Perfume, with more than a splash of lyrical panache
Hello hello 👋
Why do YouTubers spend so long saying ‘let’s get straight into it guys’ over and over instead of just, like, getting straight into it? No preamble this week. We’re just gonna get straight into it, guys. Here be British luxury perfume brand Penhaligon’s.
Who are they?
Penhaligon’s are a long-established British ‘Perfume House’. William Henry Penhaligon1 was a Jermyn Street barber in the 1860s who created scents to sell to his customers. His concoctions tickled the noses of the nobility, and he rose to be court barber and perfumer to Queen Victoria. Today, Penhaligon’s continue to make luxury perfumes, and their brand draws heavily on their Victorian heritage. As you can probably tell from the illustration above (also check out Kota agency’s beautiful animations), there’s base notes of aristocratic refinement, heart notes of botanical garden lyrical sensuousness, and head notes of quirk and whimsy.2
What about the words?
By all accounts, Penhaligon’s voice has long echoed their refined-yet-eccentric Victoriana – though you’d likely only have come across it on notelets with your perfumes, or in beautifully produced pamphlets. But a major online refresh in 2018 meant they needed to up their voice game. They were gonna need to write literally hundreds of product descriptions. In under 150 characters. Including SEO keywords. And all with that aristo-lyrical-sensuous-quirky distinctiveness vibe.
Tl;dr: they hooked up with Reed Words, and smashed it out of the (deer) park. Let’s take a look. We’ll go straight to those product descriptions:
This is lovely. It practically tingles to read it. There’s that bouncy playfulness of the question ‘anyone for gin?’. The onomatopoeic burst, and teasing, the rhythmic repetition of warm. Then we’re back to answering that question, which gives the whole thing a perfect shape. And do the maths: for SEO, they need to say explicitly that it’s an eau de toilette, and name-check all the ingredients: Juniper. Angelica. Black pepper. Warm spice. That’s practically half the word count gone on technicalities, and yet nothing feels forced.
Let’s do another. Here’s Artemisia:
I think this does something rather clever: it sets up the start of a story (‘the goddess of the hunt arches her bow, and the forest quivers in anticipation…’) – and then leaves it unfinished! Now it’s us who are quivering with anticipation. Like a sneeze that never comes, like a climax never reached. (A bit much? OK fine.) Again with the sensuous sounds: lush, swim, sung. And ‘an eau de parfum sung like a hymn on the skin’ is luxury brand poetry of the highest order. Heck, it’s pretty damn good as poetry full stop.
Care for another? Happy to oblige:
I really like the ‘of course’ in this one. These little descriptions talk to us intimately. We’re being spoken to as ones in the know. And that ‘and not a bit heavy’ at the end is really lovely: the kind of turn of phrase you only get by paying really close attention to the real cadences ‘historical speech’ (yes I know how crass that sounds), not just knocking out a cheap parody. (I had a peek at the Penhaligon’s tone of voice guidelines. They recommend reading EM Forster, Nancy Mitford and PG Wodehouse to get your ear in. There’s classy.)
Each description is beautifully crafted. Each contains a nugget of something interesting to play with (a thought, idea, character, image). Each one dances right up to the very edge of being too much, yet never puts a toe over the line.
All that, and we’ve only read three. And there are literally hundreds of them. Each and every one crafted with the same care. Go browse around the Penhaligon’s site – you get kind of woozy on them after a while. Actually, let’s do one more together. This is ‘Ode to my Orchids’. Which is a scented candle. A scented candle! And it still gets the gorgeous writing treatment. (And a bat-shit crazy-brilliant name.)
Part of the secret here is that they take it completely seriously. Countess Dorothea’s secret garden, eh? But no hint of nudge-nudge innuendo. This is high-class titillation, dontcha know. Like being tickled with a peacock feather by an heiress in an opium den. Or something. See? It’s hard not to lapse into silliness.
Elsewhere, there’s a range of perfumes called ‘Portraits’. Each scent comes with a pen portrait of a fictional aristocrat. Here’s ‘Much Ado About the Duke’, a perfect little tale of forbidden love:
The ‘fancy that’ is so beautifully done. Gossipy, playful, revealing, doesn’t over-explain. And all in 10 characters.
What’s fascinating is that the product descriptions are so well crafted that everything else seems almost ordinary by comparison. Yet it’s not. It’s all note-perfect. Here’s the introduction to ‘fragrance profiling’, where they help you figure out what smells would suit you best.
‘Pull up a chair’ helps create a sense of the website as a real place. And ‘shall we begin’ as the call to action – such exquisite manners3. In fact, pretty much every button across the entire website has been thought about. There’s nary a ‘click here’ or a ‘buy now’ in sight. It’s all ‘Good afternoon’, ‘After you’, and at one point ‘Vroom vroom’. I particularly like this one:
Just very occasionally, things slip into what feels like ‘putting on a funny voice’. Yet even then, it’s hardly a terrible faux pas. This bit of writing from their ‘heritage’ timeline (1977) feels over-written, and the appearance of that collective brand ‘us’ feels out of place somehow. (There’s also a limit to the amount of umbrella-flourishing top-hatted gentlemen needs to see, wouldn’t one say?). But I’m really nit-picking tbh.
We all know that one of the secrets to getting luxury branding right is attention to detail. The discrete-yet-outrageous display of discretionary effort: the theatricality of beautifully designed stores; the indulgence of over-the-top packaging; the make-me-feel-special attention of drop-dead gorgeous staff. So, it’s weird how often the words tend to get forgotten.
Three things to love and learn from:
😳 Don’t blink. Part of the magic of Penhaligon’s voice comes from being sensuous and witty – and playing it entirely straight. The temptation to break the fourth wall and give a wink to your customers is almost overwhelming. Don’t. They’ll get it.
😌 Relish the crazy-difficult. This all started with that seemingly impossible brief for a shit-ton of highly-constrained product descriptions. A lesser brand would have tried to find a solution that didn’t involve squaring the circle of SEO, voice and tiny word count. Instead, Penhaligon’s rose to the challenge. What’s the most difficult thing your brand could write? What challenge have you been shirking? Go for it. You’ll find new richness on the other side of it.
🔥 Aim higher. This is unreasonably good copy, that holds itself to unreasonably high standards. It’s taking its inspiration not from other brands, but from literature. At its best, it’s not just using ‘poetic effects’, it’s poetry itself. How can you shape your brand’s voice so it stretches you as a writer? When I spoke to Orlaith Wood and Sam Pollen who wrote much of the copy, Sam said ‘some jobs you look back on and they were fun or interesting or whatever. And occasionally you look back on a job and realise that doing it made you a better writer. That’s Penhaligon’s’.
That’s all for now! What do you think? Hit reply and let me know.
Does having an excellent name help the success of one’s brand? How can it not. Penhaligon has a perfect posh British vibe to it, doesn’t it. I hear echoes of ‘halcyon’, and perhaps also ‘Heligan’ (as in ‘Lost gardens of Heligan’ – and William was Cornish, so that might literally be a connection.) Although before I get carried away, let’s also remember that a contemporary of William Penhaligon was the less mellifluously-named George F Trumper– and his smelly stuff did just as well. In fact, at one point in the early 20th century, Trumper’s bought Penhaligon’s. So perhaps ignore everything I just said.
Base notes, heart notes, and head notes are how perfumers categorise a perfume’s smell. It indicates how long the different ingredients’ scents linger on your skin. I’ve done my research, you know. I don’t just bang these out.
Is this a fantasy version of some Victorian-Edwardian-Bridgerton enchanted realm where one is forever having dalliances with Dukes and being beckoned into boudoirs by heiresses to sip Hendrick’s gin from suggestively-shaped chalices and eat Phileas Fogg crisps, unruffled by the more problematic aspects of British Empire? Sure. But when it smells this good, I am totally here for it.