Objects of Desire

This week I heard for the first time about Google’s planned Chrome OS system. When I found out that it was planned to be a clean and quick operating system I knew straight away that I wanted it and that when it comes out I will get it. The interesting thing is that what I didn’t do was check out the price. I was going to pay whatever because it was something that I wanted. Well the price tag might be too high for me, but that would only mean it would be a unsatisfied desire- it would still be a desire.

This got me thinking. There are some things that are simply so desirable that you want them whatever the price tag. For me Google has that desirability – even though a lot of its products are free the fact that they are free isn’t what appeals about them.  There is lots of free stuff on the net that I don’t want.   The only thing that would come between you and owning one is simply whether or not you have the money. If you have the money you get, end of story. I think some people are like that about iPhones for example.

Apple is one of those brands that has this quality. Imagine making a direct comparison between an Apple computer and the nearest spec PC. Using logic alone you would conclude that the Apple one was a bit better, but nowhere near as much better as the price tag suggested. You would conclude that the Apple one was a bit overpriced and probably buy the PC, unless you had a special reason to need the extra performance or weren’t too fussed by the money. But how many people buy using such cold-hearted reasoning? Most people buy Apples because they desire to have something that has that elusive property of desirability.

As someone who develops personal care products for a living it occurred to me that a lot of the really great products that I respect and admire in my own industry fall into this category. Ones that spring to mind are Touche Eclat, Creme de la Mer, and particularly Chanel No 5.
Chanel No. 5 is the truly famous scent created by Coco Chanel in 1920. In an early case of celebrity endorsement Marilyn Monroe claimed that it was all she wore in bed. This could have simply been a PR inspired bit of viral marketing – but the passage of the years as added it as another layer to No. 5’s iconic status. But this classic perfume has stayed popular through the decades not only thanks to such famous endorsements. It is a classic fragrance with staying power that makes it a hit even today.



Apart from the fragrance the packaging is a minimalist masterpiece. The colour of the fragrance itself is determined by its chemical components, but is used to blend with the black and gold top. The small label allows you to see the dip tube – plastic was much more a la mode in the twenties than it is today – but this glimpse of the workings still has a bauhaus form follows function sort of charm to it. The typeface is a simple sanserif – again this was an innovative when it came out but retains its elegance and allure even now.

The normal retail price for Chanel No.5 is about £50($100) for 50ml where I shop. Not a fortune by any means, but for a fragrance that has been going for 90 years and which hardly needs much in the way of promotion that must be a very healthy profit margin for both Chanel and the retailer. But this is one of those products that simply defies the logic of economics. It simply is Chanel and nothing else is the same.

Creme de la Mer is a much more recent product but I suspect is destined to have just as long a life as Chanel No.5. Developing skin care products isn’t usually rocket science, but in the case of Creme de la Mer it very nearly is. The story is that the formulation was created by a NASA scientist to treat some burns on his own skin. Marketing people often try to come up with a story to go with a product to give it an image and to make it memorable, but that one really is the all time classic. The active ingredient is derived from seaweed – very much a contemporary notion much like the typeface of Chanel No.5 would have been when it was first launched. When Creme de la Mer hit Selfridges it was sold at £100 for 30ml. This is by any reckoning a very expensive product. For that £100 you could buy an awful lot of other very good skin products. Why do people spend the money on Creme de la Mer? It just has that desirability that no other premium skin cream can really match.

The more I thought about these products, the more I realised that what I most want to do is to come up with a product that shares these qualities. We live in a world with technology that enables us to do so much that previous generations would think was impossible. Many skills that might once have taken a life time to acquire are now made obsolete by advanced machines and computers. Our ability to communicate means we can access ideas from everywhere around the globe. But what still can’t be done by our tools is create the essence of something highly desirable. And that is what I want to bring to my product development.

So now I have a new goal in life. I have developed successful products. I have developed useful products and I have developed difficult products. My next ambition is to develop a desirable product. This will be something that just has that certain something that makes it the definitive example of its class. I don’t suppose I will be able to come up with the next Chanel No 5, but hopefully in its own way it will be just as good. I am working on quite a lot of projects at the moment so one of them may be the one. The thing to do is to get into the frame of mind where no effort is too much to get it just right. The end point will be when I just know that it is right.

(You might also be interested in my Creme de la Mer Review.)

2 thoughts on “Objects of Desire

  1. whitlam

    I just want to thank you Colin for your great site. I’m a chem teacher in New Zealand and have just found you. As I teach at an all girls school it is great to be able to impart your knowledge when teaching organic! (I was an environment chemist in a previous life so know little about cosmetics). thanks so much, keep up the good work!

  2. Colin Post author

    Thanks for the nice comment Whitlam, and I am really pleased you enjoy the site. Funnily enough, my degree was in environmental science. I fell into cosmetic science as there weren’t many jobs in the environment when I graduated.

    Best wishes teaching the girls chemistry. Did you know that the first practical chemist whose name we know was Maria the Jewess, after whom the Bain Marie is named? She was around some time in or before the third century. That might help counter the idea that chemistry is a male dominated subject.

    Regards

    Colin

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