On Craft: Tracy Pepe, The Scented L'air.

We’ve been curious to explore how creators and artisans across industries approach their crafts. First up: Tracy Pepe, a perfumer who specializes in unique, signature scents that are client and location-specific.

“Scent is a backdrop.” If it was not there, only then you’d truly notice it. It is subtle and makes all the difference. The emotionally pelleting quote is by Tracy Pepe. As Founder and Principal of Classic Aromatics Ltd., Tracy works with malls, hotels, and architecture firms to develop specific, one-of-a-kind fragrances that are culturally and geographically responsive to help brands form deep emotional connections with consumers.

Infusing scientific reality with intentional, engaging artistry, she focuses her making through natural ingredients made for small batch quantities. By a delicate and psychological advanced process, she tackles creating entirely new scents ready to be associated with a brand through an emotional journey.

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Scent descends within a culture or lifestyle through association, dictated by ideas of beauty, cleanliness, attraction. “Some scents are culturally driven. If your brand has a culture to it there’s an additional component.” Tracy’s astute grounding in global scents and their history plays key towards her success for developing new scents. Having worked with brands, varying in architectural use, from New York City to Dubai, cultural adaptation of scent is highly contingent on the sorts of societies her clients focus on. 

Historically, take an example like McDonald’s. By installing charcoal filters, the smell of grease was never associated with their restaurants, hence becoming populated by parents and their children after soccer practice. The scent was and continues to be neutral. This creates a system that allows for rigorous copy-pastes of their restaurant and brand worldwide, while promoting their product. 

Rather than going for neutral, some products have distinct smells. The laundry aisle has a memorable association with cleanliness due to its smell bleeding beyond the packaging. Such association is developed and lingers through history because scent carries emotional triggers. Knowing what those are is the pith of scent-building.

“What a scent will signal depends on the emotional associations we have with these fragrances…the scent actually stimulates brain activity.”

Tracy Pepe

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Scent anatomy:

 

Much like an architect must evaluate how every room affects the next room, scent designers are required to refine every step within a scent’s anatomy to achieve a unifying result. The scent pyramid is the first framework one finds upon a quick google search, consisting of “top notes,” “heart notes,” and “base notes.” These notes characteristically last 15 minutes, 60 minutes, or 6 hours, respectively. However, this pyramid only applies to fine fragrance; Tracy’s craft of scent branding is an entirely different and much more complex process.

“There’s a huge educational component [to scent branding],” Tracy says, explaining the need to bring clients on board with the fact that scent is not a product, but rather the bridge between the client and their space or service.   

Compared to fine fragrance-building, which generally follows the pyramid format, Tracy’s custom scents are built upon a rigorous process involving many steps, one that can take between four- to 20-weeks to complete. Each memory is built upon another. Selecting a note evokes an initial strike of intimate and fleeting memories. This is achieved by delicately, intricately, and slowly designing what each element of a scent, whether citrus, floral, or woody, transfers to a person. The psychology at play triggers a registrar of chemical reactions, profusely attaching a person to a moment awaiting connection to the brand itself.

Effectively making a scent requires vision to recognize the perfect product and catering every decision to move towards that result. To select single scents based on a client’s personal preference, rather than focusing the attention on the final product and its consumers, detracts from the goal. Every time two scents are blended, their chemical makeup affixes to a new memory. If that memory, and its effect on the final scent, do not achieve connection to the brand, it is for naught and must be delicately reiterated.

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Tracy creates artisanal scents, producing 1 to 5-pound batches (minimum runs at a larger company usually begin at 50 pounds). She specializes in natural ingredients, avoiding the synthetic chemicals, alcohols, and solvents used by mass fragrance producers to create boutique, environmentally conscious fragrances. And, unlike other producers, she gives her clients proprietary rights to the scents she creates for them. Her thinking: when the client owns the fragrance, it can become a distinct and identifying brand feature.

Scents breathe life through three forms: heat (candles), solvent (sprays), and diffusion (vibrating fragrance until it becomes gas, distributed by diffusing).  Tracy’s focus is on diffusion. For example, she will tap into a space’s HVAC, whereby she propagates fragrance. The process has revealed questions around the roadblocks antiquated engineering systems pose on the creative process of building and executing a scented brand’s vision.

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Inefficiencies may open doors of innovation. However, it is vital that the craft behind scent development is not lost in either its natural materials or its delicate design. Emerging technologies like AI and computation may also prove to be useful in analyzing branding data, scent production, and execution through HVAC systems. Hence, Tracy’s craft may find harmony with technology, allowing her focus towards fragrance design, by reducing delay on technical execution.

Just as Tracy’s journey opens questions with technology, so does the evolution of human health and human senses. “There’s trends coming out that are key and are very important, and we pay a lot of attention to them. Right now, the big research coming out is the fragrance trends from Covid. You’re going to see a huge, massive change because the consumer’s psyche has changed drastically. What their interpretation of cleanliness is now is completely different, and the ideas of how scent impacts them is now enhanced. But many have lost their sense of smell due to Covid so there’s now a sense of confusion.”

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“The fragrance industry knows how to use these [emotional] associations to tell a story. We are masters of manipulation.”

Tracy Pepe

Branding is a bit like scent-building: 

 

The pith of branding a company or product is to know what it means – what it stands for and aims to do.

“Scenting a space is completely different than a product, and most consumers (brand customers) have never been in a properly scented space,” Tracy says. While the word “brand” is buzzed frequently throughout media, it, like scenting, is often misconstrued or left untapped. When the detailed journey of developing a perennial, profound scent is understood, these misconceptions transform into recognizing the craft.

At times, scent traverses beyond traditional branding. Tracy recalls from her experiences: “Smell can be a home run beyond your branding expectations. We have actually lost clients because the results were too good. They weren’t prepared from a distribution standpoint, and they blew the campaigns.”

By combing through detailing the emotional connections, its psychological associations, and its natural, scientific development, Tracy recognizes how scent plays an effect on the end goal – that is, inclining people to utilize a space as intended by its maker.

“Scent enhances your visuals by 3 times.” Scent and visual branding wed together perfectly in colliding multiple senses at once. It whelms a customer into becoming more fully integrated into a space’s story. This brand intimacy resides in pooling the right emotions, memories, and attachments. 

Smell is an under-appreciated sense in the world of branding, compared to visual stimulation. As companies intend to display a sense of care and connection with their users, and as individuals themselves desire more expression of self, the world of scents finds a rise in custom-designed scents, taking place both digitally and in stores. Just as Tracy takes a company’s brand through the process of customization, we find this happening more and more, at a perfumery, within aroma therapy, incense, essential oils, candles, and so on. Relying on this individuality, coupled with the expertise of craftspeople like Tracy creates sensational experiences for all scales to formulate a burning, spraying, or diffusing dive into scent.

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Tracy Pepe, CEO at The Scented L'air, Toronto, Canada.