to do, because it keeps the brand’s offerings current and relevant to a larger and younger audience.
However, one of the problems with exclusivity and perfume is that your potential customers need to be able to physically smell the products, but you need to maintain your brand image. Consequently, Floris is stocked in John Lewis department stores and independent pharmacies in county towns; exactly the kinds of shops frequented by the fictional tweedy Honorables that are the backbone of a very British perception of what is ‘upper class’. Interestingly, the Cefiro fragrance which Karen described so precisely as being similar to CKOne is Floris’ choice for their range of hotel toiletries, used by selected five star hotels – another way to very efficiently place their products in potential customers’ hands while maintaining brand values and equity.
While that bottle of Floris perfume or bath essence might look as if it belongs in the bathroom of a Duchess’ country house, it’s equally likely to be bought by a tourist, as a present, or by someone who has used it in a hotel bathroom and enjoyed it. Whoever is managing the Floris brand is exceptionally skilled and I take my hat off to them.