She developed celebrity scents; now she helps Alzheimer's patients remember
You may not recognize Ruth Sutcliffe by name, but you’ve almost surely caught wind of her creations: the scents of brand-name shampoos, blue Windex, and any number of other household products.
For 30 years, this petite beauty was a top fragrance designer, “the nose,” for companies such as Coty, Bristol Myers, Clairol, Guess, and Nautica. At the height of her career, she created signature fragrances for the likes of Faith Hill, Céline Dion, Halle Berry, Katy Perry, and Tim McGraw. She even developed a personalized fragrance for Beyoncé (who, for the record, favors notes of vanilla, patchouli, and jasmine).
Then, without warning, Sutcliffe’s job was eliminated. She found herself in her 50’s with a lifetime of experience and an urgent need to reinvent. “All of a sudden, I was on my own,” she recalls. “I knew I was too young to go away and spend the rest of my life doing I-don’t-know-what and die. I was still healthy. I still felt and looked young. I needed to feel relevant.”
It took Sutcliffe a year to get her bearings. She spent the time freelancing as a fragrance consultant, and taking a road trip back to her family home in Arkansas, visiting friends along the way. Then one night, she woke up with a big idea. “I knew that smell is our most powerful sense for stimulating memory and emotions,” she reasoned, “so why not use my knowledge of fragrance to help people with memory problems?” With the certainty that sometimes accompanies midnight inspirations, Sutcliffe knew immediately that she was onto something.
“I thought, oh my God, this is what we need in this world, and I’m the person to do it!” Sutcliffe recalls. “The next day I got up and I dove right into it. I realized that you can think and think and think about something but at some point you just have to take action or you’re never going to get anywhere.”
Though the insight came in a flash, the idea had been percolating for a while. “At the time, I was helping to take care of my mother-in-law, who was living with us and suffering from Alzheimer’s,” she explains. “My own mother had died of a dementia-related illness, so I had a lot of heart for older people.
“I would come home from my job in the city and want to share a bit of my professional world with my mother-in-law,” Sutcliffe says. “I’d bring home experimental fragrances that I was working on and ask her what she thought about them. She really enjoyed that.”
Sadly, there came a day when Sutcliffe realized that her mother-in-law could no longer smell–a common problem in the elderly and a hallmark of Alzheimer’s. Ruth’s first reaction was to try to fix the problem. “I thought maybe I could develop a scent-related tool to help people recover their sense of smell.”
But as she immersed herself in Alzheimer’s research, Sutcliffe came to realize that her approach wouldn’t work. So she scaled down her ambition and refocused on an alternative goal: to use smell to bring elderly people out of their shells. She hoped that by evoking their memories and emotions, her scents would draw them into communication.
A product is born
With that in mind, Sutcliffe developed The Essential Awakenings Smell and Memory Kit—6 vials of fragrance designed specifically to resonate with the elderly. (The kit has since earned her a spot as a semi-finalist in the 2017 InnovateHER: Innovating for Women Business Challenge by the Small Business Association.) Sutcliffe’s first step was purchasing the raw materials needed for the scents she wanted. She tapped her wide net of contacts from the industry to find perfumers who were willing to develop the smells.
“Trusted contacts are a lifeline in business,” she points out.
Originally, Sutcliffe planned to create scents reminiscent of iconic brands of the past, like Irish Spring or Dial soap. “But I abandoned that approach when one elderly woman said the soap scent reminded her of her late husband,” she explains. “I wanted to bring happiness to people, not sadness, longing, or loss.” She also knew that using brand names would require getting permission from their manufacturers–no easy task.
So instead, Sutcliffe scoured her childhood memories. “Smells were simpler 50 years ago,” she explains. “People didn’t bake cakes from pre-mixes but made them from scratch, so their recipe lineup included things like vanilla extract, cinnamon, real pumpkin filling, fresh apples.” These are some of the scents that ended up in the Essential Awakenings kit. “I also included jasmine, one of the scents contained in Joy, which was a very popular perfume at the time,” she adds.
At last, Sutcliffe had her winning combination. Her original Essential Awakenings kit includes the scents of grass, chocolate, mint, pineapple, cinnamon, and jasmine. She has since brought out a second edition of the kit featuring vanilla, apples, pine, lavender, lilac, and even popcorn.
Sutcliffe tested her product with more than 300 people in senior centers and nursing homes. “They loved it,” she reports. “Many people who came into a session very withdrawn started to open up and share memories.”
She recalls a man who, at first, refused to participate. “He would sit silently in his wheelchair, outside the circle,” she says. “But then he caught the scent of lavender and said, ‘I think there was lavender in the cologne I used to wear.’ I started naming colognes that contained lavender, like Brut and Canoe. And he responded, ‘I didn’t know you could wear a canoe!’ Next, when the group smelled chocolate, he joked, ‘I want to date the woman who wears this!’ His sense of humor came out. It was a real turning point, and it gave me so much joy.”
When she leads groups in nursing homes, Sutcliffe passes out narrow strips of blotter paper dipped in one of her scents, and asks participants to guess the smell. Clue cards are included in the kit with prompts like, “this is a spice that goes into apple pie or pumpkin pie. You can bake with it … or sprinkle it on your cereal…” She asks participants to describe the fragrance: “Does this smell sweet? Is it sour? Is it floral or fruity?” Once someone guesses the fragrance correctly, she engages the group in discussion about what memories they associate with that smell.
In a recent session, she asked one woman to share her memories prompted by the scent of jasmine. “Didn’t somebody write a song about jasmine?” the woman said. “It reminds me of my garden… I always wrote poetry in my garden… maybe I’ll write a poem about jasmine!” The idea left her beaming.
“Oooh, I can smell something!” cried another resident while sniffing a mint-scented strip. “I didn’t think I could smell anything anymore, but I can smell this! It’s nice!” Ruth is careful to include people who have truly lost their sense of smell. “Do you know when you lost your ability to smell?” she might ask. “Do you remember what your favorite smells used to be?”
A one-woman show
Getting her business off the ground felt monumental to Sutcliffe. “I’m a one-woman show, doing everything myself–development, marketing, packaging, sales,” she says. “I’m swimming in waters no one has swum in before. This was my first venture without a corporate team around me.”
Sutcliffe decided early on to work with as many women as possible, to offset the age and sex discrimination that she says are very real in the corporate world. “Women have a tougher time getting hired than men,” she says. “A middle-age man can be fat and ugly with an alcohol problem, but he’ll get the job before a middle-aged woman,” she says with a wry smile. Sutcliffe also committed to using only American labor. “Growing up in the Midwest, I saw poverty, and I know how important jobs are,” she says. “Manufacturing in the U.S. also gives me better quality control, and eliminates the headache of international shipping.”
So what’s next?
Sutcliffe has clear but realistic expectations for her products. “I know Essential Awakenings is a niche product, and it’s not going to make anyone a million dollars,” she says.” But it’s important to me, and it makes me truly happy to make old people smile.
“Now I want to bring it to a wider audience,” she says. Her next project: a kit aimed at families with young children, helping them identify smells and discover new ones. “If you’re a kid being raised in the city, for example, you wouldn’t know the smell of fresh mown hay or cut grass,” she explains. “This will be a fun educational tool that can bring families together.”
These days, Ruth works out of her Greenwich, Connecticut home with a stunning view of Long Island Sound. Despite the long hours, she says she’s feeling calmer than her days working in industry. “I’ve had people tell me that I look better than ever, and that has to be because I have less stress from the workplace. I’m not running for trains anymore,” Sutcliffe says.
“These days, I worry less about how I look. We women put so much pressure on ourselves to look good, be thin, have our hair and nails done perfectly—and in the end, it doesn’t matter all that much. These days, I’m able to say f#@* that! I am who I am, with a ton of experience, and no one can ever take that away from me.”