You could once count on perfume marketers to go heavy on the sex, seduction and Hollywood glamour. But times are changing. Nowadays, perfume marketers are operating in a far more hard-edged environment, and they’re responding with messages that ring a bit more like a self-help manifesto, positioning perfumes as empowerment tools for women to assert their true selves.
For example, Pinrose perfumes (sold on its website and at Sephora) are “made for real women, by real women.” Skylar Body, a direct-to-consumer brand, is “dedicated to helping each woman discover their unique, signature scent.” Philosophy’s Amazing Grace perfume is “an intimate expression of confidence and inner beauty.” Modern perfume marketing these days treats scents less as a way to lure men and more as a fierce declaration of independence.
“It’s less prescriptive and more about being your ‘authentic’ self,” said Cristina Black, the founder of C. Black Content, which works with brands including Givenchy and Hourglass to hone their voice and copy.
Indeed, it’s as if the omnipresent “You are enough” imagery on Instagram has been bottled and scented. This is in stark contrast to fragrance marketing of yore, when perfume was seen largely as a status symbol, and the market dominated by big-name designers like Chanel and Dior. Those companies trafficked in aspiration, channeling a luxurious lifestyle or the perfect sex life in their ads.
A sexualized See by Chloé ad from 2013
“You see a lot of romance and sex appeal in traditional perfume ads, but when we asked women why they actually wear perfume, there was really only one answer: because it makes them feel good,” said Cat Chen, a former executive at The Honest Company who founded Skylar Body. “It’s more about them and the way they feel than about the people they’re trying to impress.”
It’s niche brands like Skylar Body that are said to be fueling the current growth in the global fragrance market, which is expected to reach $70,000 billion by 2022, at a compound annual growth rate of 6.2 percent.
Perhaps as a result, even some of the original stalwarts are taking a pause with past practices, attempting to follow the lead of niche brands and reframe their scents as a personal token, unique to the wearer.
“It’s gotten very witchy and metaphysical,” said Black of this new angle. “The implication is: You’re going to wear this fragrance and send your special vibe out into the world.”
Mugler, which has been in transition since dropping the “Thierry” from its name in 2016, has taken a page from the aforementioned upstarts. The goal of its latest perfume launch, Aura, is to be “[about the customer] and all that she embodies.” Its tagline? “Listen to your instinct.” But, with imagery focused on a nude model stuck in a fantastical jungle, the assets don’t quite fit the bill.
Chloé’s newest fragrance, Nomade, was also created to “chime with women’s desire for openness and empowerment today,” according to WWD.
“The concept of this fragrance is to talk about women who encounter the world,” the brand’s chief executive officer, Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye, told the publication. “[It’s about her] more daring and adventurous side.”
Chloé’s latest fragrance campaign for Nomade
Roberto Cavalli’s newest Florence iteration follows the same theme. Targeted at a younger, millennial audience, the scent is meant to evoke an “empowered, strong and magnetic woman.” The ads, featuring rising model Shlomit Malka in a sequin and feather halter ballgown, are meant to be accessible.
“Today’s customers are looking for authentic connection with brands, so they can recognize themselves in the values and stories the brands are standing for,” said Simona Cattaneo, chief marketing officer of Coty Luxury, which holds Cavalli’s fragrance license.
Not everyone is convinced by this new messaging.
“I think it’s a challenge for the classic luxury houses,” said one luxury brand consultant, under condition of anonymity. “How do they convincingly fit into this new idea of celebrating individuality, when they’ve been about chasing after someone else’s life for so long?”
The way younger brands are approaching ingredient descriptions is also different, with an emphasis on doing away with confusing lingo to paint a clearer scent picture for the consumer.
“For the past century, the fragrance industry has held up a veil of elusiveness,” said Erika Shumate, CEO and co-founder of Pinrose. “Elitist brands make you feel ashamed or embarrassed if you don’t know what something like ‘oud wood’ is.”
To remedy this, Shumate’s brand does away with a lot of the technical fragrance terminology, opting instead to rely on a “sensory-based quiz” focused on a shopper’s emotions, favorite colors and shapes to help them identify the right perfume. For in-store shoppers, its fragrance descriptors are also more straightforward. The Secret Genius scent, for example, is described as a “romantic blend of vanilla and caramel” that’s “perfect for hatching plans and sneaking kisses.”
Skylar Body, which is sold online only, uses a sampling program that allows customers to skirt the process of predicting how certain ingredients might smell. They can pay $20 to test out the brand’s four perfumes and get that money back if they order a larger bottle. The brand’s descriptions are similarly devoid of anything too heady. Its Coral perfume, for example, “has hints of grapefruit and a touch of apple blossom” and “is bright and sun-kissed without being too sharp.”
A lookbook image for Pinrose
Nest Fragrances, which sells everywhere from Sephora to Amazon, takes a similar approach. “We do not want to intimidate consumers with esoteric fragrances and packaging,” said Nancy McKay, the company’s CEO. Instead, it presents consumers with one word, such as “sophisticated” or “mysterious,” that conveys the “mood” of each scent or “how it might make them feel,”calling out only a few of the more recognizable fragrance notes.
For comparison, the Roberto Cavalli scent Florence is described as “a chypre amber inspired by the Tuscan countryside.” It has “a fruity top accord, comprising contrasting notes of sweet blackcurrant and tangy mandarin essence, while the flowery core blends orange blossom, zesty grapefruit petals and slightly musky hibiscus seeds.”
“Brands today need to come down to earth a bit more,” said Black. “They need to use the consumer’s language.”