How fragrances shape our product experience

Creating perfume innovations at the Henkel Fragrance Center

Innovation Jun 27, 2024

You can’t smell cleanliness, clean is clean. And yet most people associate a scent, or even a feeling, with clean, freshly washed laundry. These emotions associated with Henkel products are born in Krefeld, Germany: in the Henkel Fragrance Center (HFC). Here, perfumers design the Henkel fragrance cosmos and have been developing signature scents for detergents, shampoos, cleaning products, and soaps since 1956.

Marc-Steffen Schiedel, a long-term Henkel employee with a doctorate in chemistry, has been the head of the Henkel Fragrance Center for four years. “Today, around 70 employees work in Krefeld: in research & development and production,” explains Marc-Steffen. 

Why are fragrances in products so important? “It has a lot to do with emotions,” he says. A certain scent can evoke positive memories. For example, lavender may take you back to your last holiday, or the smell of Persil can remind you of moments in childhood with your grandparents. “The scent of freshness, like Persil, stands for cleanliness and conveys positive feelings,” says the head of the center. Perfumes are crucial for Henkel in order to reach the hearts of consumers as well as convey performance factors such as purity and cleanliness. Persil has had its signature scent since 1959, before that the detergent remained odorless.

A fragrance palette with 1,200 tones

Manuela Materne knows what it means to create a fragrance: The Henkel employee is one of only around 1,000 perfumers worldwide. “My job is to develop fragrances for Henkel based on the available 1,200 natural and synthetic raw materials,” she says. But as she continues, she conjures the image of a composer, creating a symphony of top, heart, and base notes. “Like a musician who strings together notes to compose an opera, I create a harmonious ensemble made up of various fragrance notes,” is how the expert describes it. First, she has the scent for a product in mind, then she combines the different notes using a computer. Lastly, the new fragrance is created, made of between 50 and 150 ingredients. Persil is not one of Manuela’s creations, however, she is the nose and brain behind the scents and emotions of Perwoll and Vernel (blue version). 

Portrait photo of Marc-Steffen Schiedel, Head of Henkel Fragrance Center

Fragrances play an essential role in our product experience. This is because they can enhance product performance and evoke a vast range of emotions within us.

However, clothes often end up lying in wardrobes for several weeks and then still need to smell fresh. “A real challenge,” says Manuela. She explains the fragrance pyramid: The top note (e.g., tangerine, lemon) only lasts for a few minutes before fading. The heart note (e.g., floral scents or spices) lasts a few hours and the base note (e.g., cedarwood, sandalwood, musk, vanilla) lasts up to several days.

According to Marc-Steffen, the main research objective is to maintain the fragrance, especially the top note, on clothes and textiles for a longer period of time. The fragrance components are all made up of small molecules. “To prevent them from evaporating, they are given a kind of anchor with which they can cling to textiles.” Experts refer to this anchor as “precursors”, meaning the forerunners of the corresponding fragrance.

When developing fragrances, however, the experts in Krefeld don’t solely rely on their noses. They additionally perform extensive trainings and tests – with colleagues from Marketing to better understand and implement their requirements for new fragrances but also with consumers to get to know their needs.

How emotions are measured scientifically when it comes to fragrances

Neuroscientific methods such as electroencephalography (EEG) are also used. By placing electrodes on the scalp, brain waves can be continuously recorded and amplified. “Fragrances play an essential role in our product experience. This is because they can enhance product performance and evoke a vast range of emotions within us. By using EEG, we can directly observe and determine how people react emotionally to individual perfumes,” explains Marc-Steffen. The experts from Krefeld gain also important insights by measuring the blood pressure, pulse, and heart rate of the test’s participants. “This allows us to see which fragrances are best received,” says the head of the HFC. 

This, however, can certainly change throughout the years. For this reason, individual fragrances are carefully readjusted time and again. Even Persil has changed its fragrance several times over the course of its long history. Yet, its core scent has remained the same. “Persil has a distinct perfume signature,” says Manuela. This means that people would be able to smell and identify Persil blindly.

Portrait photo of Manuela Materne, Senior Perfumer at Henkel

Like a musician who strings together notes to compose an opera, I create a harmonious ensemble made up of various fragrance notes.

Allergens, meaning raw materials that can trigger allergies, are also a recurring topic of discussion. This is why many companies, including Henkel, additionally offer fragrance-free products. The vast majority of customers, however, prefer detergents, soaps, and shampoos with perfume. Furthermore, according to Manuela, there are virtually no natural raw materials that do not contain allergens. “Limonene is found in a variety of different oils, rose oil contains citronellol and geraniol, and lavender contains an allergen called linalool,” she says. Everything that can be found in nature has the potential to trigger allergies. Sensitive products do not contain these natural raw materials.

The worldwide Henkel fragrances come from Krefeld 

The fragrances created in Krefeld are sent to over 40 countries worldwide. But people’s perfume preferences vary. In Southern Europe, floral fragrances are more popular, whereas in the USA fruity fragrances are preferred and in Asia light fragrances are favored. “We have to adapt to this,” says Manuela. Even within Europe, there are differences. In France, the fabric softener Vernel with lavender is in high demand. In Germany, on the other hand, less so, as some people associate the scent of lavender with moth powder, she states. For one product though, regional preferences do not matter, so the perfumer: “The scent of Persil remains the same all over the world.” Only adjustments to the perfume oil have to be made to the Persil fragrance due to regulatory requirements at local and regional level – however, the iconic fragrance character is retained across the globe.

The Persil scent over the years

YouTube Thumbnail The Persil scent over the years (Thumbnail)

AI is used in fragrance development

Manuela uses a more subtle fragrance when it comes to her own perfume, suiting her rather reserved nature. But when she talks about her profession, she lights up with genuine enthusiasm. “You have to be able to smell well, be creative and passionate,” she lists. Not to mention completing a demanding five-year apprenticeship. 

Now the perfumers at Henkel are being joined by a “digital assistant”, as Marc-Steffen calls it. Artificial intelligence is also finding its way into the Henkel Fragrance Center, where 10,000 tons of perfume oil are produced each year. Primarily to provide new ideas and inspiration for the development of perfumes. But the head of the Henkel Fragrance Center has no doubt: “Artificial intelligence cannot replace perfumers. Because it’s all about creativity and human emotions.”

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