How Fragrances Became the ‘Unexpected Star’ of the Pandemic | BoF Professional, News & Analysis

The ad for Marc Jacobs’ new scent, Perfect, looks like it could have been filmed on an iPhone. There’s no fancy set, no elaborate wardrobe. Instead of a soundtrack, a diverse mix of models and Instagram-cast teens tell viewers they are perfect as they are.

It’s a far cry from the glitzy campaigns brands usually roll out for a major fragrance launch, which tend to stick to the formula of a celebrity looking sultry while wearing couture. But with social distancing the new norm — there’s not much point in wearing perfume to Zoom cocktails — brands are having to get creative.

Out of all the beauty categories, perfume probably had it the hardest over the pandemic. There’s no online replacement for walking into a store and smelling a fragrance sample. Travel bans mean fewer tourists picking up bottles of cologne in airport duty free shops and department stores. Euromonitor International sees global fragrance sales sinking 10 percent this year from $51 billion in 2019.

And yet, Perfect was a hit. The perfume, created by Coty, was this year’s top fragrance launch in the US and UK. Marc Jacobs ranks as the fourth most popular fragrance brand in both markets, up from tenth position in the US and seventh in the UK in 2019. And it wasn’t alone. By August, overall US sales of prestige fragrances were up year-on-year, according to NPD, and both Coty and Estée Lauder reported strong demand for their high-end scents across the US and Asia in the most recent quarter. Coty said its fragrance division has been growing double digits since September (China is a particular bright spot with sales up 43 percent year-on-year).

“Fragrance has come out as the unexpected star,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry advisor at NPD Group.

Fragrance has come out as the unexpected star.

There’s a reason Marc Jacobs was so quick to pivot to a digital-first strategy for Perfect: consumers proved surprisingly willing to buy fragrances online during the pandemic. Before this year, consumers were much less likely to shop for their fragrances online than they were moisturisers or shampoo; e-commerce represented just 17 percent of US sales. When people did shop online, it was to replace empty bottles rather than discover new scents.

Now, about 30 percent of perfume sales are online in the US. British department store Selfridges said online fragrance sales saw triple digit year-on-year growth in 2020, the strongest across beauty categories.

Estée Lauder Companies, which owns brands including Le Labo, Jo Malone, Tom Ford and Frederick Malle, introduced live virtual consultations and streamed talks on social media from brand founders.

“People are craving connection, both in their personal lives and with brands,” said Stéphane de La Faverie, group president at Estée Lauder Companies.

People are craving connection, both in their personal lives and with brands.

For the Perfect launch, Coty staged a Zoom party where singer Kim Petras gave a live performance and Marc Jacobs himself, along with campaign cast members, hosted discussions about inclusivity, self-expression and celebrating individuality. Attendees could also join different breakout rooms for one-on-one activities, like sitting for a personalised portrait from illustrator Jacky Blue or attending a casting session for future campaigns. Drag queen Shangela hosted her own room with product giveaways. Coty said over 1,700 people across 50 countries tuned in, while wait times for personal portraits reached four hours. The brand also leaned into selling on Instagram and Facebook.

This month, Coty teamed with French influencers Jeel and Maghla to create a branded island in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing game to promote its new Escada Candy Love perfume in European markets.

“The most important [thing] is interacting with your customer wherever he or she is,” said Simona Cattaneo, president of luxury brands at Coty. “When they’ll be in the department store, we’ll be in the department store, or another specialty store. Same with online. And same with new territories online, like gaming.”

The most important [thing] is interacting with your customer wherever he or she is.

Sampling is proving to be a key pandemic strategy. Dyptique, Snif and Dossier are selling fragrances with a sample to try before opening the full-sized version, or adding additional free samples to online purchases. Other brands like Able Odor and Phlur charge a small sum for samples that can be deducted from the price of a full-size bottle.

For a smaller brand that doesn’t have the backing of a luxury fashion house or beauty conglomerate, it can be harder to stand out in a crowded market, especially if many customers have fewer ways to smell their scents.

Some are gaining attention by touting their “clean” ingredients, or positioning themselves as cruelty-free, vegan or gender fluid.

Startup Floral Street pitches itself as a sustainable and clean fragrance brand. This year, it launched “Scent School in a Box,” a virtual take on the master classes it used to offer at its London store before lockdowns. Founder and former Estée Lauder Companies veteran Michelle Feeney describes the event as a “wine tasting [for fragrance] meets pub quiz,” where attendees receive a box of the samples and scent cards before booking in for a virtual masterclass with her and one of the brand’s fragrance experts.

“If you’re a brand like us, you’ve got to try 100 times harder than the established brands to tell your story and invite people in,” said Feeney. “Scent school is a way to bond with customers.”

Snif, which launched last month, only offers three scents — all marketed as clean, cruelty free and gender-neutral — and instead of listing ingredients in each fragrance, posts descriptions of what they smell like from other customers (Way With Woods, for example, “screams hipster tapas bar with soft, relaxing outdoor lighting”).

Holiday season is likely to continue to boost the fragrance industry. Typically, around 40 percent of prestige fragrance sales happen during the last quarter of the year, according to NPD. But going into 2021, brands large and small will have to work hard to keep up momentum.

“One day I’m sure computers will be able to send you a whiff [of a fragrance] … but until that happens, it’s really about getting your product into the hands of consumers in some way, shape or form — and how you can differentiate yourself from what’s already out there,” said NPD’s Jensen.


Puig sets sales target of €4 billion by 2025. To support its growth ambitions, the company has reorganised its business into three divisions. The biggest, Beauty and Fashion, will house the majority of Puig’s brands, including Paco Rabanne and Carolina Herrera. Charlotte Tilbury, of which Puig acquired a majority stake in June, will sit as its own division, while the newly created Derma division will house Uriage, Apivita and Isdin.

FTC sues to block Procter & Gamble’s Billie acquisition. P&G, which owns Gillette and Venus, agreed to buy the women’s razor startup in January. The FTC said the consolidation would inhibit disruption and competition in the razor market.

L’Oréal invests in social commerce platform Replika. The group’s corporate venture fund took a minority stake in American startup Replika Software, founded by former Neiman Marcus fashion director Kareen Mallet in 2016.

Alo Yoga launches beauty. The California-based activewear brand’s new clean beauty line, dubbed “Glow System,” features seven skincare products. It will add ingestibles to the mix in the new year.

BYBI raises $7 million. The London-based skincare brand, backed by Unilever Ventures, will use the funds to fuel US expansion. The brand is debuting in 1,841 Target stores in January.

Coty names new CFO. Laurent Mercier, currently the company’s deputy chief financial officer, will replace Pierre-André Terisse in February. Terisse will transition to the Wella board.

Revlon hires CMO. Martine Williamson rejoins the company from Topix Pharmaceuticals, where she served as Strategic Marketing Advisor. Her most recent role at Revlon was SVP of global marketing.

Hair care dominates beauty Google searches. “How to cut men’s hair at home,” “How to plop hair,” and “How to colour your hair at home,” were the top three “how to” beauty queries among Americans in 2020. Google users also asked about the best skincare lines, and what Vitamin C does for skin.

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