Do people still wear perfume?

Business is down, but classic scents still hold allure

The fragrance business is suffering from growing pains. The oversaturated market has made it difficult for new scents to sell, forcing perfume makers to rethink their strategies.

The main issue is there’s a lack of differentiation between many scents on the market, according to experts. And the constant release of celebrity perfumes, once a low-hanging fruit that guaranteed a high return, have consumers turning up their noses.

“With so many new releases, manufacturers are running the risk that consumers will become increasingly confused and frustrated by the never-ending choice,” said Diana Dodson, senior industry analyst at Euromonitor International.

Compared to sales in 2000, sales in the U.S. mass fragrances declined by 50 percent to $600 million, as pricier perfumes have climbed 16 percent since then to a record-high of $5.2 billion last year, according to Euromonitor analysts.

Last month, Elizabeth Arden blamed an 18 percent decline in sales on its celebrity fragrances. The brand makes scents for Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. Coty, the world’s second-largest perfume maker that sells Katy Perry and Halle Berry’s scents among others, said comparable sales were flat last quarter. The downturn has been persistent for a few years now.

“There was a time when everyone was following celebrities, when handbags they wore sold out within minutes, but then they started to license themselves ridiculously and everyone had a reality show, clothing line and perfume line,” said Dawn Goldworm, a co-founder of the scent branding firm 12.29 who used to design perfumes for celebrities and previously worked for Avon and Coty Beauty. “I think the world got overwhelmed.”

Meanwhile, legacy fragrances like No. 5 by Chanel and Joy by Jean Patou as well as modern fine fragrances, like Light Blue by Dolce and Gabbana and Flowerbomb by Viktor & Rolf are proliferating due to a lack of innovation. Year after year, consumers have returned to these scents despite the industry’s decline.

Especially for Joy and No. 5, it’s the distinctiveness — no perfume smells like either of these scents, and no bottle look like either of these bottles.

“When you’re consistent and unique at every touchpoint; the juice, the look of the bottle, its packaging, even the glass, then you’re competing for the best,” said Nikita Mehta, a brand manager at Jean Patou. This level of thought and detail isn’t given to many of the newer lines.

And though celebrities have told the press they wear these scents (Jackie Kennedy loved Joy and Marilyn Monroe loved No. 5), neither is strongly associated with one particular person or era, which contributes to their longevity. They’re timeless, which is one reason why they’ve stuck around for so long.

Part of having long-term appeal is also having an interesting story, according to Mehta. Joy was created in 1930 as a gift for his Jean Patou’s American clients who was unable to travel to Paris during the Great Depression. Composed of 10,600 jasmine flowers and 28 dozen roses, the perfume is known for being the costliest fragrance in the world. Its cost exclusivity, luxurious appeal and its pungency made it a coveted perfume, even during a time when people were spending less.

Chanel No. 5 was also defined by an aura of exclusivity that has stayed with the scent for decades. In 1921, Gabrielle Chanel spritzed her high-society friends with No. 5. These tastemakers — rather than a traditional marketing push — generated the early hype that forced Chanel to offer it in retail stores a year later.

Over the years, legacy brands have continued to invest in advertising to maintain interest among younger generations.

“Every year or two Chanel comes out with new advertising campaign for No. 5 so people don’t forget,” Goldworm said. “It’s difficult for new fragrances to enter that level of success.”

Continuous ad campaigns and ensuring the perfume has visibility on the shelves of major retailers year after year are essential long-term strategies to a fragrance’s success. But many brands invest millions into the launch of a fragrance and pull the plug as soon as sales start to die down. This is a mistake, Goldworm says.

“A perfume takes time to permeate the market, for people to fall in love with them and become loyal to them,” she said. “If you don’t continue to support it, it will stop making money.”

When a perfume maker doesn’t have the money to do this, which is the case for most niche fragrances, there’s little chance it will break through an already saturated market, Goldworm said. But if a large company acquires the startup, as Estée Lauder has done, there’s a chance it will proliferate. The uniqueness of niche fragrances could revive the industry.

“The paradigm is difficult at the moment, but I think there’s still real opportunity to see new innovations and creativity over the next decade,” Goldworm said.

-Megan Anderle, Senior Editor at Group SJR

This article also appears on Unfiltered, Group SJR’s quarterly magazine.

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