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Creating Content for an Ephemeral Product
FSW explores creating a content strategy for fragrance and why narrative marketing sells.
On Friday, Victoria Beckham launched her much-anticipated fragrance line just hours before her Paris Fashion Week Spring-Summer 2024 show. The launch forms part of the rollout of three new fragrances.
Fragrance is a fascinating case study in narrative marketing, embodying the strength of brand storytelling and content strategy to sell scent across anosmiatic digital platforms. As Vogue Business recently explored, the boom in celebrity fragrances is far from over. Although the perfume industry is deeply steeped in a long history of hypersexualized, gendered approaches to branding and marketing, fragrance and fragrance marketing are undergoing a quiet revolution. This opens the door for new ways to reach consumers and new stories to tell them.
The fragrance industry at its surface seems like it should be a land of synaesthetic wonders. And to a point it is, but fragrance is also a compelling, complex market that is rapidly growing and moving with its own currents, often against the flow of the beauty industry.
Scent is Unique
To start, the business of fragrance is booming. The global market size will reach over $52 billion by 2025, which is a 20% increase over the past five years according to Statista. Contrary to initial expectations, the fragrance sector even grew during the pandemic despite the limitations on IRL sales. In previous recessions, we had the “lipstick index”, but during the recession, we had the “fragrance index” as this affordable luxury has a transportive effect.
From a brand and product perspective, the fragrance industry is evolving, as a recent article in Harper’s Bazaar nicely explores. Yet, fragrance presents a unique problem for brand marketers due to the ephemeral nature of the product. Unlike almost any other luxury beauty product, except possibly for travel, the major goal of marketers has to be to get consumers to sample the product in a physical space. It is hard to convey what is so great about a fragrance through marketing alone (and this is reflected in those low e-commerce sales numbers), though much has been made of the strong digital sales of fragrance during the pandemic and there is now such a thing as perfumes of the Metaverse.
What Fragrance Stories Sell?
When it comes to storytelling, fragrance marketing is traditionally hypersexualized, gendered, and fantastic. Many adverts targeted to women adopt a storytelling approach that centers around the female as an object of a man’s desire or fantasy, which, even inasmuch as it purports to elevate women, ends up minimizing them at best and objectifying them at worst. On the reverse, adverts for men portray a roguish character doing specific activities, like riding a horse in a desert or driving a boat near a beautiful woman, which is designed to inspire wearers to an unattainable stereotype of maleness.
To illustrate a scene from fiction that resonates with reality, consider a scene in the Netflix show “Emily in Paris” season 1, episode 3 (“Sexy or Sexist?”) where Emily balks at what she feels is a sexist perfume advert from Maison Lavaux. In the advert, a model walks naked across a bridge while well-dressed men in suits ogle her. She then turns into a bird. Antoine, the perfumer, tells Emily that the advert empowers the woman in the ad because it is her dream, her fantasy. Emily retorts that the advert is in fact centered around the male gaze and that the woman is being objectified.
The fictitious Maison Lavaux advert embodies a good chunk of celebrity-driven perfume advertising targeted to women. These adverts often feature major celebrities like Charlize Theron or Natalie Portman and have such a ludicrously disjointed approach to narrative that you wonder if you are, in fact, being trolled.
To look at the case of fragrance storytelling for men, one familiar fragrance advert that embodies the idiosyncrasies of the market is Johnny Depp playing guitars in commercials for Dior’s Sauvage line. Though Dior has had a scent with this name since 1996, the Johnny Depp version launched with enormous controversy in 2015 and it has remained enmeshed in controversy ever since. Critics have accused Dior of cultural appropriation by launching the scent with commercials set in Southeastern Utah that featured Native Americans. Others have discussed problems with the scent’s name as potentially referencing colonialism. And, of course, none of this counts the controversy surrounding the scent due to Depp himself.
And yet, Sauvage is the biggest selling scent in the world, making Dior $4.5 million in revenue every day at $160 a bottle. A bottle was sold every 3 seconds in 2021. And, after the Depp-Amber Heard case, Sauvage sales have increased about 1900 percent and Depp, who was slightly sidelined during the trial, inked a multi-year deal with Dior Beauty afterwards. Though not all of these, shall we say, outrageous events, were part of the marketing plan, Dior benefitted from them.
Fragrance Brand Storytelling is Evolving
Coming out of the pandemic, however, the story of the fragrance industry itself has begun to change. The market now includes a new generation of brands for which the idea of scent is not about sex or romance but rather about self care, sustainability, and moving beyond old notions of gendered norms.
Many fragrance brands now have a holistic focus on fragrance for self-care or self-improvement, building on the health and wellness trend. Marketing fragrance as something that shoppers should buy for themselves allowed brands to shift messaging inwards, focusing on the mental and physical benefits of scent–a message that apparently deeply resonated during the pandemic. Also, the increase in demand for personalization has produced a range of innovative approaches from crowd-sourced seasonal scents to the use of natural scents and aromatherapy that will react with your body’s natural biochemistry to produce a truly “signature scent.”
Another shift is a new emphasis on sustainability, which is a must in production and now marketing. This is a challenge and an opportunity. It is a balancing act between adopting sustainable practices, such as the increased use of upcycled ingredients or reusable packages, while maintaining positive, good-for-the-environment messaging that is not brand diluting.
Finally, gender neutral fragrances are on the rise (again). Over 50 percent of Gen Z-ers believe gender labels are antiquated, which has fed growth in a new class of perfumes. While CK ONE (one of the original unisex perfumes) and other gender-neutral scents stick to citrus notes, some brands like Boy Smells are embracing stereotypically feminine fragrances like rose and selling them as gender neutral or even mixing gendered scents like rose and musk. Of course, gender norms also affect product display and discovery. Several Ulta Stores now categorize fragrances by brand, rather than gender.
Narrative Marketing for Fragrance Works
In spite of an evolving market, hyper-sexualized, rigidly-gendered scent still sells. But, so do more holistic, gender-neutral fragrances. The key to selling fragrance boils down to the age-old tool in a brand’s toolkit: brand storytelling.
Let’s return to our main question: How do you sell the ephemeral? Fragrance presents a unique challenge for digital marketing because you cannot experience the actual product. When it comes to beauty, particularly fragrance, it is about appealing to the five senses through sight and sound. While marketers love to talk about the value of evoking a mood through advertising, it really is about brands making an emotional connection with consumers.
In fragrance, as in all fashion and luxury, narrative marketing is about inspiration and aspiration. Your content needs to inspire action. Consumers need to feel an urge to learn more, order your product, or find it in person. Consumers also need to feel a sense of shared or aspirational value about your brand.
As consumers, we all know that watching Charlize Theron emerge from a golden pool is a deliberate play on her celebrity status to sell perfume and not a well-crafted narrative. Yet, this type of brand storytelling sticks around, partly because we aspire to the level of glamor in the commercial but also because we love to hate it and it has always been around.
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