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On the flood of new scents

Gaudi's Church of the Holy Family, in BarcelonaYour intrepid reporter is back from Barcelona and the wonderful Sniffapalooza tour thereof, and as predicted, is awake at what WOULD be getting up time – in Barcelona.

I have much to blog about the whole visit but was thinking about 1) the amount of perfume I sniffed – and bought, and 2) the visit to Puig and Firmenich the last day of the tour, which was well worth the entire trip.

The insight into the business end of fragrance at Puig was fascinating. This company, which does household scenting as well as mass-market fragrances and some high-end fragrances, is a true representation of the spectrum of commercial fragrance creation and marketing today. And their presentation on some of their “masstige” scents – really celebuscents, as almost all masstige scents are these days – was illuminating.

They showed us how they identify key characteristics of the celebrity in question to decide on a marketing campaign – and thus the scent. The scent is clearly formulated to demonstrate the key concepts of the marketing campaign, not the other way around. Shakira is multicultural, caring, and young and hip – so the campaign, and then the scent, is going to be, as well. (I think they captured the goals well with S, which is a modern take on a floriental – I’m planning to get a bottle.) Antonio Banderas is masculine, seductive, humorous – and so is the marketing (and he is, and so it is, and I could watch this commercial for The Secret all. Day.) and then so is the scent. The company has videos that serve as multimedia briefs on the celebrities and you can easily see how they relate to the fragrance that results.

This makes perfect sense (ha) in a marketing world. The people who make these perfumes are clearly deeply devoted to scent, as massively interested in it as we were as fans (well, at least some of them – some of them are marketers or designers or something else who are willing to be interested in scent but aren’t massively sucked in by it the way Sniffa-goers are). But the goal of the company is nothing high-minded to do with scent – it is to make money.

I can’t imagine how it could be any other way. The goal of pretty much anything not hand-made and artisinal in this world is to sell, because mass creation requires mass marketing and mass sales. Otherwise the economics just won’t scale. I can see how this might bug some perfumistas, but the fact is that I would bet just about every perfumista has more than one mass-produced scent in his or her wardrobe, and that scent is the one some of their friends or family wear too, and that scent wouldn’t exist – or would certainly be off the market – if it hadn’t generated the money to be mass marketed.

One of the most interesting facets of the presentation was that if you listened carefully, you could hear language that would have been very familiar to any TV producer or music producer, and that clearly explained why there is the flood of new releases that so many of us in the perfume world bemoan so much. Because of the activity of the market. New releases, especially in the celebrity scent world where there is a built-in interest in the brand, sell. If they don’t catch on, sales drop off – but a new scent will still always sell, again because of the built-in curiosity of the market but also clearly because of the appetite for the new in that market. If it catches on – if it becomes White Diamonds (in this country) or Diavolo or The Secret in Spain or Europe, then it stays on the “charts” and stays in production. If it continues to stay on the charts, it continues to stay in production, like Maja, the truly iconic fragrance of Spain that so many people have been buying their whole lives both in Spain and on trips to Spain that it has become a bulwark, a cornerstone of business you can count on as a revenue stream until you’re dead. And Puig, this company, bought Myrurgia, the brand that made Maja for many years, and still makes it, because it’s like owning the distribution rights to Michael Jackson’s Thriller – it’s like a license to print money.

(Speaking of which, the Rituals spa-home-scent store on Las Ramblas has one of the oddest in-store soundtracks I’ve ever heard, composed at least partly of Euro-ambient covers of pop tunes – including an Enya-like dreamy Euro-cover of “Beat It”. Extremely odd to my ear.)

Now Myrurgia is a brand that Puig no longer feels a great need to innovate with (I asked this question). It is what it is – a license to print money. In the perfume world, as with music, they may remix, perhaps to avoid now-banned or more-expensive ingredients, just as in music someone may come out with a “remastered” version of the album. Real fans may decry it, the market may eat it up, or it may be a critical success and a market flop. No matter what, it’s the brand identity that drives what happens next, because it’s the brand identity – the market’s knowledge of and memory of the product and how they’ve consumed it in the past – that drives how its production and distribution develops.

If you listened very carefully, you could also hear exactly what drives the flood of new releases that aren’t Maja. The scents that don’t catch on quite as well drop in sales. Some scents drop out of production altogether, they do so badly; most seem to develop some sort of a following and keep on in the market (I will still buy a copy of Rick Springfield’s “Living in Oz” album in every music consumption format the digital world throws at me, because I love that album. Also Queen’s Greatest Hits and “Bat Out of Hell”. Some things will never change.) But for most of the scents after their launch sales drop off. The scent that “still does quite well” is actually a rarity in the line. So a new launch is necessary both for a new influx of cash and to continue development of the brand. After so many weeks on the pop charts, a single may still generate sales but it falls – and if you want to be a person, or a brand, that stays on the charts, you need a new single.

I’m still digesting many of the things I learned – as well as the scents. There were a few of the scents from the brands we looked at that were easily identifiable as standard Cool Water clones or that fruity floral I’ve smelled a billion times. Most of them, though, were actually quite identifiable as their own creations, and interesting. I was most intrigued by Diavolo, which was one of the company’s earliest Banderas scents and supposedly not available in the US (though I see it at, even though it’s marked “not sold in stores”. Whatever. “Exclusivity” or market outlet control appears to be a joke in this day and age – whatever “exclusive” seems to mean to distributors (and it seems to mean “exclusive – in this channel, and we have a list of what’s in this channel though you don’t”), it doesn’t usually hinder a lot of consumption except when it does and then it’s mostly annoying.) Diavolo, the EDTJust looking at the profile of Diavolo on fragrantica you can tell it’s going to be a good men’s scent – citrus (very Spanish!), leather and green. Then look at the fan remarks. Almost as many people hate it as love it (true of lots of mass market scents – they’ve smelled it at any rate). Also many people comment that it’s a copy of Fahrenheit by Dior. Well, here’s the thing: 1) I’ve never smelled Fahrenheit, so when I smelled Diavolo it was interesting and different to me; 2) Even today, right now, Fahrenheit is twice the price or more of Diavolo.

One can easily see how a mass-market fragrance, even at the very low end, could do very well, why the market would buy it.

And the fragrance companies, in launching and keeping production of scents, are simply reacting to the market.

It’s market forces that drive this process – not the market of bloggers and critics, who are largely sophisticated consumers even when they are not snobs and who have a library of scents to call upon and who can afford to spend whatever they like on perfume and who would like to preserve the critical top of the market, not the earning top. It’s the market of mass consumers, whose taste is not necessarily lower quality but is aggregate, and whose education about, and therefore consumption of, perfume looks exactly like the mass market’s consumption of movies or music. Broad distribution requires the perfect balance of appeal and popularity and, in perfume’s case, ingredients, because it cannot be sold digitally like music or movies and still requires production of a product in atoms and shipped in atoms and therefore production costs still matter far more than for mass market music or movies.

And when it works, as with any mass market product, in a global market, it can generate an awful lot of money. A very large amount. So much that it can cover the cost of the failures and still generate very powerful revenue streams for the distributing company.

And that’s what drives production.

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