Fragrances – the essence of a good brand?


William Plane | October 26, 2009

William Plane, director of Savigny Partners LLP, a London-based boutique advisory firm, discusses the dynamics of the increasingly competitive fragrance sector and how brands are tweaking their approach accordingly.

William Plane, director of Savigny Partners LLP, a London-based boutique advisory firm, discusses the dynamics of the increasingly competitive fragrance sector and how brands are tweaking their approach accordingly.

Luxury brands have long appreciated the potential to capitalise on their brand cachet by marketing fragrances under their name to a wider public than their core customers, thus providing a healthy stream of cash flows and providing a “window into the brand” for new customers. The rewards of hitting a winning formula are substantial, as witnessed by the perennial success of Chanel no. 5 (launched in 1921) and Eau Sauvage (launched in 1966), to name a few. The problems began when every Tom, Dick and Britney wanted to join the party, resulting in an overcrowded market with upwards of four hundred new fragrance launches per year, compared to fifty a couple of decades ago. Brands have had to shout louder in order to get their fragrances noticed, investing in high profile advertising campaigns, celebrity endorsements and lavish launch parties, all of this for a one-in-four chance of their fragrance surviving more than two years and where a fragrance is now deemed successful if it manages to capture 2% of the market. There also has been considerable pricing pressure in the overall designer scent segment resulting in a wider distribution of perfumes in order to achieve sufficient volumes at the expense of the brand holder’s image and positioning. Can investing considerable amounts into a product that is more likely to fail than succeed and that, if it were to succeed, may only generate measly returns, be justified? Does the sector need to change its approach?

Making sense of what is going on in this sector is a challenge and every strategy under the sun has been tried with varying success. Over the past decade a number of trends have begun to emerge, which we propose to review below.

Product – ditching the face in favour of the nose

The perfumer (or “nose”) as opposed to the celebrity is beginning to take centre-stage. Niche brands, such as Frederic Malle, which names the nose behind each of its scents, have emerged as a strong category by tapping into consumers’ demands for quality inside the bottle and a story behind the fragrance. A number of luxury houses have also brought noses in-house to re-invigorate their fragrance business and develop a more coherent fragrance offering. Whilst noses have always been behind the creation of a fragrance, the brief they are given seems to have changed dramatically from one that is quite specific and developed with the help of consumer focus groups to one where free rein is given to the nose’s experience and creativity. A number of fragrance houses have also placed more emphasis on the raw materials used in their perfumes; Le Labo has named each of its fragrances by the primary note used in the fragrance followed by the number of ingredients used to make up that fragrance.

Price – breaking through the glass ceiling

There has been a move to break away from the “one price fits all” paradigm that has been blighting the sector, which has both enabled and been a result of increased focus on the ingredients of a perfume. One segment in particular that has benefited from this trend is the prestige segment, which also includes niche brands; anecdotal evidence suggests that sales in this segment have been going strong even in the current recession (Harvey Nichols fine fragrance sales were up 40% in 2008, Tom Ford’s Private blend (£250/bottle) sales have doubled at Selfridges). For those that can get away with it, this much higher pricing structure also allows brands to generate sufficient returns on their fragrance portfolio without having to resort to a high volume sales approach.

Place – making the customer feel special

Distribution has always been a thorn in the side of the fragrance industry, notably with the influence of “pile them high and sell them cheap” chains such as Beauty Base or The Perfume Shop. A lot of work has been done to redress this issue by both brands and retailers. Luxury brands have focused on reining in distribution; notably prestige fragrances are typically distributed only in the brand’s own stores and in select department stores: Chanel has gone even one step further by launching its own fragrance room on the ground floor of Selfridges Oxford Street. A number of niche brands only distribute their fragrance through their own stores or dedicated concessions (staffed by their own employees) in department stores. Le Labo takes this one step further and actually mixes its fragrances for the customer on the spot in its stores and concessions. A number of department stores have also upped the stakes in their fragrance department, improving merchandising (notably by dedicating more space to prestige and niche fragrances) and staff training, and as a result are agreeing a larger number of exclusive distribution deals for longer periods.

Promotion – turning the volume down from a shout to an interactive murmur

Whilst it still plays an important role, advertising has lost its prominence as THE tool to launch a fragrance. Prestige fragrances and niche brands have eschewed this form of communication in favour of word of mouth and interactive web-based vehicles. Notably they are tapping into the proliferation of blogs on perfumes (NowSmellThis for instance has 10,000 hits per day) inviting bloggers to fragrance launches and, in some cases have even set up their own blog. Whilst this alternative form of communication is not free, it is cheaper than advertising and very effective in garnering long term support for a brand.

Hermès – letting the genie out of the bottle

In early 2000 Hermès made public its concerns over the relevance of its fragrance business; the company opted for a thorough review of the division and implemented a number of changes as follows. It hired a nose, Jean Claude Ellena, in 2003 giving him a high degree of creative freedom. The fragrance collection was segmented into three tiers, with a new prestige range (Hermessences) being launched in 2004 and distributed exclusively in Hermès stores, a fine fragrance range (Jardin – tied in with the annual themes of the brand) being distributed in Hermès stores as well as selected department stores and specialist retailers, and “window” fragrances based on the heritage of the brand (eg: “Kelly Calèche”) and designed to provide an access point to the brand by distributed more widely. The first two categories are not supported by advertising campaigns, whilst the third is. The division has emerged into being one of the fastest growing business areas of the company in 2007/8 with sales of Eur119 million.

The product should sell the brand just as the brand should sell the product

We cannot profess to give guidance as to how to develop and launch a successful fragrance: this is an increasingly challenging sector which should be approached with great caution. What we have seen is that the temptation to make quick money on the back of a brand can often come back and haunt a brand owner. For a fragrance to work in the long term, it needs to make sense and be able to stand alone as a product in its own right within a brand’s universe. This requires developing a product that is truly in keeping with the underlying brand both in terms of scent and quality of ingredients. It is also critical to engage the consumer on all levels, especially at the point of purchase, and to create an on-going rapport between the actual product and the consumer.

Analysis | Fragrance