Automobiles Citroen's introduction in France of a factory-installed air freshener in its new C4 is a story of risk-taking.
Not only did the marque introduce a feature previously the domain of the aftermarket, it also took a chance with a tiny company of 24 people and €7.2 million ($9.7 million) in annual sales.
“It was scary for them to work with us,” says Gregory Mager, the managing director of Parfum d'Image, a French company that mainly designs private label perfumes and cosmetics. “The box (of three fragrance cartridges for the C4) goes in the glove box at the end of the line. If it's not there, the car doesn't move. They were frightened by the size of our company.”
Designers thought the perfumer was a good idea from the start of the C4 project in 2000, because it would contribute to the image of well being that Citroen is trying to adopt for its interiors.
But none of the suppliers PSA Peugeot Citroen knew well could do it, and the auto maker tacitly rejected the young Parfum d'Image twice before awarding it the contract to supply 800 boxes per day to the auto maker's Mulhouse, France, factory.
Mager and a friend, Julien Saada, created their company in 1997 after they graduated from Paris universities. During six months in New York, Mager says, they noticed that American companies made house-brand perfumes for chains such as Gap and Victoria's Secret, and they decided to try the idea in Europe.
A few years later, says Mager, “we had the idea to bring perfume to the car, and we went to PSA and presented the concept to their innovation people. Then we had no news for a year or a year-and-a-half.”
It wasn't a problem, as their main business of developing fragrances and packaging for French customers was expanding. By 2000 the company had grown to 18 people with sales of €3.2 million ($4.3 million).
Meanwhile, designers at Citroen were preparing the C4 from a blank sheet of paper.
“At the start of the project, we wanted a perfumer, for a personalized olfactory feature,” says Pierre Budan, chief of the C4 project. “Up to now, auto makers have tried to eliminate bad odors from plastics and glues. But we can see that customers buy things like little pine trees for their mirror to give the inside of the car a good odor.”
PSA gave the idea to the European branch of Key Plastics LLC, an American company based in Northville, MI, which was developing the central ventilator covers for the C4 instrument panel as a sub-supplier to instrument panel supplier Visteon Corp.
Key Plastics designed a plastic cartridge that would introduce a fragrance into the right-side ventilator, and a clever switch that would allow users to turn off the scent if they didn't want it.
But making fragrances was not part of Key's experience, so Key came to Parfum d'Image and together the two companies met with PSA procurement staffers. Nothing happened for a year, until PSA purchasing called and requested a meeting two years ago.
“They said, ‘We are in trouble. We developed a product, but we don't know how to make it. We found your name in the file.’”
The cartridge system was ready, but there was nothing in the cartridge. There were two problems: how to hold enough scent in the small cartridge and how to make the devices in volume.
Mager told PSA he needed time to study the problem before he could say whether Parfum d'Image could do it. “I had four people work three months on the project,” Mager says.
One challenge was creating a scent that lasted a long time. “If we used wool or cotton, it would last only one or two weeks,” he says. “We wanted 1-1/2 or two months. And we had to think about an industrial system. This would involve 1 million pieces a year.”
They found a material they could use for a wick in the medical industry, and they discovered a vaccine manufacturer in Germany whose engineers could develop a machine that would put 0.04 oz. (1 g) of expensive perfume in the wick, fill and assemble the cartridge and package it.
Mager told PSA he thought he had the answers. PSA buyers visited Parfum d'Image's suppliers and the German factory, which gave them confidence.
Citroen asked the suppliers for up to 25 different scents. In the end, three were chosen: mint, musk and vanilla. A package of three scents is placed in the glove box of the new cars. Later, customers can buy refills at dealerships.
Meanwhile, PSA is working with Parfum d'Image on two more projects, for late 2005 and mid-2006, and this time the little perfume company will have an influence on the size, shape and color of the cartridges so they offer a better appearance and hold up to four months worth of scent.
A second future project has no customer yet. Valeo SA came to Parfum d'Image with a concept of putting two scents in the glovebox of luxury cars.
Customers would be able to switch between them instantly from a button on the console, and the scents would be diffused through all vents. The companies have agreed on pricing and details and they now are presenting the concept to OEMs.
Other auto makers, including PSA's neighbor Renault SA, are coming by Parfum d'Image's 3-floor office in suburban Paris to learn how the fragrance systems work, and the company is working on an odor-eater that would not perfume the car, but would attack bad smells molecularly.
With the organic growth of its core perfume and cosmetics business and the future PSA business, Parfum d'Image projects sales of €10.5 million ($14.1 million) for fiscal 2005, and it has a goal of €20 million ($26.8 million) in 2006.