Written by April Long
Fragrance developer Ann Gottlieb has done more to shape the modern world’s olfactive landscape than perhaps any other individual. Currently celebrating her 50th year in the industry, Gottlieb humbly describes her role as “the liasion between the brand and the fragrance houses, translating a brand vision or product concept into scent.” But her successes, from the fruity bouquets she introduced to the market through Bath & Body Works to her blockbuster creations for Calvin Klein (including Obsession, Eternity, and cKOne), have proven that she is much more than that. She’s a true scent whisperer, a woman who knows exactly what consumers want before they even know it themselves.
Gottlieb got her start working with another legend, Estée Lauder, catching the attention of the beauty doyenne with her strong opinions about fragrance. “I had no idea whatsoever that I had any kind of talent, or a nose that was any different from anyone else’s,” she says. But when Lauder sailed through the offices dousing her employees in perfume and asking for opinions, Gottlieb responded with honesty and insight. “I was 24 years old and probably didn’t know any better,” she says, “but she kept coming back to me, and I ended up going from an entry level role to head of product development at Lauder in six-and-half years.”
Since founding her own company, Ann Gottlieb Associates, in 1983, Gottlieb has worked with everyone from Dior to Dove, and has guided the creation of scents as varied as Axe’s chocolate-addiction Dark Temptation and Marc Jacobs’ whimsical, strawberry-tinged Daisy. Gottlieb’s unique ability to recognize and propel forward promising fragrance nuggets that often become masterpieces with mass appeal comes not only from her stellar sense of smell and her unerring instincts, but also from the collaborative spirit she brings to her work. She understands keenly that a synchronicity between packaging, marketing, and the product itself is crucial to success, so she always keeps the lines of communication open. “I’m proud of the fact that many fine fragrance, personal and air care marketers are much more fragrance-literate after having worked with me,” she says. “I will always share everything I can about my process and about what I do.”
What did you learn from Estée Lauder that stayed with you throughout your career?
I learned that you please the consumer with a fragrance that has real identity and that fragrances should truly inspire you and keep sending you back to repurchase. I was fortunate to learn from her, because she taught me the importance of quality which has served me in every category with which I’ve been involved.
Your projects have run the gamut through every category. What would you say they all have in common?
They are all focused on the consumer and the brand. Really, what I am is a marketer with a very good nose, because I can’t develop a fragrance or a line of products unless I know who the consumer is and what she’s using. Whether I’m developing a really expensive perfume or a candle, the thought process is the same.
What defines a successful scent?
It’s a cohesive mix. You can attract consumers with a beautiful bottle, but if the product does not meet the consumers’ expectations—for instance, if it’s a pale pink package with lovely flowers on it, and they open it up and smell a heavy, woody, ambery fragrance—there’s a disconnect, and people generally don’t respond well to that kind of surprise. You also must have something in that bottle that is truly loved, or consumers are going to abandon you. It has to have a combination of something that’s unique with something that is commercial—and it has to capture the cues of the brand.
What are you proudest of professionally?
I’ve had two significant marriages in my professional life: to Calvin Klein and Axe. And both of them have played a major role in my success. Then I have a pair of twins called Dove and Dove Men & Care, and they have lots of Unilever cousins. Dior J’Adore and the Marc Jacobs fragrances also rank high for me. And my newest baby is air care and it has been fascinating exploring this new realm of fragrance.
What are your favorite notes?
It truly depends on what I’m doing. Obviously, fruits and flowers have been a big part of my background because, through the first four years with Bath and Body Works, while creating a category that didn’t exist before, we helped the American public develop an affinity for fruity notes. But it’s my love for vanilla that has lasted my whole career. It’s what made Obsession, my first fragrance for Calvin Klein, so addictive.
You travel a great deal. How has that contributed to your understanding of scent?
One of the greatest gifts that I’ve received in my career is the chance to experience the relationship that people in more impoverished areas of the world have with fragrance. Some of my most meaningful moments have been going into favelas in Brazil and visiting people’s homes in India and Thailand; seeing how universal the love of fragrance is, and how people will do anything to have it in their lives, even if it’s just adding a scented laundry detergent to water and pouring it on the floor.
Are there specific developments that you’d like to see?
I am hopeful that in the not too distant future the challenge of successfully selling fragrances online will be met… and that we are able to replicate the instore trial experience digitally.
How does it feel to be inducted into the Fragrance Foundation Hall of Fame?
To receive this award for the recognition of the contributions I’ve made to the world of fragrance is a validation of my work and is absolutely thrilling. I am truly honored and poised to continue for the next 50 years!!!