Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Smells Like Community

There are certain products that somehow create the magic alchemy it takes to give rise to a devoted, caring, and thriving community around them. Nail polish in general is one such community, and the brand devotees within that genre. Anyone who has run into a Lush addict will back me up that they are an absolutely devoted community as well. But today, I want to talk about a product that has created one of the most intricate, tight knit product oriented communities I know - BPAL, that is Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab perfume oils. 

I have a fairly keen sense of smell, which is actually pretty unusual considering I'm a smoker and have a depressive disorder, both of which are supposed to dull your sense of smell. Not only am I good at telling smells apart, certain smells evoke really powerful emotional associations for me. CK One reminds me of an ex of mine who was obsessed with it, so much so that if someone walks past in the street wearing it, I instinctively look for him. Since I stopped being able to eat normal bread and other pastries, the smell of baked goods gets me so pumped in the desire parts I often find it hard to walk past bakeries without pressing my face to the glass like a Dickensian orphan. I discovered an ancient tube of hair gel in a box I hadn't unpacked in about six moves, and as soon as I caught a whiff of that particular gel I remembered exactly how it felt to be 22, heading out to the local goth club, because that was the last time I'd used it. I have such a strong emotional connection with my boyfriend's smell that I actually find myself less attracted to him if he wears the "wrong"deodorant - it distracts me so much I can't concentrate on making out with him. TL:DR, smell is a big deal to me. 

It was a dear, enabling, distracting friend of mine (hi, Morag!) who introduced me to the wonderful world of BPAL - a mecca for those of us who love smells. The thing I love about Black Phoenix Alchemy lab is the sheer range of scents they have available - conventional perfumes smell so similar to me a good chunk of the time. Going through David Jones, I can divide pretty much all the perfumes there into Disgusting, Tolerable, and Pleasant.  BPAL on the other hand has at least a hundred scents available on their site right now, and they bring out new collections every couple of months. Even more exciting, almost all of them smell distinctly different from each other. Some of the more flowery scents run together for me, but that's most likely because I''m not really fond of flowery scents in general. But a lot of them are delicious, fascinating, unique scents you are unlikely to ever find in a department store. To give you an idea of the sort of scents they do, here are my two current favourites;

This one is named for the character Red from Fraggle Rock, and is described as
Sporty and energetic: sweet red currant, tangy cranberry,
pink musk, and spicy pink pepper"
I think it smells like lollies, sunshine, and slightly tangy but overly sugary juice.
Like childhood, in other words.

Unfortunately, this one is a limited edition called Peach Moon, released some
years ago now, so getting your hands on some is HARD.
It's described as "Dew-covered peach blossom, white tea, moonlit musk, night-blooming jasmine, ho wood, and chrysanthemum" 

Personally, I can't really pick out the chrysanthemum, but the peach, jasmine, and white tea are there in spades. Plus the peach smell is a really natural kind of peach smell, not like "peach scented" body lotion etc.

I am also enormously fond of my bottle of Mr.Nancy, named for the character from Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Anansi Boys, which I didn't picture here because I'm so fond of the bottle the label has more or less worn off. Not only is it named after a great character, based on one of my favourite gods, from one of my favourite books from my favourite author, it smells incredible. The description on the site is, "Sugar cookies with bay rum, tobacco, and lime", and I swear, it does actually smell exactly how you would imagine that combination would. The tobacco notes don't even smell how tobacco REALLY smells - the smell how you imagine tobacco SHOULD smell, rich and warm and slightly musty. If I'm having a shit day, dabbing any one of these on can genuinely make me feel better. They smell like being happy, and being nice to myself, and feeling worthy of nice things. 

Unfortunately, the postage from BPAL to Australia is HEINOUS. Like, $25 at minimum. Which isn't their fault, but makes ordering in small quantities is a pretty damn expensive prospect. They do have a loophole though - if you order over $500 worth of product, the shipping is free. You might wonder who on earth would order this much product - that is, until you discover there is a whole little underground economy and related community of BPAL group orders, decanting, and swaps. Once you get into the deep end of BPAL addiction, that's where my inner sociologist has a FIELD DAY. The way certain products can create sincere, caring, deep communities is just endlessly fascinating to me, and trying to figure out why it works for some products and not others is one of my favourite ongoing amateur sociological studies.

There seems to be certain properties in a product that helps create a community around the product. I've noticed with things like nail polish and BPAL in particular, creating a physically small product that can be shared around easily is a great start. Add to that limited editions, taking inspiration from fandoms, and some products only being available in certain geographical regions, and it seems like you have a pretty good head start on a reliable recipe for community.

Given the cost of postage for individual bottles, group buys are a big part of  BPAL communities. The basic principle is that you get a bunch of like minded people together, pool your orders until it's big enough to qualify for free postage (but hopefully still small enough to avoid import taxes), and some lucky person volunteers to divvy the goodies up when they arrive. It's pretty obvious how this method of buying builds community - you have to find a bunch of people who like what you like, and talk to them long enough to get the order completed. Each shipment successfully delivered creates trust and camaraderie, as you share your impatience while you're waiting and your excitement when it arrives. 

But unlike group buys for nail polish, there is a deeper level of commerce and sharing involved in BPAL buys, that has evolved in direct response to the uncertainty of buying something you can't test before you buy it. You can look up swatches of a polish and have a pretty good idea of what you're getting; but selling a fragrance to people who can't smell before they buy is a bit more an uncertain process. To combat this,  BPAL have always offered "imps ears"- little tiny 0.9ml sample vials - so you can try a fragrance before you commit to a full bottle. If you order enough in one go, they will include "frimps" (free imps) or even "frottles" (free bottles). This is a brilliant marketing plan. Fragrance is an enormously difficult thing to judge until it's actually on your skin -  especially so for BPAL oils, because they're comprised of much less processed ingredients than traditional perfume, and so can react quite differently from person to person. By including free samples, BPAL have a system in place to encourage ever more buying, and not always even by the original customer. If you don't like a frimp, you're much more likely to give it away because it was free, it's tiny, and whatever. But the next person you give it to might love it. They might want a full size bottle - and then the cycle begins anew, with a new devotee in the fold. In addition to this, fans started decanting full bottles into "imps" themselves - a little BPAL oil can go a really long way, and if you all chip in together, a bunch of you can get to try an entire collection for the price of one bottle. If you don't like it, no big loss. You can pass it on, or trade it for something you like better.

Breaking the product down into even smaller quantities allows it to flow throughout the community really easily - passing imps around is cheap, and you don't even have to be that careful with postage because they're so small. If you're not sure you will like something, you can commit to an imp and try it first. If you get tired of one, you can trade it for something else. You missed out on a limited edition scent you really wanted? You might have an imp stashed away that someone else really wants. You're simply running out of room and someone has bought a bottle that you didn't want anymore? Shove some imps in the package as well! You get space and the buyer gets freebies, which they might end up buying full bottles of, thus continuing to drive the cycle.The sheer variety of scents available, combined with the fans habit of decanting the oils into even smaller, cheaper units, has created a generous, lively, and interactive community. 

Of course, the people involved help enormously with this as well - the people like Morag who are always happy to answer questions and be guides, the fairies (people who gift freely) taking care of the poor unsuspecting victims of swaplifters (people who arrange swaps and then fuck off with the goods). I think that the way BPAL treat their customers also helps encourage a generous, warm community - the owners are by all account lovely, friendly, warm, and always interested in making sure their customers are genuinely satisfied. Happy customers are more likely to want to spread that happiness around fellow customers.

Of course, the shared camaraderie of being passionate about something other people think is frivolous is a factor too. I'm sure anyone involved in any sort of fandom is familiar  with just how much this camaraderie can bind a community together. All of these factors have cropped up in my experience with the nail community so far, especially when you're talking about the indie market. The sense of camaraderie, the accessibility of the vendors, the generosity of the community - these are all things that both the BPAL and nail community have in common. I would be curious to find out how many other product fandoms share these same traits.

If you're interested in getting involved in the BPAL community, or even just having a peep in to see what it's like, you can check out the following starting points;

Sin and Salvation Livejournal Community

Big thanks to Morag for not only showing me the wonder of these tiny bottles of delight in the first place, but helping with the research for this one. 


  1. How fascinating!
    Love the look of the Red scent, Fraggle Rock was my childhood.
    Dance your cares away,
    Worry's for another day.
    Let the music play,
    Down at Fraggle Rock!! ;)

    1. Fraggle Rock was my childhood too- and currently my life philosophy!

    2. The Red scent is MAGIC for bad days. Every time I put it on I get that damn theme song in my head. Of course, it's in my head now anyway, thanks you to two :)

  2. OMG OMG I've had "BPAL???" on my ideas board for ages and I'm glad someone was more motivated than I to actually do it! I'm so fascinated by the BPAL community--fiercely devoted, those folks are! And I get it (I was OBSESSED for about a year, as in, having dreams about BPAL) but it's difficult to explain, because...perfume? Especially given that so many BPALers (myself included) are not perfume collectors overall? But there's a major draw to it. I went to a couple of BPAL meetups and even hosted one myself--totally uncharacteristically--because I just couldn't get enough.

    And YES to how the owners cultivate community simply by having a strong product. They're also really devoted to their fans: A friend of mine who was an early customer of Beth's happened to mention that her mother (a Snake Oil fan) had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Beth, unasked, sent her several imps of prototypes of Snake Oil that they'd tried out before settling on the final version. For a BPAL fan, that's pretty much holy grail!

    1. You make an excellent point about BPAL devotees and perfume devotees not really overlapping much. I own two mainstream perfumes, but FAR too many BPAL's, and most of the BPAL addicts I know don't own any mainstream ones. I wonder if part of that is that BPAL requires so much less financial outlay in the first place? (assuming you're in the US) You can lay down $100 easily for a mainstream perfume, which means you feel a bit obliged to make that perfume your "thing". The same amount of financial investment will get you four bottles of BPAL, and then BPAL is your "thing" rather than one specific smell.

    2. That's exactly it--I went to a perfume store recently and was shocked to find out that a small bottle of the stuff I wanted was $250--I had seriously believed those kind of prices were only for, like, Chanel. But I don't want a signature scent so much as I want a stable of 5-6 scents--luckily, I have 3-4 BPALs that fit that.

      And yes to BPAL being one's "thing." When I was super into it, part of the allure was the activity portion. I remember at one of the meetups, we started talking about our early experiences with BPAL, and I remember one woman saying, "I had just broken up with my boyfriend and was in grad school and had no friends. Studying and BPAL were what I *did*." At the time I was quite depressed, and it hit me that BPAL had become what I was *doing.* And while it was better than lying on the couch 24/7, it also made me sort of look at why I was so willing to throw my energy into BPAL when I couldn't devote a portion of that energy into things *I* could create. I still love me some BPAL but that made me sort of check in with my state of mind.

    3. It's always a fine line, balancing hobby with obsession. I've noticed a similar sort of fanaticism in the nail community - nail polish is what they "do". Of course, in this instance there are lots of ways to actually create new things within the community.

  3. This post reminded me that I have a nice, tidy little collection of BPAL imps stashed away that I haven't smelled in months (moved six months ago...still not sure where some things are!) Thanks for the inspiration to dig them out and wear one!

    1. I tend to forget about mine for periods too, and then I pull them out and wonder why I ever forgot them!


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