Marketing has gained a bad rep among perfume aficionados: "It's all marketing" you hear them say with a dismissive pfft over their shoulder as they consider the tsunami of launches in just the previous year, rhapsodising all the while about the glorious past, about eras when perfumes were supposedly both classier and cheaper to purchase. The truth however is never as simplistic as all that and the demons are less malignant than thought of.
"Now it appears perfume once again stands alone again, not tied to fashion nor an entry point to a new undiscovered world. It simply is" said veteran marketeer Jeffrey Dame the other day, while discussing the rise of prices on perfume brands. He explained how price is a pillar to the marketing of a fragrance and how perfume stands as a luxury, but also aspirational good: "Price is a marketing concept, one of those four key elements drilled into us when I went to university for a marketing degree in the 1970's. "Marketing" a product was a new idea in 1977 and the field of marketing and an actual marketing degree were part of a brave new world which has not quite resulted in a better new world 35 years later. Price is key, high or low, pick your passion. Before the 1970's perfume stood by itself, a creation of the perfume house. The big change in the 1970's with designer fragrances was that perfume provided you with lower-cost access to the world of Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and YSL. If you couldn't afford an Oscar de la Renta dress, you could certainly stretch to purchase a piece of Oscar through his pretty perfume. The fashion was magic, and purchasing a piece of the magic through fragrance a thrill."
The status symbol of luxury brands is uncontenstably part and parcel of the high prices. "When we want to denote luxury, we increase the size or we increase the price" perfumer Jean Claude Ellena had told me on a one-to-one, explaining at the time the rationale behind the ginormous bottles introduced for some of the Hermes fragrances, but at the same time clarifying the thinking behind some of the perfume marketing going on across the board.
Some of the prices have become ridiculous, that's true. Even though there are perfumes that are decent enough to ask for very high prices, the rate of price raise is relative to the antagonism between niche key players; everyone is pricing in comparison to others' in the field. As Dame succinctly notes: "18-24 months ago the general price for high end niche was in the $150.00-$190.00 range for a 100 ml [bottle]. Nowdays, heading into holiday 2013 niche prices have risen greatly and a standard going rate is in the $225.00 - $285.00 range. Prices haven't quite doubled in the past two years, but close. This is a general guesstimate, and certainly there are many niche scents still below $200.00, but $250.00 seems to be where the heart of the niche business is". Furthermore, perfumer and niche brand owner Patricia de Nicolaï admits in a Fragrantica interview "...I have to say that some brands really exaggerate with their prices. I don’t want to denounce anyone, but offering a very expensive perfume with a lovely packaging does not always mean that this perfume will be nice." Further amunition in the dissenters' quiver? Not really.
Personally, I value marketing. Maybe it has to do with getting to know a bit of the stuff through, shall we say, personal interactions. Maybe it has to do with me being highly interested in the goings of perfume advertising from a historical point of view. Or maybe it's just that I like to be inquisitive and the devil's advocate. So let me plead a case for marketing.
Marketing doesn't have to be a brain-washing dystopian Big Brother device to work its magic. It's marketing which puts wings on perfume, providing the story which connects with the wearer and consolidates the brand. The smell alone can't really create that bond, not only because it can't be translated the same way for everyone, but also because smell is mute. As perfume maker Serge Lutens once said, "It is potentially a carrier for the imagination". Just think about it: all those romantic stories you've heard about Guerlain or Chanel or Caron etc, the twilight dusk of the "blue hour", l'heure bleue, inspiring Jacques Guerlain to create an enduring classic, Jicky being the nickname of a lover Aimé loved and lost, Mitsouko meaning "mystery" in Japanese (not so!), the Cuir de Russie perfume being inspired by Cossack boots smeared with birch, Tabac Blond an homage to flappers... all fabrications, all marketing. Their creation was much more pedestrian, if we take things factually. But they created a mythical beast which is with us still. Like in Herodotus, even if these things never happened, someone had the wisdom and the cunning to narrate them anyway....
For a product as mystifying, as undecipherable, as steeped in half-truths as perfume, selling it without the story would be akin to trying to sell hot air. The most exquisite smell in the world rests without aim if there isn't a stiring hand to propel it into the finishing line. The most divine creation needs to be communicated and communicated in the right way for the right audience at that. Good marketing works stealthily, convincing us that what we choose is "quality" or at least "a good fit", "value for money", "what we need right now". We consequently feel validated by our choice: smart, in the know, pampered, exhilarated, good about ourselves, happy. It also affords us the luxury of thinking we have free choice: this chesee instead of that cheese, this car instead of that car. But it's already cheese and car, this doesn't change. Does Coca Cola or Apple have good marketing? You bet. So does Chanel, selling not only nice perfume (well, most of the time) but also the unbridled assurance of "good taste".
Furthermore, perfume is an acquired taste. Babies don't grow being appreciative of it. It needs a certain conditioning to learn to appreciate man-made smells as "pleasant", "delicious", "enjoyable", even "life changing". Marketing helps us connect the dots, brings out specific points, making us think about something in the way that best translates the brand. This is especially crucial for artisanal brands, smaller players who have the need for a more truthful, but also highly clever marketing plot to make their presence known to those they'd best connect with and to consolidate that bond. Arguably, this force harnessing might also maim the more creative, more imaginative thinking of the individual. But to quote something I first heard on the 1st season of "Mad Men", itself a study in advertising and early marketing,"People want to be told what to do so badly, they'll listen to anyone". Cynical, but true.
So let's at least validate the marketeers who operate on a scale of imaginative honesty and creative truthfulness. All hail. They deserve as much, high prices be damned.
For those with not as long memories, I had said something along those lines back in 2007 in Lies and Misdemeanors. I had also talked about Perfume Prices back in 2007 too, in Gimmick or Innovation.