Indie Fragrance Founders Redefine Relevance

Does sex still sell?

For fragrance, at least, the answer is increasingly unclear. Battered by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and confronted with a consumer base who wants accountability and accessibility to the brands they patronize, the category is facing a reckoning as consumer interest in traditional modes of scent marketing starts to wane.

While the category was struggling even before the coronavirus pandemic and the social justice movement, in the first half of the year, scent has been among the hardest hit categories in beauty.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that people are going out less and simply wearing less scent. But at a time when consumers are more interested than ever about the products they use and the companies that produce them, traditional fragrance marketing often seems out of step. High-budget ad campaigns focused on seduction aren’t appealing to consumers the way they used to, and supporting social causes is much more en vogue.

The category itself was down 32 percent in the second quarter, according to The NPD Group, with ancillaries and home fragrances as bright spots. But niche fragrances are outperforming the general market, and greater success for the industry’s independent owners suggests consumer interest in personal fragrance hasn’t disappeared — it just relies on a customer who expects product education, empowering messaging and an authentic brand story, even from a category whose appeal was in its mystery.

Even Macy’s Inc., the largest retailer of prestige fragrances in the U.S., is adjusting its approach. While customer replenishment is fueling online sales, the retailer is pivoting to bring the beauty counter experience home, according to Nata Dvir, senior vice president and general manager of beauty and center core at Macy’s. “We have a quiz online that narrows down our assortment for customers. Sampling is really important, so we sample pretty heavily with all of our Macy’s purchases,” she said.

Dvir has noticed a shift toward a more ingredient-conscious mind-set. “There’s two types of customers: those who really care about the brand, and the other [who] is really engaged with the ingredient story, what ingredients are in the juice. We’ve seen a lot of emerging fragrances that are more clean and sourced differently,” she said.

Sustainability in packaging is also of much greater interest. “There’s more conversation around ingredients and packaging. Brands are thinking about eco-friendly packaging and how they source their ingredients, and it’s a bigger part of what’s happening.”

Beyond the juice itself, innovation has also shifted. “Different brands have done a nice job of thinking about how to talk to the customer,” Dvir said. “From marketing, I’ve seen more investment in digital and social display. We love to animate our stores, and we’ve seen a lot of the marketing to be more for social engagement,” she said.

For younger niche brands without hefty marketing budgets, though, the challenge is more of an uphill battle. “How do you sell fragrance without putting it on your skin?” said Mindy Yang, founder of the Perfumarie, a niche fragrance retailer and brand incubator on Lafayette Street in New York. “If a product is beautiful and has really good claims, but luxury in terms of price point and you don’t get that song-and-dance at Bergdorf Goodman, how is that going to help the brand connect with the consumer?”

For niche founders, the white space is in the marketing: traditional tactics like attraction and aspiration feel dated to many Millennial and Gen Z consumers, especially in the digital age. “I haven’t seen many fragrance brands activate online,” said Bee Shapiro, founder of Ellis Brooklyn. “What is the impact of a glossy magazine? Not that much. What’s the impact of TV when everybody is streaming?” she continued. “ If you think about those methods of marketing, those distribution channels have gone down.”

Shapiro herself is expanding Ellis Brooklyn’s reach beyond social media with a foray into Shoploop, a video-based social commerce platform incubated by Google. “You go on, make a video talking about the products, and talk about the details and why you like something,” she said, thereby giving potential customers a skin-care-like, education-based approach.

She also oversaw the brand’s social expansions onto Instagram Reels and TikTok. “We care a lot about traditional channels but we’re just super open to anything that’s new. We want to stay open in how we communicate to our customers,” she added.

The shifting conversations around gender, sex, seduction and equality serve as the undercurrent for Shapiro’s strategy. “The basis of fragrance is about attraction. But what does ‘sexy’ mean? That has changed,” Shapiro said. “Sex will always be a part of fragrance marketing, but I just want to feel good. I want that little moment, this little escape. You’re transported away for a second,” she added.

Shapiro also underscored that the Coronavirus pandemic and social unrest contributed to her positioning of fragrance as self-care. “The circumstances we’re living in, it’s really hard. Beauty, what we can offer as a beauty brand and not just a fragrance brand, is that mini escape.”

Also shifting the conversation is an increasingly discerning consumer base, for whom the word “parfum” on an ingredient list doesn’t cut it. “Consumers are really savvy. Everybody today is a brand. Everyone’s on their cell phones. Everybody’s got a YouTube channel, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook,” said Sue Phillips of Sue Phillips Fragrance, a bespoke perfumer on New York’s Upper East Side.

Phillips, who developed fragrances for Avon and Burberry before venturing out on her own, sees traditional campaigns as staid. “We all have the opportunity to reflect our individuality, our personality,” she said. “As a result, the old marketing of, ‘be gorgeous so that you can be sexy so that the man will whisk you off and take you to the promised land,’ that doesn’t fly anymore because that isn’t what happens.”

To that end, the aspirational sexiness of traditional ad campaigns ultimately rings false for a younger customer. “Each brand’s identity has to be believable, and you can’t just take on that sexy, romantic aura unless that’s something you exude as a brand or as a brand owner,” said Chris Collins, founder of The World of Chris Collins.

Collins has seen a burgeoning interest in discovery sets, but has still rethought his overall communications strategy to offer consumers an experience more consistent with his brand. “There’s been an emphasis on storytelling and my concentration on being able to translate my story through my site: my story, the story of the fragrances,” he said. “We all have no choice but to pay attention to our online presence, because it’s the only way to get people to engage.”

Along with engagement, other brands are taking a long view in their approach to messaging, either by talking up to a customer discerning about fragrance or using language that doesn’t cater to a gendered consumer base.

For the fragrance brand Phlur, a white space in the category for a fine fragrance that doesn’t adhere to traditional notions of sex and gender was the impetus for its founding in 2016. “The fragrance industry writ large hasn’t changed anything about their go-to market strategy for 50, 60 years,” said founder Eric Korman. “The messaging is still driven by celebrity and designer fragrances, but that’s really not about fragrance, it’s just an entry point for a brand,” he said.

Phlur focuses on clean ingredients and unisex offerings, with an emphasis on reimagining how consumers interact with the juice itself, rather than on traditional marketing. “It represents that brands were really stuck in how they communicated to customers, using sex[ist] and misogynistic images, rather than talking about what fragrance is, what role it can play in your life, and how you wear it,” Korman said.

The demand for social justice is also having an impact on the fragrance category. For a category once predicated on exclusivity, inclusivity is now paramount. Rob Smith, founder of The Phluid Project, which launched its first scents earlier this year, thinks brands needs to appeal to broader audiences if they ever hope to capture their spending power. “If [advertising] doesn’t reflect a broader community, if it looks like a skinny, beautiful white woman, it feels like a disconnect if a brand isn’t able to communicate the diversity of their consumer base,” he said.

Authenticity, both in lived values from a brand and its messaging, hasn’t escaped customers’ zoomed-in scrutiny, especially in an election year. Some brands have struggled with striking the right tone with a socially conscious audience, but for David Moltz, cofounder of D.S. & Durga, which launched in 2007, it’s all about staying positive.

“It’s a very delicate time to try to appeal to any consumer — you should not try to appeal to the consumer. You should be who you are, do your research and be careful what you say and try to be supportive and respectful of other people,” Moltz said.

That being said, Moltz isn’t afraid to take a stance. “There is a fear in the cancel culture that you have to be careful about what you say and how you say it. I would rather use my voice for things I believe in and for positive messages,” he said. For example, he points to a hypothetical: instead of voicing disdain for the presidential administration, he’d rather urge followers on the brand’s business accounts to vote in November’s general election.

Beyond politics, Moltz counts transparency between him and partner/wife Kavi Ahuja as equally crucial. “Having a specific voice that’s real is something, having access to us,” he said. “You can tell that we’re just two people. We’re a couple of kids from Brooklyn and we’re not always on top of the world.”

Chris Collins, on the other hand, knows politics play a role, but sees his fragrances as an extension of himself. Buying into his glamorous point of view is what resonates the most with consumers for him. “There are very few brand owners of color, so that separates me from most of the brands on the market, and there’s this sense of the stories. It’s my stories and perspective on fragrance, my style and packaging. Everything exudes elegance and luxury and an all-around comfortability in perfume,” he said.

Otherwise, authenticity can steer clear of politics altogether. In the case of Veronique Gabai, former chief executive officer of Vera Wang and brand group president of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., Aramis and Designer Fragrances, who launched her eponymous fragrances earlier this year, the story is of her own childhood in the south of France.

“When I launched the brand a few months ago, I was talking about the source of inspiration, and the sensation it gives you, and the feeling it gives you,” she said. “I have not spoken very often about what’s in my fragrances necessarily because that’s a secondary message.”

Gabai’s take on the messaging is less that seduction is irrelevant, and more that the idea of escape, à la Shapiro, has a stronger connotation with customers. “The bulk of fragrances are sold as a social tool or as a way to seduce the other kind, and if you look at the bulk of fragrance marketing, it’s all about that. It’s a seduction play,” she said. “In periods when you can’t even go out, is that message resonating?”

Rather, Gabai agrees with a transparent brand story, especially as the new generation of customers shows a stronger sense of marketing spins than past ones. “Young people are extremely marketing-savvy. They can read through the line quicker than anyone else,” she said. “There are also a lot more people today looking for an authentic connection with a brand. It sounds corny, but this idea of a genuine message and authentic story resonates much more with them than traditional rules of the game.”

Similarly, Phillips thinks a cluttered market has led to a growing sense of skepticism from consumers. “There is not enough differentiation. There are so many fragrances that are not developed for the brand itself, but as another category in a portfolio. So if they have 10 fragrances, then they say, ‘let’s have another two, three or four,’” Phillips said.

This also makes consumers question the personalities attached to their fragrances, which either capitalize on the personas of the celebrities they’re attached to, or act as an inexpensive entry point to luxury goods. “There have been so many celebrity fragrances. Now, they are no longer sort of the fragrance du jour, the designer fragrances, celebrity fragrances,” Phillips added. “So many fragrances are just me-toos.”

Perhaps most notably, many brands have translated the desire for authenticity as transparency on their ingredient lists. Opting away from the “parfum” wording on most labels, many brands, particularly in the clean sector, are revealing their ingredient lists.

“Consumers are way more intelligent and conscious. Conscious consumerism is what I’d definite it as,” said Yang. “I welcome this movement, it’s really important to have options and choose what you need and what works for you.”

For clean fragrance brand Skylar, the brand is just as much about safety as it is about transparency. “The fragrance itself is not necessarily bad, there’s some ingredients that can potentially produce harm to the body that’s often in fragrance, those are the bad ones,” said Cat Chen, founder. “Some customers feel like they can’t get enough information so they write off the entire category.”

Younger consumers show more interest than older customer bases, Chen said. She tracks site clicks to product ingredient labels, and sees a real interest from younger customers on what goes into a product. “They’re going onto our web site and figuring out our ingredient lists. They’re curious intellectually about what specifically is in and not in the products,” she said.

Clean fragrance is also fertile ground for innovation, especially with the conception that brands based entirely on naturals are less complex olfactively than traditional fragrances. “Naturals are wonderful, but just saying it is not enough,” said Shapiro, who uses green chemistry alongside naturally sourced ingredients. “We use a high percentage of naturals, but innovation is super key. We have ISO-Gamma Super, which is made with green chemistry and is allergen-free,” she said. The synthetic note can act as a stand-alone scent or amplify any other fragrances in the line.

Korman also sees a similar drive for cleaner, more sustainable fragrances that compete in complexity with leading producers. “Young consumers are demanding smarter moves on materials choices whereas in the past, they may not have,” he said. “Equally as important, thinking about their environmental and packaging choices.”

Sustainability and clean ingredients, though, often don’t go hand-in-hand. Naturals, for example, often have a greater environmental impact than synthetics. “We thought about what goes in the bottle from two lanes. One, the efficacy of that product on your skin, and safety. Two, we thought about it from an environmental footprint, and are the ingredients sustainable and not drawing negatively on the earth’s resources,” he said.

Gabai ran into a similar problem, and ultimately settled on offsetting her environmental impact by planting trees in the Mediterranean with part of her sales revenue. “We’re trying to bridge luxury with sustainability. Each bottle is refillable, so the idea is you have one beautiful object you’ll buy once, and the refill bottles are recyclable, so it’s this idea that you can surround yourself with beautiful design but it doesn’t have to land in the landfill,” she said.

Other brands have found success bringing a clean rulebook to other formats. Camille Le Feuvre, founder of Paris-based pH Fragrances, has brought her clean-minded approach to fine fragrance to home fragrance, including her hero laundry detergent. She was even able to get the regulated product claims on detergent in France, regarding bioaccumulating ingredients, removed from her product labelling.

“Our laundry detergent is biodegradable with fragrance ingredients selected and sourced sustainably,” Le Feuvre said. “The younger generation is looking for brands engaged with the planet, especially during this COVID-19 period, and they don’t want the same fragrances as my generation.”

Several niche founders discovered that younger customers don’t just want different scents from their parents, but different scents from everyone else. Phillips has found success with her lifestyle questionnaire, which asks customers about everything from their favorite foods to their favorite artists, and she narrows down olfactive families and notes via its results.

Yang has a similar approach for her Lafayette Street atelier, likening it to a tasting room. “It’s a little more of a hospitality approach, cultivating a relationship without the branding,” she said. The purpose is twofold, giving Perfumarie’s brands a low entry point to the retail landscape, and moving product. “A maker can have access to retail by applying and learning before spending a lot of money on introducing a product into the market,” she said.

Gabai sells two booster fragrances alongside her normal scents, which can be blended with any of her stand-alone scents. Not only do they give customers a chance to blend a fragrance to their liking, it also provides a one-of-a-kind reprieve from the sweet fragrance signatures that have driven Gabai to nausea in the past decade.

Part of the boosters’ efficacy is in their quality. “Being a perfumer is being an artist and a craftsman,” she said. “We’re going to rediscover the whole fragrance community, and then we’ll rediscover craft.”

For more from, see:

EXCLUSIVE: Rebecca Minkoff to Launch First Fragrance

Tumi Launches Men’s Fragrances

Ilaria Resta Talks the Future of Fragrance

Sign up for WWD's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.