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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bic Fragrances: Perfume History of Les Parfums Bic (& Paris in your Pocket)

Bic pens are introducing a fragrance line (with various numbers right next to the "For Women" name to denote versions), as was brought to my attention by perfumer Ayala Moriel's tweet. But that's nothing new. In 1988, I well recall Bic, the brand known for their stylo a bille (introduced in the 1950s) launched a fragrance line, Parfums Bic, (in the exact same "flacon" in the shape of a lighter), hoping to bring the convenience of their pens, lighters, and razors to the world of perfume. "Des vrais parfums a un prix Bic!" True perfumes in the Bic price range! The French company gave an advertising pitch that talked about “the world’s first fine French perfume that combine high quality with affordable pricing and a stylish, portable design” . (Yes, they were pretty decent smelling, especially for the price, I can tell you. I did like the blue and black ones myself.)
Tag lines were inspired: "Paris in your pocket" (for which they went the extra mile shooting a classical 1980s commercial around the Tour Eiffel, as shown below in the vintage clip), "Ou tu veux, quand tu veux" (where you want it, when you want it), L'argent ne fait pas le bonheur" (happiness isn't dependent on money), "Variez les plaisirs" (indulge in a variety of pleasures) and "Le Parfum Nu" (the naked perfume). You'd think it'd become a marketing case-study. Well, it did, but in reverse.

via imagesdeparfums.fr


The design company responsible for the packaging & presentation for the US market was none other than Seymour Chwast, reproducing the bright colors and vivid visual schemes of classic 1980s mass products, surely an appealing sight offered in various tweaks. The French head of the Bic company, on the other hand,  "the idiosyncratic 74-year-old [in 1988] Baron Marchel Bich, who is a descendant of the Italian aristocrats who founded the company in 1953"was -typically for him-mum about the project at the time.

The New York Times introduced the line by Bic to the American audiences in the following words (and by the way, please note the prestige status of CK best-selling scents at the time):
"The company plans to introduce Bic No. 1, a line of inexpensive perfumes for men and women, in the United States early next year. The fragrances in small, spill-proof, portable glass bottles have had ''a very good reception'' in France, Italy and the Benelux countries, the company says. The little glass atomizers, which look like butane lighters, will cost about $5 here - an unusually low price for 7.5 milliliters of perfume, or about a quarter of an ounce. By contrast, Obsession, a top-of-the-line perfume that was an instant success, costs about $170 an ounce. The Bic pump emits about a third less than ordinary atomizer pumps and allows 300 sprays. The idea is to concentrate the scent so that it is not wasted when applied.

In France the perfumes are available in four scents with colored caps to distinguish them. Red is named Jour, or Day, a floral scent; Blue is Nuit, or Night, a spicier mix; Green is Sport, a unisex, fresh, woody scent, and black is Homme, or Man, a muskier fragrance.

First Bic contracted with a leading scent designer, Firmenich, to develop the fragrances. While it did not buy into that family-owned company, it took a 34 percent stake in Chauvet S.A., which makes perfume essences that are sold to perfume companies such as Firmenich. Then Bic bought a bottle-making plant from glass specialists Groupe Saint-Gobain, which designed the atomizer to be unbreakable. And it purchased Sofab S.A., a company that makes spray pumps.

via eighties.fr

To produce and package the perfume, Bic built a factory near the bottle-making plant in Treport, France. With a $15 million budget, it began to introduce the perfumes in Europe. The television spots in France, which were handled by Young & Rubicam, told a whimsical boy-meets-girl story using animated characters drawn by the British artist Sue Young. By contrast, the print campaign, in French fashion magazines, pushed a practical theme, stressing that the perfume is portable and is in a leak-proof bottle. " {quotes via NYT}

The pocket-size bottles were in the shape of Bic lighters while the price was comparable ($5 in the same drugstores & supermarkets alongside other Bic products, such as lighters, pens and razors).

 

From a marketing point of view the Bic perfumes were considered an epic fail: The whole admirable effort was unsuccessful, to put it mildly, stalling production as soon as 1991, probably because the era wasn't ripe for disposable French perfume (we were a long way from Sephora's little perfume roll-ons in a tutti fruity rainbow selection and the gazillion lower-value products with scent on the shelves from celebrity scents to body sprays!). There was no status in buying these in an era that was intent on possessions that showed status. There was also no storytelling involved; the need for a story (that ad speak about how the creator was smitten with this or that we read today in press releases regarding inspiration) was then as fiery as it is today.
Another unforeseen problem was the lack of testers at the stores. Initially there were some but since they were so tiny and easily snugged they were soon extinct. The distribution circuit might also account for the flop. The NYT noted that :"Competitors such as Avon and L'Oreal already have similar low-cost perfume products, but Bic's distribution channels are different."

Still, the bicperfumes.com site still exists, revamped somewhat (but with a copyright of 2007-2008) to remind us, at least in name, of these little pop culture memorabilia.

24 comments:

  1. I must be mixing things up, but I think I do remember an ad for similar products in Italy, with 4 or 5 handsome models passing said perfume/lighter bottles, with an aesthetic similar to the dreamy, steamy ad for Anais Anais. But I think it might have been a little earlier, and I don't know if it was bic or gilette or some other razor company.

    cacio

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  2. I remember these, and actually wore one of them as a first-year university student (although I can't recall which one now). Ironically, it smelled better on my skin than a lot of more expensive perfumes, and I got a lot of compliments on it.

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  3. M,

    now you have me intrigued: could it be the Bic ones indeed (I think they launched all over Europe at the time) or was it another one. I think there's an Italian line of body sprays that was sold with that imagery. Mim-something? See if I can find it.

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  4. D,

    ah! Someone remembers! Yes, they were quite decent smelling; I always stole sprays at the super-market (for the price they were stellar!). Funny how things have gone downhill quality-wise even for major brands eh?

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  5. M,

    surely you're not meaning Impulse, right?

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  6. Another idea; parfums Malizia?? (after the Laura Antonelli film)

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  7. No, it wasn't impulse or Malizia (for this I still have the jingle in mind: Malizia profumo d'intesa). I remember the lighter style and the pen/lighter company. But as said I am probably mixing up ads, or perhaps it was and ad for the Italian market only. I'll do a search on youtube and the like tonight and see if I can come up with something.

    cacio

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  8. ... quick search. Actually, I wasn't completely wrong. I was mixing it up a little bit with the more striking Anais Anais ad in terms of aesthetics, but there was an ad for bic at the same time. For instance (hope the link works), below at 1:10

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZuBjlGIOgg

    cacio

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  9. Anonymous03:40

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  10. Anonymous03:43

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  11. Anonymous05:54

    I remember these in the supermarket isles when I was about 12 (and obsessed with perfume even then!) I sprayed all 4 on me and was horrified at how awful I smelt, and rub as I might to rid myself of Bic evil, I gassed the whole family out in the car on the drive home. I still have perfume nightmares about them (especially the green one!)

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  12. M,

    ah, there you are, fabulous!! No, I don't think I recall that commercial. What a find. (I nostalgise about RAI now)

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  13. All the spam that I delete every day and they STILL post more!

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  14. Anon,

    I bet they would be nightmarish all together! They were pretty potent by today's standards. Don't recall the green that well, I'm afraid. :-( Was it that bad? The blue and red for women were pretty good and the men's was a classic "masculine" musky fougere.

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  15. solanace08:13

    Good point. In the 80's it was all about luxe, no restraint, what a bad timing for such a launch!

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  16. Solanace,

    thanks for chiming in.
    And also please notice how brands that are considered meh today in the US received top billing back then (and were considered luxurious)!
    Perfume ebbs and flows, me thinks, in general.

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  17. Anonymous09:10

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  18. I'm getting really tired of silly spam... At least try to write something clever, instead of being a sycophant all the time! (I'm preaching to the spam robots I fear but...)

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  19. Tiff15:23

    I also had no idea Obsession cost $170 per ounce at one time-- in 1980s dollars, no less! It really makes you think about how the formula must have changed if one can buy a mini for $15 from the drug store today.

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  20. Tiff,

    I kinda think they must have meant the parfum/extrait? It doesn't compute else. Sounds too much with the value of money back then, surely.
    It's true that Ck scents were respected back then, at any rate.

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  21. I too seem to remember these. Were they released in Greece too? With a different ad maybe

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  22. K,

    that's just great! Yes, most definitely released in Greece too. Remember they had them in kiosks alongside the lighters and the pens, supermarkets too. :-)
    I don't recall the specific print ads, but I do recall the TV commercials: very upbeat and fun. "To φοράς και πετάς! Να μη φεύγει απο κοντά σου! Τ΄'άρωμά μας είναι Bic".

    Found the Greek commercial for Bic perfumes on this link.

    (Ι just LOVE Youtube, the things I find sometimes)

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  23. Though THIS is the cult of cults, very characteristic of the times, remember it?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEGTxxEnb0M

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  24. Anonymous18:30

    I loved Jour and Nuit! Haven't tried the other two. But these worked so well with my chemistry and smelled so good to my nose and made me feel beautiful. Best perfumes I ever had. Wish they were still sold, can't find them anywhere online. Anyone knows if there's anything similar to these scents that's available now?

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