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Image / Beauty

How are perfume sales performing in the digital age when you can’t smell the Internet?


by Holly O'Neill
12th Dec 2018
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In a beauty market that relies heavily on ecommerce, where does that leave the perfume industry? After all, you can’t smell a fragrance through your smartphone, says HOLLY O’NEILL.

We’re in the golden age of beauty. But as fragrance is olfactory, it hasn’t managed to drive digital sales in the same way as cosmetics and skincare. Simply because, while there are apps available to try on a lipstick, a hairstyle and eyebrows, we can’t smell the internet.

And still, everything about how fragrance is sold has changed. The names. The inspirations. The marketing. The bottle. While there may have been a collective yawn at Kim Kardashian’s perfume bottle shaped as a replica of her naked body (Jean Paul Gaultier did it first in 1993 with Classique), she still sold out a reported 300,000 units of her first fragrance Kimoji via her website in six days. A fragrance that nobody except the editors, celebrities and influencers she sent it to (who posted it all over social media) had even smelled yet. That same digital hype was created when 300 editors, influencers and members of the fashion elite were gifted a bottle of Tom Ford’s new fragrance alongside their tickets to his SS18 show. The next thousand bottles to be created sold out instantly. It didn’t matter that nobody had smelled the fragrance yet. Everybody wanted to get their hands (and their Instagram Stories) on Tom Ford’s Fucking Fabulous.

Kim Kardashian KKW Body Fragrance

When it comes to tapping into today’s direct-to-consumer market, fragrance has had to step up in a way that other cosmetics haven’t. We live in a socially conscious new world, poised 24/7 to hang a hashtag off any injustice, sexism or inequality it sees fit, meaning fragrance’s traditional sexualised marketing communication – a naked woman, maybe wearing some oversized jewellery, draped around a fully dressed man – doesn’t cut it anymore. Nobody in 2018 wants to buy a fragrance called Seduction or Petite. You might as well call your fragrance Internalised Misogyne. Advertisements showcasing Ideal Woman Through Male Gaze, maybe running cluelessly around the Eiffel Tower, don’t fit into our cultural narrative anymore.

In Paris this September at Maison Margiela SS19, there was a first-time fragrance reveal ever at Fashion Week for Mutiny, the first fragrance creation for the fashion house with John Galliano as creative director. With Mutiny, Maison Margiela has redefined the archetype of fragrance muse with “six mutinists” in the campaign celebrating nonconformity, diversity and individuality including model Hanne Gaby Odiele. Lupita Nyong’o and Saoirse Ronan share the spotlight in the new campaign for Calvin Klein Women, Raf Simons’ first fragrance. Artists, actresses and activists made up the Gucci girl gang when Alessandro Michele recruited Dakota Johnson, Hari Nef and Petra Collins for his debut women’s fragrance, Gucci Bloom. Empowered, modern women are fragrance’s new frontier.

These are the heavy hitters in fragrance, but niche brands like Frederic Malle, Le Labo and Byredo, thanks to digital technology, are chipping away at the designer segment’s market share. Marija Aslimoska is the founder and creative director of Parfumarija, a niche perfume boutique in the Westbury Mall in Dublin. “The digital era has facilitated the launch of many small brands which don’t have to be in a shop anymore to sell their products,” says Marija. “This has not necessarily made them successful, but everybody gets a chance, so the fragrance podium right now is quite busy what with the big brands’ presence but also these new smaller brands. However, they will all try their best to fight and get a physical presence in a perfume shop, due to the particular nature of the product – perfume. It has to be smelled and sampled.”

A lack of physical presence hasn’t troubled sales for indie social media-driven beauty brand Glossier’s first fragrance, Glossier You, which has a dedicated community of followers who not only view each new Glossier beauty launch like a sneaker drop, but want to wear Glossier jumpers and download Glossier iPhone wallpapers and trust, without even smelling, that they’ll want to wear Glossier You. Again, this is a rarity in an industry like beauty, where you want to try before you buy. “Perfume sales seem to be growing relative to the rest of the business,” says Margaret Mangan, co-founder of Galway perfumer Cloon Keen Atelier, “but I don’t think they will ever compare to the experience of coming into a shop and getting the help of an expert. Perfumes can be difficult to sell online unless it’s a re-purchase.”

Glossier You Perfume Solid, €21

So what are new avenues fragrance brands are exploring? “An approach that many retailers have taken,” says Margaret, “is providing ‘discovery sets’ that customers can sample at their leisure.” According to Marija, pricing is another strategy. “The customer is now very aware of the value of the perfume and can compare prices worldwide. This is also good for the retailer – if you’re not greedy and try to be fair with the customer with prices, once you’ve invested your time and knowledge with them in your environment, they’ll recognise that and become loyal to you, rather than purchasing the product elsewhere online. This challenges retail to monetise the investment they put into customers’ experience. And as long as the experience is there for the customer, you are not threatened by online.”

Creating a sensory customer experience has been another fragrance marketing approach. French perfumery Atelier Cologne offers personalised engraved leather cases in Brown Thomas Dublin. Jo Loves, the luxury fragrance brand founded by Jo Malone, has created a new way of experiencing fragrance with the Jo Loves Fragrance Brasserie Bar. When she opened the Jo Loves boutique in Belgravia, London, Malone launched the bar complete with foam guns that create a body lotion froth that is painted on the skin with her fresh and inventive Fragrance Paintbrush, bath colognes served in steaming, scented tangines, and shaken cocktail shower gels on ice. Last year, Thierry Mugler opened its largest perfume boutique in Printemps Haussmann department store in Paris with a 360° experience, where, accompanied by sound and video, components of the Mugler fragrance wardrobe could be smelled through diffusion bowls and wooden beads in brandy glass sniffers. The space also includes The Source, a Mugler nod to perfume fountains created in the 18th century, where, for a discounted price, you can refill your perfume bottle, reportedly saving 383 tonnes of waste per year.

As we become more environmentally conscious, sustainability is another concern facing the beauty industry. When it comes to fragrance, a beautiful bottle is often packaged with a leaflet nobody reads, inside a cardboard box wrapped in plastic. Refillable bottles are more commonplace now, but new brands have adopted revolutionary ideas; Irish perfumer Jo Browne has created beautiful natural solid perfumes in ecological and sustainable bamboo tube packaging. Her natural perfume also caters to the 35 per cent of the population who can’t wear sprayable fragrances due to the alcohol or preservatives. Luxurious and affordable fragrance brand Floral Street, available in Arnotts, was founded by beauty industry maven Michelle Feeney and when launching Floral Street, waste was high on her list of concerns. Each of her fragrances comes housed in a biodegradable, recyclable pulp carton.

While creative online perfumeries can help you choose your scent per mood, occasion, ingredient, strength and perfumer, just as if you were in a shop, online shopping can still feel trend-driven and throwaway. We can rely on iconic retailers to get us off the couch to experience the true look and feel of fashion and beauty or to sometimes rip up the rulebook, reimagine the landscape and change what we thought we knew about fragrance. If fragrance was online only, we would miss the opportunity for an hour whiled away between meetings sniffing old familiar favourites, the ceremony of inhaling every beautiful, fussy bottle when choosing your first perfume or the more modern Jo Malone London bridal scenting experiences of fragrance combining where a bride and groom can create a bespoke scented signature that will always take them on an olfactory journey back to their wedding day. The world of perfume has simply too much to offer for you to remain monogamous by clicking and repurchasing just one signature scent.

Graphic design by Laura Kenny.

This article originally appeared in the November issue of IMAGE. The December issue of IMAGE Magazine is on sale nationwide now.

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