The first product line of the 1952-founded Car Freshener Corporation of Watertown, NY, the evergreen tree-shaped Little Trees have become the most well-known brand of air freshener on the market. The trees now come in over 40 fragrances, the most interesting of which include: “No Smoking,” Musk, “England,” Leather, “Scotland,” Gold Essence, Savannah Heat, Serengeti Sun, Bubble Berry, Pina Colada, and of course, the ever sought-after New Car Scent.
Those who haven’t seen a Little Trees little tree in a while would also probably be surprised how “advanced” their designs have become. Once only varying by their solid, somewhat dull colors, today’s Little Trees are printed in blue and yellow camouflage (Pina Colada), with serpentine dragons (Dragon Spice), with a “distressed” feel (Leather) and in American flag patterns (Vanilla). And whereas all of the old tree designs were, regardless of odor, stamped with a simple “Car Freshener” and a ®, the modern versions include pictures of what each is supposed to smell like. But the design of the tree, to the hang of every bough and branch, remains precisely the same.
It would also probably surprise many to learn that the brand is by no means a US-only staple. Under varying licenses, Little Trees can be found throughout Europe under the names Magic Tree, Wunder-Baum and Arbre Magique.
Despite, or maybe in part because of, its exceptionally humble associations, Little Trees, like Spam, has become a massively iconic cultural brand. This is to say that, even though it is not associated with anything that one conventionally strives to achieve (ever see a car freshener in a Porsche?), it is beloved. Evidence of this is the sentimental merchandise and good-natured humor that surrounds the Little Trees brand; how many products are iconic enough to inspire baby costumes?
There is good reason that this brand profile is running in tandem with brandchannel's Annual Review of Product Placement. Little Trees' tree-shaped air fresheners have taken on some remarkable film roles over the years. Its best-known highlight is certainly from 1984’s cult film Repo Man, where the wizened car repossession agent says of Little Trees, “You’ll find one in every car. You’ll see.” Fast forward to last year’s Samuel L. Jackson thriller Cleaner, which featured a Little Trees freshener in the van of a crime scene clean-up worker. In fact, Little Trees had become such an onscreen automobile fixture, that when last year’s film Transformers featured the “Bee-otch” air freshener, many thought that it had been specially made for the film. (It was not. In fact, the Bee-otch’s sudden, unexpected popularity did spark an ongoing copyright lawsuit.)
Some of Little Trees' most famous film roles have had nothing to do with the product’s “recommended” use. In the five-time Oscar nominated film The Fisher King, Little Trees was prominently incorporated in a pivotal and touching scene. Also, the thriller Seven features a macabre room full of hanging Little Trees in a chilling and vital scene in the film. Little Trees is wisely attuned to this fame. Its website maintains a section devoted to the product’s onscreen film and TV sightings (including its appearance in other products’ commercials).
So does the future smell nice? While there has been increased air freshener competition in recent years, as well as a turn toward “hipper” designs (see above re: Bee-otch), Little Trees realizes it cannot coast on past glory. The brand invests heavily in some conventional sponsorship, including NASCAR in the US and Formula racing in Europe. But more innovatively, the company does great grass-roots marketing via blogs.
One example is its partnership with the extremely popular Gawker Media automobile blog Jalopnik. There the good-humored brand has reached out to elicit reader suggestions for new scents (“New York City Bus!,” “Napalm In The Morning!" and/or “Monica Bellucci”) and regularly offers prize packages for Jalopnik contests. These efforts and Little Trees’ old school charm and cultural standing assure that the brand will remain relevant, if cheekily so, for the next generation of “Lively Lemon”-smelling lemon drivers.