How to Max-Out the Fragrance Boomlet In Six Not-So-Easy Steps

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\"Wood-FragranceBoomlet\"At the risk of getting all Mark Twain-y, the reports of the death of the American fragrance biz have been greatly exaggerated. Which isn’t to say it’s in fantastic shape at the moment; far from it. But the inexorable slide of the past half-decade—brought on by the cratering of the celebrity scent sector—seems to be behind us.

“The fragrance industry put up some healthy numbers in 2015 and we’re expecting to see the same in 2016,” says Elizabeth Musmanno. As president of the Fragrance Foundation, of course Musmanno is bullish. Still, her excitement is more about a new era of digital discipline than getting through the most recent holiday season unscathed.

“The interesting thing about the technology-driven times we’re living in is that we can really hone in on what performs and why,” Musmanno says via email. “Manufacturers and marketers have more tools to use than ever before. And consumer interest is growing every day. They’re craving knowledge about fragrance and its use.”

Though mass-market scents continue to struggle, over on the prestige side of the fragrance fence, the picture is borderline rosy. Per NPD’s 2015 U.S. department store recap, fragrance contributed a four percent increase to the $16 billion total. Designer fragrances were up 8 percent. And artisanal scents (by the likes of renowned noses like Frédéric Malle and buzzy indie houses like Byredo) fared even better, posting gains of 22 percent.

Thus, in the spirit of capitalizing on momentum, I proffer six wildly opinionated ways to make a good thing—the resurgent U.S. scent market—even better.

Step 1
Hammer the last nail in the celeb coffin.

Here’s an indication of just how tortured the celebrity scent category is: Just this week I received a breathless email from a publicist about an upcoming White Diamonds flanker.

As in a she-hasn’t-been-with-us-for-several-years, Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds flanker.

Listen, I’m the last one to knock old Violet Eyes. She was incredible. And when she first dipped her toes in fragrance, some 20-odd years ago, my then-Editor In Chief quickly put me on a flight to the West coast to chat with her about it in her amethyst geode-bedecked Bel Air living room.

No one moved the merch like Elizabeth Taylor. Okay, maybe JLo moved the merch like Elizabeth Taylor. But beyond those two ballsy beauties, the celeb arena has mostly been a world of hurt for fragrance manufacturers. Even if a first scent does well for a singer or starlet, the subsequent launches—and there are always subsequent launches—usually garner nowhere near the sales
of the initial foray.

And then there’s the straight-up hassle of working with certain control-freak artistes, and learning, once you’re deep into it, that they can make less than stellar corporate partners. (See: Parlux Fragrances, LLC and Perfumania Holdings, Inc. vs. S. Carter Enterprises, the holding company for one Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter.)

The fix? Be bold about bolting this tired, troubled sector. Or at least narrow the field to the true performers (i.e. the deceased, Oscar-winning ones, who may have married Richard Burton a handful of times. If Elizabeth Arden still makes bank with White Diamonds, let those flankers keep coming).

Now that we’ve broached the topic of winnowing, let’s move on to our next call to action…

Step 2
Whittle those over-reaching perfume portfolios.

According to Statistic Brain Research Institute (via NPD), department stores stocked 1,165 fragrance brands in 2015, a hefty jump up from the 756 brands they carried in 2002.

If that’s the case in prestige, I can only imagine how many mass-market scents are gathering dust at my neighborhood Walgreens.

Just for fun, I recently took a fast blast through the fragrance offerings on the website of a major chain drugstore. (Not Walgreens.) Whoa. My jaw dropped at the sight of so many scents I thought had gone by way of the dinosaur. Charlie, Giorgio Beverly Hills, White Shoulders. Women still buy this stuff?

Clearly those purveyors of olfactory nostalgia didn’t get the same memo Procter & Gamble has seized on. If they had, they’d be shedding underperformers right and left. Last year, to bolster its “leadership brands,” P&G punted some 13 fragrances over to Coty.

Interestingly, one of the few true jewels of the P&G / Coty handover—the Dolce & Gabbana fragrances—has balked at the idea of new ownership.

Maybe Team Dolce & Gabbana is afraid of getting lost in Coty’s gargantuan fragrance portfolio. If you’re one of dozens of scents (including a Vespa fragrance, for pete’s sake), it isn’t a stretch to think you might not get the love, attention, and ad dollars you desire.

But rather than let a scent slip into obscurity, why not just make some tough decisions? On the management side, it’s time to take a hard look at which brands are actually bringing home the bacon.

Step 3
Borrow a page from the Hollywood playbook.

While they fall under the artsy umbrella, mini films are generating major buzz in the perfume world. In fact, one of the biggest fragrance success stories of recent years—Tory Burch—gained instant traction from a grainy, Robert Nethery mini movie in which Burch is seen but not heard.

Evidently, we don’t need to listen to what Burch loves about peonies, we merely need to see her sniffing them on the grounds of her drop-dead gorgeous Hamptons estate. It’s an image piece, a mood-setter, and it worked like a charm.

More recently, fashion designer Derek Lam launched his new 10 Crosby fragrance collection with ten shorts—one for each scent—by filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman. “None of these films are product placement,” Lam told Vogue.com at the Angelika Film Center premier. “It’s about inspiration.”

Even good, old-fashioned TV spots are getting increasingly esoteric and film-like. Case in point: Dior Sauvage spokes-icon Johnny Depp in the convertible on the dusty desert road, with only a wandering bison to keep him company.

Are mini films indulgent? Sometimes. But they needn’t be big-budget affairs, and they can live happily on a brand’s website indefinitely—further slicing the cost-per-view. If films are done well, they can do much to help a fragrance convey its core ethos. And that clarity can, in turn, generate sales.

Step 4
Bounce the jumbo bottles and start thinking small.

Circling back to my earlier point about the nearly 1200 brands department stores are scrambling to make space for, it begs the question: How can a normal person work his or her way through countless full-size bottles of this stuff?

The answer is they can’t. We all get exactly one body in this lifetime, and there’s only so much real estate to spritz and spray.

That’s why fresh fragrance concepts like Sephora’s red-hot sampler program, and the startup Scentbird, are so genius.

For Sephora, bundling a group of trending scents (including Tory Burch) into a “Favorites Perfume Sampler” taps into the millenials’ ardent search for a signature fragrance, which we’ll explore shortly.

Scentbird, a digital platform launched in late 2014, is an equally clever sampling play. For $14.95 per month, subscribers receive a 30-day supply of one fragrance selected from a huge array of coveted brands. You can pick from various categories (Scent Type, Perfume Personality, Occasion, Season, etc.), or merely choose something you’ve been eyeballing but haven’t wanted to pay full freight for.

Scentbird founder and CMO Rachel ten Brink, whose CV is peppered with corporate gigs at L’Oréal SA, Estée Lauder Cos., P&G, and Arden, says the special sauce has been lasering in on quality and eschewing the mass market. “We have very carefully selected our brand portfolio to feature designer and niche fragrances only,” she says. “I think consumers are looking to make a statement, they’re looking for fragrances that help define who they are.”

Thank you, Madame ten Brink, for the slam-dunk setup for Step 5.

Step 5
Target the young whippersnappers with really old stuff.

For older generations (read: boomers and even Gen X), the idea of a “signature” scent is considered super old-fashioned. Who wants to be like Mom, dabbing Shalimar behind her ears for her weekly Saturday night date with Dad?

But here’s the thing: millenials would like nothing better than landing on their own unique version of Shalimar. In fact, if you market it cleverly enough, they might even go for Shalimar.

There’s one thing for sure you can say about millennials, and that is that they’re individuals,” says Musmanno. “And that makes it hard to make sweeping generalizations about this group. We find that regionally, their tastes are very different. There are a couple of things, however, that you can bank on—they all wear a ’signature’ scent, they seem game to try anything, sample-wise, and above all, they want an authentic experience. Heritage brands are important as are ingredients.”

To drill down to preferences, Scentbird surveyed 400 signature-fragrance-searching millenials, and niche thoroughly resonated. “I think we’re going to see a shift towards more gourmand and distinctive scents rather than the super clean and simple scents of the early 2000s,” says ten Brink. “Millenials don’t want to smell like everyone else.”

Step 6
Cultivate—and celebrate—the next-gen noses.

If niche and artisanal are the way forward, it stands to reason that talent needs to be carefully nurtured. Rather than laboring over a group-think blockbuster, or the 15th flanker to an existing mega-brand, the next generation of fragrance-makers has to be able to tinker with their little vials without having to worry too hard about the bottom line.

Enter two Fragrance Foundation support systems: The “Indie” Fragrance Award, which was added to the organization’s annual awards powwow in 2012 and honors up-and-comers that sell in only a handful of doors; and “The Notables,” a brand new showcase for rising industry stars. From a selection that includes a Global Marketing Manager for Marc Jacobs Fragrances, a number of junior oil house execs, and a Cosmopolitan magazine Deputy Beauty Editor, one winner will be chosen and fêted at a special breakfast.

“’The Notables’ is part of our mission to support, recognize and retain the talented people in our industry,” says Musmanno. “We realized that we had a number of ways of calling out the veterans of the industry, but nothing to recognize the future leaders.”

And about that future? “Based on the caliber of candidates we saw,” says Musmanno, “the future of the fragrance industry is looking good.”

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