Sunday, October 18, 2009

The WSJ on Michelle Roark’s Phi-nomenal Fragrances

The Wall Street Journal is best when it sticks to its knitting—financial reporting. Lately, however, it’s been strenuously transforming itself into a general interest newspaper with lifestyle stories, sports pages, helpful household hints, and lots and lots of space-filling pictures (oooh, pictures!).

The latest fluff to float off the Journal’s pages is by Matthew Futterman. He usually churns out sports copy but on Thursday he put his Columbia J-school-certified talent to work on a “Life & Style” story about champion freestyle skier Michelle Roark. The hook: Roark uses a performance-enhancing scent of her own design during ski competition and now makes a business selling it.

Futterman’s piece on Roark illustrates two problems with the Journal’s new hey-we’re-just-like-any-other-paper pose: it’s neither timely nor incisive.  

Let’s start with timely. Michelle Roark has been getting press for her “freestyle skier turns perfumer entrepreneur” story for months: The Deseret News in January 2008, Christian Science Monitor in June, 2008, BusinessWeek in July 2008, Denver Post in January 2009. Last month she was featured in a piece by Howard Berkes on NPR. And two days before Futterman’s piece a Denver Post story made many of the same points.

According to Futterman, Roark’s business “is only in its early stages, with most of her customers local acquaintances in the Denver area.” He also tells us that she “has a salon/spa and perfumery set to open in December.” In other words, this is a story about buzz, not achievement. Unfortunately, the buzz is stale. Worse, it seems inaccurate: according to the other stories, Roark’s perfumery/spa in Denver has been open for months.

Then there’s the matter of incisiveness. Roark sells six blends of essential oils named Confidence, Balance, Focus, etc.

Ms. Roark mixes all of the potions herself at her lab in Denver. She bases the ratios of the oils in her blends on the “Golden Ratio,” also known as the phi, or the number 1.618.
Hear that noise? It’s the alarm on the all-new digital FirstNerve Bogosity Meter—it’s going crazy! It’s not enough that Roark is a champion athlete with a flair for fragrance and self-medication. She’s also discovered a new principle of perfumery: Golden Ratios! Fire Jean-Claude Ellena and get me the new algorithm!

(Yes, I’m aware that Octavian Sever Coifan over at 1000Fragrances recently blogged about the Golden Ratio in perfumery. I have a hard time following his argument but it seems to be about aesthetic principles, not formulation-by-the-numbers.)

Roark’s U.S. Patent Application 20070042933 is titled “Fragrances, cosmetics and other body products based on Phi.” (Her company is called Phi-nomenal Fragrances.) Here’s a taste:
Accordingly, the first embodiment perfume relates to Phi in at least three ways: (i) all ingredients are present in Fibonacci series integer unit multiples; (ii) The ratio of the perfume base to perfume concentrate is Phi; and (iii) the number of ingredients in the perfume is a Fibonacci series integer.
According to Roark, a perfume formula with x ingredients is a Phi-nomenal fragrance if x is a number in the Fibonacci series {1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 . . . .}. Bulgarian rose oil counts as a single ingredient, but so does pure phenylethyl alcohol which is a component of rose oil. And what’s to stop Roark from pre-diluting her raw materials so that they can be combined in perfect Golden Ratios? With rules this fuzzy, I could blend a perfume that corresponds to my area code and phone number.

There’s no hint of reportorial skepticism in Futterman’s story—he could have called any perfumer for a reality check but he didn’t.

Flufferman attempts to give his story some balance by quoting two other people.
Jim Fannin, a motivational guru who has worked with athletes including Alex Rodriguez, said he does not believe there is a universal scent that inspires confidence.
Dude! Quoting a self-identified motivational guru doesn’t inspire confidence either. From the guru’s web site:
More than a ‘life’ coach, Jim Fannin is a ‘change your life’ coach. His S.C.O.R.E.© System empowers people to swiftly become the best they can without inconvenience. Period.
Hey! Will someone please hit the mute button on the Bogosity Meter? Cool. Thanks.

Futterman then delivers this knuckleball:
“The scent is an artifact of the expectation,” said Bert Hayslip, a professor of psychology at the University of North Texas. “An athlete believes it’s important to success, so therefore it is important.”
Whaaaa? How much nonsense can a Regents Professor of Psychology pack into a two sentence quote?

When Michelle Roark sniffs her blend to get into a certain frame of mind, the scent is not an artifact of anything—it’s a scent! The second sentence, which amounts to “wishing makes it so”, is a non sequitur. Professor Hayslip is a prolific researcher on the topic of human aging; he seems out of his depth on the topic of smell and motivation. 

The Wall Street Journal has given us a stale, muddled, bite-sized, lifestyle story dressed up as a groovy buzz piece. Pretty lame stuff. I don’t think it augers well for the paper’s new market positioning which seems to be “We’re just like the New York Times but with a differently flavored editorial page!”

As a fellow smell entrepreneur, I don’t begrudge Michelle Roark her moment in the sun. (In fact, I wish her well.) Nor do I have an opinion on the quality of her fragrances, which I’ve never smelled. For all I know they are very nice and even helpful in achieving certain mental states. It’s just that I won’t be taking Matthew Futterman’s word for any of it.

[Hat tip to Mark G.]


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your insightful opinion. As a “smell entrepreneur” I would imagine you have a lot of knowledge about perfume. I would love to learn more …

Nathan Branch said...

I don't know what your beef is, buddy, but I turn to the Wall Street Journal for all my fashion and lifestyle news. ;)

"With rules this fuzzy, I could blend a perfume that corresponds to my area code and phone number."

Ha! Hey, wait a minute, you just might be on to something . . .

Avery Gilbert said...

Nathan Branch:

Chanel 867-5309?