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Scents + sensibilities

Anandhi Gopinath
Anandhi Gopinath • 13 min read
Scents + sensibilities
Jean-Guillaume Trottier, global brand president of quintessentially British fragrance house Jo Malone London, is responsible for solidifying its premium position in the global artisanal fragrance segment. Under his stewardship, wit and whimsy rule the roo
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Jean-Guillaume Trottier, global brand president of quintessentially British fragrance house Jo Malone London, is responsible for solidifying its premium position in the global artisanal fragrance segment. Under his stewardship, wit and whimsy rule the roost at the Estée Lauder-owned company, as does a strong creative spirit

(Sept 2): British perfumer Joanne Lesley Malone, founder of the now Estée Lauder-owned fragrance house Jo Malone London, has overcome many challenges — poverty and severe dyslexia as a child, and a damning breast cancer diagnosis that she bravely fought and survived as an adult. Despite all that — or perhaps, because of it — she has emerged as an innovator in the business, and is greatly respected for her ingenuity and imagination.

“Respect for creativity — what it does for your life, what you do for it. When you walk the road with creativity, it can be very isolating, because you’re the first one with the idea and there’s often no one around who believes in it. I don’t believe you own creativity; I believe it’s a relationship you have with it. When you acknowledge that relationship, really great things can happen,” she once said in a Forbes interview.

Jo Malone global brand president Jean-Guillaume Trottier may have never met the the artisanal fragrance company’s eponymous founder, yet he maintains the importance of this quality as part of his leadership and considers it an intrinsic aspect of its DNA. Trottier says, “Creativity is the way to succeed. With everything we do, we ask ourselves, is it different from the others? Do we have a creative point of view? If we do not, it is not Jo Malone.”

Known for elegantly simple scents with unexpected ingredients and a unique twist, Jo Malone produces some of the world’s most beautiful fragrances, expressed through coveted colognes as well as luxurious products for bath, body and home. Distinctive yet understated, perfect on their own or artfully layered, Jo Malone’s products have become synony-mous with gift giving, with each product a thoughtful and generous statement — whether a small token or the grandest of gifts.

Estée Lauder’s then CEO Leonard Lauder reportedly fell in love with the brand and worked out the deals of the takeover in 1999 with Malone. Leonard — whose late wife, Evelyn, was a great comfort to Malone during her breast cancer battle — was hoping to strengthen the company’s fragrance division, which today ranges from mass market brands such as Aramis and Tom Ford Beauty to more artisanal labels such as By Kilian, Kiton and Jo Malone. Trottier joined Jo Malone in 2012 as general manager and became global brand president last year.

For someone who took a rather winding path to Estée Lauder’s doors, Trottier has become the perfect fit for the company, with his effusive nature and sense of originality. A trained architect who also studied physics, anthropology and business, he says a chance opportunity brought him to the business of beauty and he has never looked back since. “When I came to Estée Lauder, I realised that I would be able to use my creative side and I wouldn’t be asked to change my personality to fit a box. I am a free spirit, and I am glad that no one has asked me to change my clothes or shave my beard. I have remained in the beauty business because of Estée Lauder — this is a company where creativity is valued.”

Stimulating the senses

I meet Trottier in one of Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur’s luxurious suites during his market visit and, in anticipation of my arrival, the team has created an olfactory paradise. The doors open and I am greeted by the most wonderful fragrance. To showcase how well their scents go together, the team has a chorus line of fragrances prepared for me to enjoy all at once — the scented candles, reed diffusers and samples of colognes. I wave away the offer of coffee despite the early morning, simply because my senses have been adequately stimulated.

We start off at the cologne counter, where Trottier animatedly talks me through some of the brand’s most interesting fragrances — each one has a story or anecdote behind its conception. There are two scents with English oak — one with hazelnut and the other with redcurrants — which strikes me as quite unusual.

“Ah okay, let me tell you why,” he begins. “You see, we were inspired by British hardwoods, and oak is one of the UK’s national trees. My fragrance director Celine Roux said she wanted to create something with oak, but we didn’t want a traditional, woody scent. So, she decided to roast the oak to get a scent unique to us — we own the patent for this — and we had two directions to take with the oak, which was with hazelnut or redcurrants. The marketing people were telling me, ‘You need to choose one’ and I said I cannot — it is like choosing between two children! And that’s how we went ahead with two.”

I then try the Myrrh & Tonka, which is so strong it sends me into a sneezing fit. He grins broadly and I gather my reaction is not unique. “That scent happened because Celine went to Africa and was so inspired by this farmer in Namibia who planted myrrh. She wanted to make a fragrance out of it and I told her, ‘I love you to death but myrrh is very strong and polarising.’ She said don’t worry, that she will mix it with tonka beans.” The scent grows on me, though, and I find myself rather enjoying whiffs of it as it settles on my skin. There are many others I get to try and I especially like the Tuberose Angelica, as tuberoses were the blooms in my wedding garlands. “Perfumes are so evocative, so powerful,” Trottier marvels. “I love this about them.”

I ask him whether there are particular fragrances that do better in certain markets and he laughs. “Let me tell you a story. When we started out in China five years ago, we were told it would be hard because the Chinese don’t use fragrances, so we focused on the bath and body category. But guess what? They love fragrances and I’m selling so much in China, you have no idea. But here’s the interesting thing. A long time ago — this was a time when China was not yet on our map — we created a very traditional British fragrance, Wild Bluebell, which the Chinese customers have decided is the hero for their market. And because we have so many Chinese tourists all over the world, Wild Bluebell sells well everywhere.”

Trottier first joined the Estée Lauder family with MAC Cosmetics, and as general manager of the EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) region, accelerated the brand’s growth there with significant increases in retail sales and an elevated brand profile and positioning across key emerging and mature markets. Recognising this skill, Leonard hand-picked him to work with Jo Malone — an opportunity Trottier was please to accept, even if it meant having to leave his hometown of Paris to move to London. “Can you imagine a Frenchman — a pure Parisian — living in London?” he mischievously quips.

“When I met Leonard, he told me, ‘I want you to build Jo Malone like you built MAC.’ What he meant was to have my point of view, which is to think about the customer and the storytelling and engagement,” he says. “In retail, you can’t have new launches twice a year — you need to have something new all the time, so that customers keep coming back. The problem was, how do you animate fragrance every month? It’s not like make-up, where there is a reason to come back to the store a few times a year.”

Strategy of innovation

What is good for the goose is good for the gander, so Trottier applied to Jo Malone the same successful strategy of innovation that worked so well at MAC. “That’s why I asked, ‘Why don’t we innovate in fragrance like we innovate in make-up?’ That means, rather than create one fragrance a year, we should create 15. And that’s what we do at Jo Malone today — we bring olfactive creativity to the fore of our business not once but several times a year.”

Jo Malone’s products are synonymous with gift giving, with each product a thoughtful and generous statement

According to Trottier, there is a major launch every autumn and, to take advantage of the year-end gifting season, during Christmastime. This is fairly unusual, as perfumers usually rely on time-tested classics at this time of the year — giving Jo Malone the perfect opportunity to innovate and be noticed for it. Also recognising that there was surprisingly little risk-taking in the perfume industry, Trottier gave Roux carte blanche to develop a capsule collection each year, which gives her the chance to explore new ingredients that are not traditionally used in scents. Last year, it was grains and cereals; this year, it was white flowers that grew near the canals she happened to be working close to.

Upon arriving in London in 2012, Trottier spent his early months with the company listening to staff and watching how customers interacted with the brand — he was keen to understand its DNA and what makes its consumers tick. “My intention was not to change the brand but to magnify it. When this brand was created, it was such an innovative brand in fragrance. Its artisanal nature was the cornerstone of the brand and I had no intention of changing that,” he says. “What was important from a creative perspective was to retain the understated elegance. Jo Malone has always been perceived as a brand of good taste — if you go for dinner and bring your host a Jo Malone candle, you cannot make a mistake. And I wanted to keep that.”

This is certainly true — there is much to be said about the experience of unboxing anything from Jo Malone, beginning with its iconic cream and black box and rich grosgrain ribbon. There are boxes surrounding us and Trottier glances at one before making another important distinction about the Jo Malone brand. “This is a gifting brand — when people ask me to talk about Jo Malone, I say that we are a gifting brand that happens to be selling fragrance. That’s really how we have grown the business — making sure gifting is at the heart of everything we do. When customers come to Jo Malone, they may come to buy a fragrance but they are leaving with a gift, whether it is for themselves or someone they love.”

This was part of Trottier’s message as he actively drove a strategy that amplified the craft of the perfumer and the brand’s pioneering approach to unexpected ingredients. Under his leadership, sales grew and the brand’s unique positioning in the luxury sensorial lifestyle space was solidified. “My job now as global brand president is, of course, to oversee how the company is doing and spearhead its development, but it is also about managing everyone and making sure everyone is happy. In London, I have 140 people — eight years ago, when I joined the brand as global general manager, we only had 15,” he says proudly.

’Selling an experience’

During his whirlwind trip to KL, Trottier spent a lot of time at Jo Malone’s busier boutiques in KL — something he does on all his travels, reflecting how crucial retail interaction is to the brand. “I pay a lot of attention to how our stylists serve and edu-cate the customer because, you know, the most important thing in retail are the people,” he says, sitting up. “And I need to make sure that the quality of the interaction between the stylist and customer is at its best. The stylists are the most important for me. They need to listen to the customer — it creates an emotional connection, which is important because we are not selling a product, we are selling an experience.

“What I like doing most is spending time watching the customer in the store. When I was younger and still working as an architect, the best way to get the answer you were looking for — either businesswise or creativewise — was to watch people. I can watch people for hours, and I always tell my team that they will find the best ideas by going out in the streets rather than sitting at their desks,” he adds.

Even if those desks are in one of London’s nicest offices — the Jo Malone townhouse. Located in Marylebone, the beautiful 18th-century Georgian townhouse features the creative handprint of British interior designer Rose Uniacke. “It is where we work, where we create and where we welcome the world. It looks really residential. For our employees, we wanted to make them feel like they were working at home — not something sterile. It is really a lifestyle destination and it’s very British. It was my first big initiative.”

Oak flooring creates a relaxed and informal look and feel, while the generous use of natural materials plays on the idea of the ingredients used in Jo Malone fragrances. Subtle detailing elegantly references the brand’s iconic packaging, ranging from chalky pale paint on the walls to thin black lines stitched across natural calico cushions. Quirky accents such as antique art deco glass wall lights, hand-blown bubble glass lanterns and a wrought iron and steel side table lend the space an unforgettable personality.

As artisanal fragrances increase in popularity — “No one wants to smell like any-one else anymore,” Trottier says dryly — Jo Malone is also set to grow, especially with Trottier’s passion for innovation and creativity. He is also quite particular about looking at its growth from a global perspective, rather than single out or rely on any specific market. “When you are managing a brand like Jo Malone, with very fast expansion all over the world, almost every region is a priority,” he adds. “This isn’t about personal fragrance, but about diffusers and bath and body products — it’s a scented lifestyle proposition. That also means that to grow the business, you need to work not just with the fragrance development side but also on the creative side, the storytelling side, the retail side.”

Remaining inspired is the easy part, says Trottier. Translating that into products that are of the best quality and that work for the customer is the challenge. He goes back to his training as an architect for this. “With architecture, you develop a new way of thinking that is very customer-centric. It is a combination of art and engineering, but the creativity in architecture is to serve other people and not to serve yourself — and this is very important.”

Creativity must always be in the service of the people it is intended to serve and Trottier has ensured that, for all its innovative ideas, Jo Malone remains a brand rooted in real-life sensibilities — scents that evoke memories, fragrances that feature quality ingredients and products that keep customers continually coming back for more.

Anandhi Gopinath is an assistant editor with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia

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