Start-ups get a whiff of success

Times Staff Writer

For last year’s Los Angeles premiere of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Warner Bros. executives wanted to infuse the air outside the theater and inside the lobby with the rich fragrance of Wonka bars. They turned to Neal Harris for the aromatic task.

Harris operates two small Los Angeles-based companies devoted to the world of smells. The entrepreneur assembles as many as 200 ingredients to come up with the perfect ambient aroma to enrich events and a variety of everyday products.

To entice Warner Bros., Harris used 40 ingredients, including cocoa, vanilla extracts and spices such as nutmeg.

“We had to work through layers of decision makers at Warner Bros., so before we started, we made sure we had a great chocolate fragrance,” he said.


Harris settled on one that smelled “like a very realistic milk chocolate candy bar.” To demonstrate how it could be spread throughout a large area by means of a scent diffuser, he filled an entire floor of Warner Bros.’ Burbank offices with the fragrance. It worked -- employees recall following it to the source in hopes of finding actual candy.

On premiere night and at the party that followed, “you walked into a wonderful cocoa smell. It got you in the mood. It definitely added to the atmosphere,” said Gaetano Mastropasqua, senior vice president for corporate global promotions and partner relations for Warner Bros. Entertainment.

The use of fragrance is the final frontier of so-called senses-based marketing, said Harald H. Vogt, founder of the Scent Marketing Institute in Scarsdale, N.Y., which consults on how to use fragrance as a business tool.

“It’s a tremendous growth industry,” he said.

“We used to chase them, and now the brands are chasing us. They want to know what’s out there to use and what they need to help them get deeper into the marketplace.”

Through his years in the business, Harris has fielded some fairly unusual requests.

In 1993, after a series of wildfires throughout Southern California, Harris was asked to help with a charity fundraiser for weary police officers and firefighters.

The sponsors wanted a doughnut-scented cologne, and he came up with a cinnamon crumble fragrance packaged in a doughnut-shaped bottle.

“I just hope no one tried to wear it,” Harris said.

This year he collaborated with Topper Schroeder, maker of Gendarme cologne, when Angeleno magazine asked what might be used in the personality-based fragrances of three Los Angeles “Alpha Dudes”: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, restaurateur Wolfgang Puck and Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant.

Schroeder sought out Harris for his input, and they made six colognes. One of them, dubbed Villaraigosa I, “begins with an unexpected burst of freshness created with Italian bergamot.” Another cologne, Kobe I, “embodies self-confidence and independence ... [in a] captivating woody, spicy, ambery fragrance.”

The idea led to a three-paragraph brief in the magazine, though not one of the three men smelled his custom-made cologne. Harris still has them.

“A lot of good work came out of it, and someone may discover them,” he said.

One of Harris’ most challenging exercises was to try to give a true feeling of Halloween to a group of blind children as part of his volunteer work as a board member of Junior Blind of America. He used leaf alcohol, oak moss and other ingredients to mimic the smell of the musty basement in a haunted house.

Harris, 46, learned the scent trade by working his way up the ranks of Belmay Inc. of Yonkers, N.Y., “Home of Olfactive Innovation.” Eventually, he became president of the fragrance manufacturer’s Western division.

Three years ago, he co-founded a company called ScentEvents with his friend Scott Roeb, a caterer. This year, Harris founded Harris Fragrances with minority partner Custom Essence Inc. of Somerset, N.J.

ScentEvents uses fragrances to enhance the ambience of parties, product marketing events and other functions. It employs air diffusers, triggered by motion sensors or timers, to spray fragrances into the air in spaces as small as a single room or as large as a stadium.

Harris Fragrances produces scents for all manner of products, from lemon for household cleaners and shampoos (for as little as $3 a pound of scented product) to fine perfumes (for as much as $150 a pound). Harris said he kept about 100 scents on hand. Custom Essence performs the lab work and chemistry.

“It’s exciting and fulfilling,” said Harris, who expects combined sales of about $1 million this year for his companies. His employee base comprises whatever family member has time to lend a hand or a nose.

For the recent opening of the Annette Green Perfume Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles, where he is an advisory board member, Harris created a new perfume, Musee Femme.

“The objective was to develop a great fragrance quickly,” he said. “It’s not a major launch. The idea was more of a public relations concept that we hope will turn into recurring business.”

Sometimes, the task is to help market an existing fragrance. In those cases, Harris simply has to determine the right concentrations for the diffuser, which resembles a small surround-sound audio speaker.

In February, Harris used the device for perfumer Ron Robinson, who wanted customers to be intrigued by a new fragrance well before they reached the sample bottles.

The occasion was the launch of a perfume tied to the lesbian-themed cable series “The L Word,” developed in a joint venture with Showtime Entertainment. Every guest was greeted with the fragrance as he or she arrived, as if someone wearing it had just walked by.

“All of a sudden there was something in the air -- just kind of there -- and that was the beauty of it,” said Robinson, president and chief executive of Apothia at Fred Segal. “People were saying, ‘What a great scent.’ There was no way we could have put that fragrance in the air like that.”

With a modest website and little in the way of a budget for advertising, Harris is relying on word of mouth to make his young businesses a success. There seems to be plenty of that, at least at the moment.

“I was a skeptic. I wasn’t even going to meet with him,” said West Los Angeles party planner Julie Pryor, who needed ambience for a 1950s-style birthday event. For that occasion, Harris provided a bubblegum scent.

“The beauty of what he does is that it is never overwhelming, never too powerful, and people have no idea where it is coming from,” she said.

Harris hopes for the opposite with the limited release of Musee Femme in just 150 bottles. He already seems to have made an impression.

“The fragrance is beautiful. It is young, it is sexy. It’s soft and it has a little kick to it. It is very easy to wear,” said Irene Cotter, assistant department chairwoman of the beauty industry merchandise and marketing curriculum at the Fashion Institute.

“Neal is a pro. He has a great nose.”