Ilaria Resta has always followed her nose.
The executive might never have worked in fine fragrances before recently signing on as president of Firmenich’s perfumery division, but it’s a natural fit, since scent has always played a key role in her life and work.
The Naples, Italy, native with an interest in classical literature and languages, art and history, was the only one of her family members or friends to leave town for good.
“I never thought I would have ended up in the business world,” Resta said. That only happened because while studying economics at the University of Naples, she took a marketing class.
“I totally fell in love with that subject,” explained Resta, who looked into big companies centered around marketing and landed a job at P&G. That was in Rome, as an assistant brand manager for a laundry detergent business.
Five years later, she began her international career in Geneva, then London and lastly, Cincinnati, Ohio, in various P&G divisions.
Before joining Firmenich, the Swiss fragrance and flavors supplier, in early March, just as the coronavirus pandemic began raging in Europe, Resta served as vice president, North America hair care at P&G. There, she was credited with turning the activity around.
The executive spoke with Beauty Inc about her relationship with fragrance, plus the category’s greatest challenges and opportunities today.
Have you always loved fragrance?
Ilaria Resta: I have always loved beauty in general. With perfumes, I have a personal story because my mom, ever since I was 12, gave me as a gift every single year a fine fragrance.
Perfume always mattered in any assignment, in any product I worked on. In fabric care and laundry detergent, perfume is very important. It’s one signal of benefit, performance. Same with hair care. The first thing consumers do before buying a shampoo, they flip the cap and smell it. So perfumes, even in mass products, matter a lot.
What was the first perfume you were given?
I.R.: Anaïs Anaïs by Cacharel. When I think back on my room as a young teenager, I remember the Anaïs Anaïs bottle on my desk — which is an incredible memory.
All of us have olfactive memories. I remember my life through snapshots of perfume. You don’t remember the perfume, you just smell it and then it projects you back to a point in time in your life when you have an emotion. It’s very powerful.
What drew you to the position at Firmenich?
I.R.: When this opportunity came — which, by the way, I was not looking for — I started digging into the story of Firmenich and of perfume. I felt an immediate click with something that somehow belonged to my passions of the past.
What are the fine-fragrance industry’s biggest challenges today?
I.R.: Perfume is a beautiful industry, but the difficulty is it’s rooted in the past. If I look at the industries of beauty, fashion, even the more artisanal craftsmanship professions, they evolved. Perfume is stuck in the old time, somehow.
It’s important that this industry starts evolving and reinventing itself. COVID-19 is putting so much pressure on this industry that I’m sure this will trigger positive changes, like moving from a hedonistic-only positioning to offering real benefits to people using the perfume.
Many studies suggest that perfume can uplift moods. MRI studies [show that it changes] sensation in a positive or a negative way. We have a huge opportunity.
Everything is becoming contactless. [Traditionally,] perfume requires a physical presence for creation but also a physical presence for selling. How can you move this into a digital [realm]? Can you represent a perfume without smelling it? That’s a challenge also to evolve the category.
Then there is the whole aspect of natural. More and more consumers are looking into natural ingredients. This will also inform this industry’s future choices.
You have built and turned around hair-care brands in difficult contexts. What parallels are you seeing with fragrance today?
I.R.: I like to take a business that is in crisis or in transformation. My big motivation is never to work on a business that is on a trajectory of growth because — as a person, as a manager — I am somebody who thinks outside of the box. I am very disorganized. I am not structured. I am the opposite — I am a chaotic thinker.
Chaos works a lot in businesses that require rethinking, reinvention, challenging the status quo. So I found exactly the same business situation as I land in the perfumery industry now that I was facing when I landed in the hair-care business in North America: A very stable, stagnant category that was boring, kind of commoditizing.
At the time I remember talking to consumers who would tell me ‘Yeah, one shampoo is equal to the other. What is the difference? What’s the point?’ There was much less emotional attachment and emotional drive. When there are no emotions, it’s just a commodity; you just choose for performance or for price.
There is a magic in the world of beauty. Hair care, as much as fine fragrance, belongs to this world, where choices are made beyond rationality. I love when this is happening because I am a very passionate person. I believe you should even choose products with passion and not because the value equation makes sense for you.
So the challenge I see in both cases is the risk of commoditization and the risk of becoming banal. When you need to explain to sell it’s a problem. You want people to buy just because they can’t resist.
This is the same challenge I face now with the world of perfume: How can we change this category from an accessory…into an emotional necessity? How does this become part of your personality, your identity? The perfume that you choose can define who you are.
Then there is the notion of leaving a legacy, having a point of view of the world. I really hate when people say this is a very well-liked thing that every consumer loves, or like 80 percent of consumers love it. When this is happening, there is really nothing special about it. I am a big champion of diversity — in gender diversity, in any diversity, including product diversity.
We should create stuff that people hate and love. This notion of popular I really don’t like. I love the spikes. I love the great and the best. This is something also in perfume I’m seeing more and more of: our clients testing products. You don’t test a piece of art, right? You don’t test a creation.
That’s what I’ve done in hair care. I was really making decisions you might say on judgment, but for me I made them [with] love. I am trying to bring love into the decision making-process also in perfume.
You’ve been a big proponent of looking at consumers’ demographics and psychographics. Are you using the strategy for perfume?
I.R.: I’ve started to. To the point I just made, I don’t believe in general population. When you do averages on population, by averaging everybody out, you automatically create a boring product and a commodity.
I am looking at demographics a lot now. In perfumery this concept is the next piece. You have briefs, specifically male, female, age group — and I hate that, because a perfume is a sign of identification. For me, already when we talk a brief with a client when you say gender I already feel like how outdated is that?
It’s important how we want them to feel. What kind of emotion do we want to trigger when they wear the perfume, when they smell the perfume. It’s much more interesting. So for me, the demographics are a service of getting to know better this type of person we are serving — the type of desire and needs they have. I am looking at that through this angle of desire.
The perfume industry is the most not-diverse industry. Look at perfume advertising, the kind of people featured in these advertisements. All the same. Look at the attitude: masculine or very bold, sensual… unattainable beauty. It’s a very outdated view of the world.
I will try to bring the fine-fragrance industry closer to our society in terms of diversity, attitude, gender representation, sexual representation. The fine-fragrance industry is amazing because it’s precious, it’s an antique, kind of, but it requires a bit of a wake-up and alignment with the new society.
Please describe Firmenich’s new program, called Re|Generation, that’s launching this week.
I.R.: The unprecedented recent global events have had an enormous impact on the fine-fragrance industry, and now is the time to work together to innovate, rejuvenate and drive transformation. In our 125 years, we have seen few moments as complicated. However, this brings great hope. Re|Generation embraces the radical optimism of change and examines how current events will affect the industry. We created a dedicated online platform to engage with the fragrance community, customers, consumers, artists and influencers, and content updates will shape discussions, exchanges and conversations on the future of fragrance.
Collaboration is extremely important in fine fragrance and all perfumery. We want to reinforce this collaboration with Re|Generation, which allows us to share experience, insights and understanding. We can then align better on how to move forward, from strategy to execution. Re|Generation also provides us a private digital platform where we will be sharing and exchanging around our two annual fine-fragrance programs: Mind Nose + Matter and Olfactive Design, developed this year with world-renowned arts and design school Central Saint Martins. Clients will be sent smelling kits, and we will present materials and webinars online. In this new post-COVID-19 world, we must be more virtual, digital and connected online.
How is the “Re|Generation movement” — and data culled from it — expected to contribute to Firmenich and to the perfume industry at large?
I.R.: Re|Generation seeks to identify new solutions, new emotions and new desires to capture the imagination of customers and consumers alike. We are focused on using data to drive new technology and innovative offerings, making the benefits more vibrant, appealing and respectful. We’re rethinking our relationship to history, environment, materials, ourselves and others; reengaging through perfumery to fulfill people’s new aspirations; reimagining a path that leads toward new positivity and a renewable future, and re-creating positive emotions to embrace nature and society. We’ll share insights, trends and vision to provide a clear understanding of today’s consumers, as well as a range of ideas that radically reimagine fragrance experiences for tomorrow’s world.
You have been called an entrepreneur par excellence. How are you bringing that spirit to Firmenich?
I.R.: I joined a company [owned by] an entrepreneur family. So I feel at home in that regard. I took the position as the president of the division reporting directly to the ceo with total freedom to do what I feel is right. I am blessed that I got the latitude of impact.
I am an entrepreneur in the sense that I am passionate, first of all, and I behave as if it’s my money at stake all the time. I always work with a sense of urgency, of responsibility for the money I get on loan, as I say, from the company’s owners. My principles are very clear. I am results-focused and operate with the speed, agility and passion as if the business is mine.
The reason for my success in the past is not because I am particularly more intelligent than anybody else, but just because I have so much passion, so much love for what I do.
Do you have mentors?
I.R.: I still have people in P&G who mentor me. My former boss in P&G, she still does, and then I have a couple of people who were my bosses in the past who mentor me. But in general, I am somebody who asks for advice from many people. I have lots of interpersonal relationships, and I always ask: “OK, what can I do better? What should I do?” I am really craving feedback as a person, in general.
How do you relax?
I.R.: I love playing tennis. I don’t know if I relax because I am so competitive. I am not particularly good at tennis at all. I am a mediocre player.
I take lots of energy from others. I could talk forever. I like to be with people. I should mention my family.
What are your favorite questions to ask during an interview?
I.R.: Two questions are very important for me. One is: “What is the legacy you are the most proud of?” What did you leave behind, something that stays over time? The other question I ask is: “What is your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?”