The olfactory identity of brands that goes beyond Covid: Perfuming and sanitizing large spaces, while prompting “scented ideas” to make a difference
Fragrances at the core of successful entrepreneurial stories.
The interview with Lorenzo Cotti, founder and CEO of Integra Fragrances, allowed us to get to know an Italian company that develops customized olfactory identities for prestigious international brands and diffuses them in 48 countries around the world.
Born in Reggio Emilia in 1968, after many years of experience in the IT sector, in 1996 Lorenzo Cotti entered the retail world with the design and construction of new concept stores.
In 2006 he founded Integra Srl, expanding the business into retail of sportswear and automotive sectors.
His innate passion for fragrances and his awareness of the great communication strength of the sense of smell is reflected in the development of the first in-store scent diffusion systems.
Following this inspired intuition, in 2009 he enacted a quick shift of direction for the company that, precisely with the mission of “communicating at 360 degrees through scent,” became Integra Fragrances.
Today, Integra Fragrances is a reference in the creation of olfactory identities for grand world-class brands, and of their implementation in retail, hôtellerie, transport, and wherever there is a space open to the public and a brand to be communicated.
When and according to what premises was your company born?
Integra Srl, that afterwards became Integra Fragrances, was founded in 2006 in Reggio Emilia where it is still based, and in its corporate mission it presents itself as a company designing and building retail concept stores. So a 360 degrees design and architecture firm enumerating among its clients several brands by companies in the fashion industry and, since its starting year, above all in sportswear, outdoors, equipment sectors, but also in the automotive one.
Initially, fragrances were not at the core of our business, even if, due to my passion and by understanding how the olfactory component could have amazing potential within the stores, we offered to our customers ambient scenting among the many “store communication tools.”
In those early days, back in 2008, the available technologies were just not so developed, and the fragrances commonly spread out in the spaces were of poor quality, generally lacking in style and without a fitting identity.
We therefore proceeded, a little at a time, to include within the projects for our clients what then and still today we can call olfactory marketing.
Between 2008 and 2010 coinciding with the beginning of the financial crisis of those years, accompanied by a profound reorganization of distribution/retail the transformation which will lead us to a total company repositioning begins. We stopped designing and building concept stores to do something else: we decided to entirely focus on a repositioning centered on fragrances and ambient scenting.
The starting know-how of our technical department made up of engineers, architects who designed concept stores and, equally important, thermo-hydraulic systems within a store whether it was an auto or motorcycle showroom, a luxury shop, a fast fashion outlet helped us in this delicate transformation phase.
Gradually, we brought onboard our team people specialized in this new field, and I myself began investigating the subject.
With persistence we have built our new company, a new value proposition and a new business model on which we had already started to previously work, without though completely abandoning our first activity. Integra Fragrances, as it is currently, was precisely born from years of experience in the retail sector.
Such operation lasted two and a half years, with a real skin change, until the new business was ready to stand on itself.
As it often happens, the crisis was also an opportunity to be reborn and presently Integra Fragrances has been operating in this field for ten years, with an excellent level of growth and a rewarding recognition on the market.
How do you position yourself in the market? What have been and what are the references for your development?
We are certainly the leading Italian company both in terms of installations number and turnover, and in our specialization on creating integrally customized olfactory identities. We obviously do not have a catalog, but we do have an archive of around 1,400 fragrances, an important asset of materials which took time to be built and coded in a useful way, so as to represent a competitive advantage, part of a distinctive know-how.
The engine for this growth is the investment in research and development, and in technology to provide a global service to our customers that have branches all over the world. In fact, although alignment and work to define the olfactory identity are carried out in the client companies headquarters in Italy, for example, the offices of Bulgari or Fendi in Rome the scent diffusion system must then be implemented with the necessary variants for different plants of air ducting in all points of sale throughout the world.
Our success has developed on such basis as well, and today we are recognized, on the Italian market and also worldwide, for the excellent standard in the creation of olfactory identities.
What are the main steps and critical activities of a typical installation?
Our technical department dialogues with our clients’ counterparts across the world: we receive floor plans outlining the systems, and from there we start off with our design, defining how the scent will diffuse in the air.
Among the many actions we put into effect in the spin-off period I mentioned earlier, we acquired a small company dealing with thermo-hydraulics, because we had to consider in which direction the air was moving and we could not simply spray the scent in the spaces: to be able to perform and offer a good price-quality ratio, we need technologies, people, professionals in various application areas of this area of expertise.
Technological development is associated with extensive operational activity within our headquarters and, for instance, the regulatory aspects management is essential. Good logistics is crucial too, as preparing our material and sending it in every corner of the world, through customs, is not that straightforward. Often intervening on refitting and not on construction sites which are built from scratch is complicated since we have to adapt to what is existing, and the prerogative of our system is always to remain invisible: our customers want to smell the fragrance, but without equipment displayed.
Ten years ago, providing such service was complicated because at the beginning we were less structured and we had not developed an adequate network as yet. It took time to grow, build skills and be able to meet the needs of our most demanding clients.
Creating an olfactory identity and diffusing it: how is innovation perceived?
It is a challenging operation we have accomplished in hundreds of Intesa Sanpaolo branches, as an example. The generally traditionalist approach of the sector, led to thoroughly consider every change, has not prevented the bank from accepting a process which is certainly impactful. We are used to not smelling a fragrance and overnight both the employee and the customer begin to respond to new messages sent by their brains. Now there is something that was not there before. They can be positive or negative messages depending on our life, on our experience. That’s why it is not so easy to deal with such change: those are complex operations from which you rarely go back.
Is a perfume forever or can there be some accepted or acceptable variations?
Our goal is to create the olfactory identity, the outfit of a brand. We cannot say it is forever as the brand changes too. However, if the job is done right and we have been consistent with that brand communication, it lives on for a long time.
Identifying with an olfactory identity is an activity having a long-term effect, it takes time and perseverance.
The olfactory identity is generally renewed according to the renewal timing of the institutional image. It is hardly “seasonal,” nor is modified following products’ launches.
Just to give you an example, I am thinking of Benetton, one of our long-time clients: we changed the scent two years ago, after 5-6 years of using the previous one that was a plain scent, a “safe fragrance,” a green perfume, which readily combined with the brand. And then the need occurred for the brand to evolve by also changing the architecture of the stores, the communication and even the collections. The fragrance as well has followed this restyling in order to communicate more advanced and articulated messages to customers. We have thus developed a more complex fragrance, best suited to the taste of the moment.
Every six months, though, we receive the updates at worldwide level about consumption and new trends in the perfumery market. That’s also to be updated on the olfactory tastes of the new generations per geographical area, because dealing with branding operations, it is necessary to look ahead at least 5-10 years. With attention as well to what the customer in Italy or in Dubai or in the United States “decodes” of the olfactory impulse.
Anyhow, if we talk about branding, the fragrance must be one, even if we have case histories of some brands having instead two scents and those are rotated according to the seasonality of the fashion collections, or the simple alternation of the seasons.
Your activity implies a relevant part of analysis of brand identity and creativity, and then there is a technological aspect that, as you pointed out, is extremely important. What weight do those elements have in the success of a company like yours?
Unlike other companies doing our same job by applying a different business model, to us the protagonist is the fragrance. For instance, the Anglo-Saxon companies, that like our firm build the device, generally create a proprietary technology, organize a library of 30-50 standard scents selectable from a catalog and develop their turnover by finding in the various geographical areas distributors to which they can entrust the marketing of equipment and consumables, including fragrances themselves. They are more BtoC-oriented models compared to ours that is exclusively BtoB. Also in our communication and our site testifies to it the protagonist remains the fragrance, despite being one of the most difficult products to convey. We cannot smell a scent via the web, while it would be so much easier to give information on a device and communicate the diffusion system technology.
In congruence with these communication principles, our “style” is to open the couvettes containing the samples of all our creations in the presence of the client. Our credibility comes from our references and fragrances previously developed for other brands, this is our strength, often defining success vis-à-vis a new customer.
In those circumstances, there is nothing more to add since the instant you smell the fragrance of La Perla, Fendi, or Emirates, you acknowledge that they are all absolutely consistent with the brand they represent.
Our approach to the client is largely collaborative and responds as well to needs that are not necessarily part of our core business. As an example, we support our customers even just as a technological partner. In those cases, the clients provide us with their fragrance already on sale and we carry out the second part of the work, namely the functional adjustment of the formula and the design and installation of equipment for diffusing the scent inside the spaces.
We have many other activities underway such as, for instance, the creation of scented “thank you cards,” and lately we have been doing wonderful things to perfume and sanitize as well what’s delivered at home via e-commerce. Instead of opening packages smelling of glue and cardboard, it is right to arouse a “wow effect” and smell the fragrance of a distinctive brand we encountered in a specific shop, which we smelled when we were invited to an event, a fashion show, a fair. But also that same fragrance the company delivered home to us with a “thank you card.”
What is the process that Integra Fragrances follows to respond to client needs, in terms of olfactory brand?
It is a structured, but fluid process: analysis of the brand and of the client’s aims -> brief for the perfumer and the fragrance house -> creative collaboration with the perfumer -> evaluation and selection of proposals -> presentation to the customer of the “olfactory brand,” that is the proposed olfactory identity.
Our work of analyzing and interpreting the brand attributes and key values translates into an operational brief transmitted to the fragrance houses along with the olfactory directions. We are very well internally structured for an evaluation from the olfactory point of view, but we do not deal directly with the creation of the fragrance formulation; that’s because we do not want to be tied to a single creative nose.
It would be a limiting factor, and for this reason we need to work in partnership with fragrance houses that provide us with the best raw materials and the most suitable creative figure for each project.
We have more or less close relationships with various fragrance houses depending both on the product volumes we purchase and on the olfactory message we want to convey.
It even happens that, in creating a corporate fragrance for a brand in specific areas of the world, we are asked as in the case of one major Chinese client of ours to express it in a non-univocal way, but declined in variants which meet at best the tastes and peculiarities of particular regions. If we do not own yet a specific culture in such world area, we get helped by one maximum two fragrance houses that can support us in the selected goal.
How did you deal with the “Covid period”? From your particular angle of observation, what are the trends in place and how do fragrances interact with the sanitization of the spaces?
Before the pandemic and the lockdown of March 2020, in cooperation with the Department of Chemistry of Università di Parma, we had already started a series of tests on fragrances which, due to the essential oils they contain, have natural antibacterial characteristics. We had also already carried out tests for perfuming and at the same time sanitizing in a natural manner the premises of some clients within the pharmaceutical distribution.
When the lockdown was put in place, we did not stand still, but we decided to invest all our efforts in the study and set-up of scented and sanitized spaces, in order to offer to our customers a dual system capable of performing a useful service in the new contingency.
Considering our more than 4,500 devices connected to ducted air conditioning systems, operating on large volumes and remotely controlled by air flow and air quality sensors temperature, humidity, CO2, VOCs, PM2.5, and other parameters we wondered: “If we ourselves do not do something, who else has to do it?”
First of all, we focused on studying what active ingredient we could use and we started a complex selection: within Integra we have highly qualified chemists. We ended up preferring quaternary ammonium salts for their non-oxidizing characteristics, although we used peroxide with excellent results. The maximum safety of our applications is the output of an in-depth laboratory study and is guaranteed by protocols and reports to control and document extremely low exposure to the active ingredient (<50 CFU / m3), well below the NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level) values, and compliant with the most restrictive health and environmental regulations.
Our goal was to continue to scenting while at the same time sanitizing everything that the air encounters: surfaces, products, fabrics and everything is inside the store.
We are not talking about mixing quaternary ammonium salts with the fragrances, but about using the same technology releasing the scent or sanitizing solution according to an adequate alternating regime.
The materials chemical compatibility, the systems mechanical features, the operating conditions, the spaces geometry, and lots more must be taken into account.
We started from one of the most difficult locations, and that is a pharmacy open during the lockdown: from there, we quickly grew in knowledge and technological innovation. Today, I can say that a system like ours offers excellent outcomes on the air, surfaces and filters of the conditioning system.
Since last May, we have been scenting and sanitizing with remarkable results two 5-star hotels with about 40 AHUs (Air Handling Units) each, a rather elaborate project. Furthermore, we are carrying out some very interesting sanitization projects on cruise ships, where significant technical problems add up, such as for example not being able to use oxidizing products due to the constant presence of people in the different ship spaces; or the technical issue relating to air conditioning systems and filters that must be set up, as well as the brackish air which is introduced into the ducts from the primary air.
In defining the protocols to be followed, in addition to solving these technical aspects, all those concerning transport costs, product certification in different countries of the world, safety and non-flammability of the chemicals used also become relevant.
You mentioned that the fragrance diffuses through the air: how important is the use of CFD (Computer Fluid Dynamics) analysis/simulation software for your work?
We have recently started using fluid dynamics simulations applied to particularly complex cases. Projects with about 120 treatment units for which a simulation must first be performed to verify the actual effectiveness, and then adapt the related project. Obviously, when designing “under construction” on what’s newly built everything is easier, while when retrofitting it is sometimes necessary to work miracles by adapting to the existing situation.
Your company also develops lines of fragrances for personal use and cosmetics that contribute to defining together with the ambient scent the “olfactory signature” of the client’s brand. What relationship exists between one fragrance and the other?
It frequently happens that, once the brand olfactory identity has become widespread, it does not remain just a branding operation, but turns into a direct business, with the development of a cosmetic product or a home fragrance which is launched for sale. The scent is often the same, even if it is not always the case; if the priority in the design phase is the study of the brand olfactory identity, this may not necessarily be “transferable” on the market as a finished product.
The realization of the finished product for the consumer audience is becoming a division of no longer marginal weight for us, so much so that we have recently developed an Academy to help our clients, those with no specific skills in the perfumery sector, to improve the in-store sell-out by offering them ad hoc training for their sales staff.
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