The experience of smelling a bold and specific fragrance can be intense. Certain perfumes can bring us immediately back to specific periods in our lives, and there’s a scientific reason why: a study published in the Cerebral Cortex found that our brains store scents in the same section of the brain as long-term memories, making scent-based memory triggers especially powerful.
While the science of scent-based memories is a fascinating in itself, I’m particularly interested in the emotional bonds we form with certain smells, and why some fragrances become so popular while others are easily forgotten. Like many children of the ’90s, I spent a decent portion of my childhood and teenage years loitering malls with friends, grabbing a slice at Sbarro and braving new ear piercings at Claire’s.
I was born and bred during the heyday of Bath & Body Works, and no mall trip was complete without slathering on layers of lotion and dousing myself in enough Sweet Pea or Cucumber Melon spray to fill up a train car. My obsession was far from unique. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Bath & Body Works soared in popularity among busy moms and beauty-obsessed teens alike. Even now when I bring up the brand, it’s common for a friend to reminisce about which classic scent they bathed themself in before prom.
While it’s obvious that I and others have positive associations with these fruity scents, I’m still curious about the process behind these Bath & Body Works fragrances, and exactly how the branding ushered them from a board room into our teenage bedrooms.
In my digging, I quickly discovered that one of the most fascinating aspects of the Bath & Body Works empire is its fictional founder, Kate. Originally, Bath & Body Works was launched as a beauty brand inside Express stores, but the fashion-forward ethos of Express quickly proved incompatible with the homey vibe of BBW. So, in order to ease the transition to freestanding store, the company created a down-to-earth founder named Kate.
According to the Tumblr From the Heartland: Vintage Bath & Body Works, which compiles employee folklore and testimonies with brand history, all BBW stores are designed to look like Kate’s home, and the shopping experience is tailored to feel like recommendations from a friend.
One employee shared how her manager described Kate as an intelligent, down-home woman-turned-entrepreneur:
The company’s dedication to the intimate mythos of Kate makes a lot of sense when you consider how it forgoes traditional advertising, and largely relies on sending personalized emails and coupons to customers. Even with new product launches, Bath & Body Works has been consistent in its reliance on committed customers and its cozy draw in the mall. In the age of influencer branding and increasingly trendy advertising, this is somewhat of an anomaly for a successful business, and I strongly believe it plays into the brand’s sense of nostalgia.
It’s a lot harder to feel a personal connection with a store that feels sterile and intimidatingly cool, regardless of how much you love shopping there. But the omnipresence of Kate and her home full of fragrant candles feel more like a visit to an aunt or a childhood friend, and while the smells themselves are lovely, the emotional tone of the stores is part of what kept so many us going there in the first place. Similarly, those overwhelmed by the strong smells and overeager customer service style would cite the over-personability as a turn-off when they’re trying to shop in peace. That is to say, building the stores around the mythos of Kate was a surefire way to create a very specific ambience, which encourages a long-term faithfulness or total avoidance.
While Kate, and her life will continue to spark my imagination—as the oral history of any fictional character does—the actual process behind the popular BBW scents is particularly intriguing to me. In order to get an inside view of the process of perfuming itself, I spoke with the Vice President and Senior Perfumer of the Scent and Care Division North America, Patricia Bilodeau, about her experience behind the scenes.
For Bilodeau, her love affair with fragrance was sparked by a fateful accident in high school, and the rest was history.
Since her formative experience working in a fragrance lab, Bilodeau has made a career for herself in perfuming, and has been working on Bath & Body Works fragrances the past 15 years (among other brands). Naturally, when I found this out, I had to ask whether she was involved with any of the icon ’90s scents.
She shared that her inspiration for her BBW fragrances, and really, all of the perfumes she crafts come from a variety of other sensory experiences. It’s a poetic exchange—between smells she already has relationships with and new combinations she wants to see. Her process of mixing familiar fragrances into new blends makes total sense, given the familiar emotional tone of BBW perfumes.
Since my personal relationship with BBW is nostalgia-laden, my preferences lean towards the overtly sweet fragrances of my teen years (like Cucumber Melon, of course). In contrast, Bilodeau shared that her favorite perfume she’s created with the brand is actually part of the new holiday collection.
While scientists have yet to conduct a controlled study of regular Bath & Body Works shoppers to figure out precisely what about the fragrances and emotional branding keeps us coming, knowing a little more about the history of the Kate and the perfuming process itself helps explain the cult-like devotion that still exists. I also feel at this point I should clarify that Bath & Body Works did not ask me to write this article; it was purely my own mall nostalgia taking the reigns.
Now, the next time I catch a whiff of Cucumber Melon I’ll be thinking of Kate’s fictional living room where she builds all these smells alongside real people, like Bilodeau.