Is Perfume an Aspirational or Signature Purchase?

I read an interesting piece on The NPD Group website called “How the Aspirational Purchase Has Shifted”. The basic thesis of the article is in to the mid-2000’s there was a significant number of consumers who would shell out for a particular set of expensive items in the effort to give off the sense of wealth these brands would impart. The author now hypothesizes that over the last decade or so that has changed. Now it is about finding that great item at a thrift store. The rise of YouTube videos which extol just that shows it to be a particularly enjoyable effort of that Facebook Live group of consumers. The author also believes if you are going to spend you will do it for a “signature item”. These could include an artisanal made leather briefcase or a coat from an obscure designer made to order. They are the pieces which help define the person who has them. They also hope to have them be singular to their circle of friends and family.

As I read through this I could see perfume acting as part of both categories. I still think the popularity of the major design houses in the department store can be ascribed to the aspirational type of consumer. I suspect that the bottle of perfume with Chanel, Dior, Hermes, Cartier, Prada, or Armani on its label is often the only thing from the brand in most homes. It speaks to the power of fragrance to be able to impart the brand aesthetic through scent which the best of these manage to do successfully.

Created by Pressfoto – Freepik.com

I think the signature purchase has also always been there in those who buy perfume. How many words have been written about finding a “signature fragrance”? I also think it is part of what has driven the expansion of the niche perfume market over the same time the author of The NPD Group article describes as when signature began to win out over aspirational. It has allowed a perfume lover to find a perfume that is not going to be as widely available as those typically found at the mall.

The final thing I realized is there is also a fragrance group which combines both. Chanel Les Exclusifs, Dior La Collection Privee, Hermes Hermessences, Cartier Les Heures, Prada Olfactories, and Armani Prive live in both worlds. The perfumes are often sold in upscale department stores or exclusively in the designer boutiques with price tags multiples greater than the mass-market line.

This allows perfume to inhabit that sweet spot where the Venn diagram of aspirational and signature overlap. It also probably allows it to be that affordable luxury which even the younger generation sees as “worth it” to filling whatever aspect they are looking for from their fragrance purchase. It probably means that fragrance will continue to be a significant part of the beauty economy for years to come.

Mark Behnke

The Cost of Being a Colognoisseur

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When I started writing about perfume first at Fragrantica, then CaFleureBon, before starting Colognoisseur I was always focused on the perfume. The bottle can be a selling point but I very rarely comment upon it. Mainly because it has no impact on how I view the perfume. The other part of a perfume that I almost never comment upon is the price. I’ve received some e-mails and a couple of recent comments have mentioned the price of the perfume reviewed. I thought I might go through some of the reasons why I have chosen not to mention price as part of the writing I do on Colognoisseur.

Just as I mentioned above with bottles the price is irrelevant to me when it comes to what I think of a perfume. I think we are in a pretty diverse age with top-notch perfumes available at almost every price point. My focus has always been trying as many new perfumes in each year because that is what I enjoy writing about. If I like it enough to wear it for a couple days I am writing about it, I don’t care how much it costs.

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Yet as I’ve learned price is not irrelevant to some of you. I’ve received communication on both sides. The joy of finding a $10 perfume that you adore. The disappointment on looking up a perfume after reading a review to see a $500+ price tag. While I am understanding of the last scenario there is a semantic issue at play. When I get that e-mail somewhere in there is the phrase “it’s not worth it”. Which for the correspondent is entirely true. But that is a single data point relevant only for that person. In their mind, there is a line below which a perfume is “worth it” and above where it is not. That line is not universal. It is up to each person to decide where they draw it. I have thought if I started commenting on price and whether a perfume is “worth it” I am arbitrarily imposing my concept upon the readers.

This is not to say that I don’t share the concern that perfume brands are applying some aspirational pricing on to their fragrances. The perfume companies also should be wary of how they draw their pricing line. If too many of their consumers fall on the wrong side of the “worth it” line it is difficult to come back from that kind of error. I will admit it is perplexing to me to see the ultra-luxe pricing from a new brand fresh on the market. I presume the business people behind the brand have done their research but there are times when I hit the pricing part of a press release for a new brand and think, “Seriously?” There seems to be more of it over the last year than it appears the market can tolerate. My concern is that those who back new brands might not be so ready to back another if they have a high-priced flame out. The true success of niche brands has been the slow build from both a price and consumer standpoint. Like in most businesses slow and steady yields consistent results if not flashy ones.

Despite the understanding of what the cost of a perfume plays in how one views it for themselves I am still going to continue writing my reviews without mentioning it. Thankfully we live in an age where the answer to that question for whom it is important is a but a few seconds, and a search engine, away. For me the cost of being a Colognoisseur has nothing to do with the price tag.

Mark Behnke

The Thousandth Cut

There is a quote from the American writer Robert Breault which goes like this, “So often the end of a love affair is death by a thousand cuts, so often its survival is life by a thousand stitches.” I was reminded of this as I received the latest release from Guerlain, Neroli Outrenoir. I have spent every day since I received it looking for something which reminded me why I love Guerlain. I fear it is the thousandth cut.

Guerlain was the first perfume brand I ever knew; because my mother exclusively wore Mitsouko and Shalimar. The bottles were staples on her vanity. I have a hard time wearing either perfume myself because they are so ingrained as what my mother smelled like.

As I began to appreciate perfume I sought out Guerlain and discovered Vetiver and Habit Rouge. I could easily have followed my mother’s lead and happily used those two for the rest of my life. Except the genie was well out of the bottle and there were other brands to explore. I was never going to be a two bottle kind of guy.

Which was great because it made more room for all of the other Guerlain fragrances out there to find a home; which they have. Part of my founding Colognoisseur was the opportunity to write about those earlier perfumes from this Grand Maison de Parfum.

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Except that brings us to the present day. In the last ten years Guerlain has released 154 perfumes. Some of them are re-issues of older perfumes. Some of them are re-packaging of a perfume with a different name as La Petite Robe Noire 2 turned into Mademoiselle Guerlain. Way too many of them are flankers of the great pillars of the brand. Rarely are there standout perfumes which would stand up to what had come previously.

I have to say when I did the search and saw this roster of mediocrity over this short time span my heart sank. Right in front of my face was the cynical belief that the brand was all-important.

Even so within those 154 there were some which managed to remind me of what Guerlain means to me. Habit Rouge Sport is one of the very few flankers of any brand of which I own a bottle. Arsene Lupin Voyou is another exploration of spices, woods, and rose which Guerlain does so well. Two years ago Terracotta Le Parfum actually called forth the echoes of greatness. It was certainly the best of the last ten years.

Guerlain has been not on a downward spiral but a holding pattern at 20,000 feet. Circling endlessly right in the middle. Seemingly afraid to soar. Churning out massive amounts of product all meant to be bought by that consumer dazzled by the name over the perfume.

Which brings me to Neroli Outrenoir. If there has been any spark of the Guerlain ingenuity it has flared up most often in the Exclusives collection of which this is a part of. In a year which has seem some brilliant neroli perfumes released Neroli Outrenoir is not one of them. It is as if they were trying but it goes all wrong in the heart as the smoky black tea upsets the balance as it crushes the neroli. Myrrh does little to save this. I so wanted to like this I wanted to believe it was going to be the beginning of something new. Instead it was the thousandth cut.

I am hopeful that somewhere in the future the beginning of the thousand stitches to bring it back to life is forthcoming.

Mark Behnke

The Importance of Branding

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There has been another round of acquisition of niche perfume lines by the big cosmetics companies. By Kilian was purchased by Estee Lauder followed by the recent Atelier Cologne sale to L’Oreal. While there is plenty to talk about in whether these are good for the niche/independent perfume business that is not what has struck me about all of the sales of the last two years. What I realized is every one of these had a strong identifiable brand to go with their perfumes.

When I was at Cosmoprof most of the beauty products I saw were very conscious of creating a brand. In that sector it is what separates you from others essentially doing the same thing. In perfume it is easier as the products usually at the very least smell different. That doesn’t mean that a perfume should not consider that a distinct brand can provide a consumer a particular guidance.

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This has been true since the earliest days of perfumery. Chanel and Guerlain have used their brands for almost a century. When I write about the new releases I very often say how closely it tracks to what I consider the brand identity.

For the independent brands the same has been true. Of the four niche brands which have been acquired; Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, Le Labo, By Kilian, and Atelier Cologne. All of those have distinctive identities which come from the top down. The creative directors for each of those perfume lines kept true to the vision that was in place on day one. These are as identifiable by aesthetic as Chanel or Guerlain.

The other part of all of this is a recognizable package. All of these six brands I’ve mentioned have pretty simple bottles but most perfume lovers could recognize them by their silhouette. All of this comes together to become eye-catching enough to have a casual consumer be attracted to it to give it a try.

It is why when I am asked by emerging independent perfume lines how to take the next step I pass along this advice. If you are looking to expand your market you need to think seriously about what you want not only your perfume but your packaging and your personality to say to the perfume buying public. That is the foundation of building a brand. More in the independent perfume business should understand the importance of making the effort to do it.

Mark Behnke

We Are the New Old Ladies

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Change is a universal constant. Resisting that change is also human nature but as futile as trying to stop the Earth rotating. Over the past few months it has become clear to me that the Baby Boomers have finally gone bust. The generation born after World War 2 was the foundation for much of the societal and cultural change from the 1960’s onward. They were so big they ruled everything. Their buying power was greater than anyone. Television ratings were tailored to 18-34 to capture their viewing habits. When it came to fragrance they were also the perfume buying generation. They changed the notion of men buying perfume for a woman as a gift to the working woman buying it for herself. For fifty years the world was theirs; and now it is not.

Over the last nine months I have been bombarded with fragrance press releases all touting their ability to cater to Millennials. This is the generation which spans the early 1980’s through the early 2000’s. This is a generation just coming into the height of their buying power. This is also the generation which will set the table for the next couple of decades at least. In 2015 they outspent Baby Boomers in the prestige beauty market according to The NPD Group. Furthermore, their spending in this sector is mostly on fragrance where the aging Baby Boomers have spent more money on skin products and makeup. The times they are a-changing.

If the brands who have been observing this same data for a lot longer have made one decision about the fragrance preference of the Millennials. They want something light and transparent. Not necessarily fresh and clean. The preponderance of these early targeted perfumes has tilted more towards sweet gourmand constructs. Which if this is what Millennials crave I can get behind. At least it isn’t an overplayed genre.

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Graphic via barnraisersllc.com

The most interesting press release I have received about a perfume aimed at this younger generation came from Chanel a couple weeks ago. It touted the Fall launch of a new version of No. 5 composed by in-house perfumer Olivier Polge called No. 5 L’Eau. In the press release the first paragraph speaks on how No. 5 is an “olfactory heritage” passed from “generation to generation”.

By the end of the first section it then makes the case that a new No. 5 is needed for this generation. Then it dives into what M. Polge is going to do. Change the metallic aldehydes out for citric ones. “Remove the powder from the base”. “Making the jasmine light as air.” In the next section No. 5 L’Eau is described as lighthearted and transparent. It was right then that it hit me. This generation sees No. 5 as an “old lady” perfume.

One of the most withering criticisms leveled at any fragrance is that it smells like an “old lady”. Which means outdated. Maybe too strong. Maybe also stinky and dense with extroverted components. Any fragrance given this sobriquet by a consumer is not going to be found on that person’s dressing table. Reading between the lines of the Chanel No. 5 L’Eau press release and all of the recent press releases from the brands catering to the Millennials I realized the Baby Boomer generation have become the new old ladies to them. The things we like are seen as outdated and quaint but not to be assimilated. No way.

It is paving the way for a very interesting next few years in the fragrance industry as the Millennials communicate what it is they do want through their buying power. For those of us being left behind we are going to have to turn to our independent perfume community to make some new “old lady” perfumes because while I might be one of the new “old ladies” I still want to smell like a Boomer.

Mark Behnke

The Importance of Transparency

Transparency can be a desirable characteristic for some perfumes. When it comes to awards on perfume and perfume writing; transparency is necessary. As one who has watched the perfume awards season every year there is always one question I have. Who is doing the judging? How were the nominees determined? The answer most of the time is “I don’t know” to both questions. It is why over the last month there has been two fledgling competitions who have decided to take a different path to honoring excellence.

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The Perfumed Plume Awards were handed out on April and I was honored to win the award for “Scent Stories in Mainstream Media, Digital”. As someone who won I felt like this was an award I earned because founders Lyn Leigh and Mary Ellen Lapsansky had made it clear how the awards were being judged. There are other perfume writing competitions but they lack this openness. It makes the process frustrating to be a part of. The Perfumed Plume has shown itself to not be afraid of the light; understanding the winners enjoy being in it.

art and olfaction awards logo

This past Saturday evening the third Art and Olfaction Awards were handed out in Los Angeles. I was honored to be part of this process as one of the judges who assessed the finalists in the Artisan and Independent categories. I hope my efforts helped the winners feel the same sense of pride on winning as I did when I won a month prior. Founder Saskia Wilson-Brown is dedicated to making this award the most transparent award in the industry while simultaneously honoring the art of perfumery as practiced by the less commercial focused perfume brands. The ceremony named Zoologist Bat and Jul et Mad Nea as the Independent winners along with Auphorie Miyako and La Curie Incendo in the Artisan category. Century’s Breath by Cat Jones won for best Experimental Use of Scent. Because of Ms. Wilson-Brown this past weekend not only was about the awards but the AIX Scent Fair also took place where forty curated artisan and independent perfumers displayed their latest creations. This was the proper combination of lauding the work of last year while displaying next year’s potential nominees.

Both competitions are taking baby steps to ensure their long term success. At the recent Sniffapalooza Spring Fling Ms. Leigh laid out a challenge to those of us in the room. I want to pass it on to my readers because I think it is important. What she asked was if you live someplace besides New York City and you see an article on perfume in your local newspaper or magazine please let the author know of The Perfumed Plume at their website. The competition wants to cover all writing by American fragrance authors and right now they need the help of readers to point good writers in the direction of The Perfumed Plume.

Mark Perfumed Plume 2016

I want more people to have the chance to smile like this

The Art and Olfaction Awards also needs more entries. There is a lot of great work out there that I know did not get submitted. For this award to carry the highest profile it needs the fullest participation of the independent and artisan perfume communities combined. When the announcement goes out at the end of the year submit something, the best part of that is you will see your submission move through the process with no barriers.

That’s the kind of transparency to stand behind.

Mark Behnke

Context of Judging

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One of the more interesting panels at Esxence 2016 asked the question about whether criticism and judging are different. Through the course of the panel Dr. Marlen Elliott Harrison, Managing Editor at Fragrantica, spoke eloquently on how criticism is all context. From the author’s perspective through to the reader’s. There is a connection which is forged over time reading a particular critic as you learn their frame of reference.

This lead into the flip side of the coin…judging. As a judge almost all of that context has to be stripped away to offer a fair competition. As a finalist judge for the upcoming The Art and Olfaction Awards I experienced it first-hand.

When I write a review I look for context often starting with whatever press materials I receive. Those often give me a clue as to what is being attempted. There are times where it is a good match. There are times I am left scratching my head. If I like the perfume on a base level, I am willing to ignore press copy which doesn’t make sense. Although if it does make sense it is likely to find its way into my review.

From there I will think about how it fits within its genre. Within the body of work of the brand or the perfumer. This is all context for communicating about perfume.

None of this applied when I was sent 20 clear vials with generic codes on the side to be judged. I went from communicator to evaluator. It was not an insignificant change. It brought the analytical scientist right to the front and stuffed the purple prose communicator into a locker. I was being asked to evaluate in four distinct categories. To keep the data as clean as possible I did not read the accompanying descriptions until I judged the first two categories; first impressions and wear-down. This gave me the most information-less opportunity to compare the perfumes.

mark judging iao finalists

Me during the first phase of judging

I found this process fascinating. Stripped of sign posts my job was to decide whether I thought each of the finalists were well constructed. Did they succeed in being a perfume? Were there degrees of differences between the finalists. I did manage to find differences which I felt confident about using to comparatively score but the anonymity made it so different from my usual evaluation of a perfume.

The final two categories allowed for some context to creep back in. Intentionality was judged on how the perfume performed in relation to a description provided stripping out any brand identifying information. With some context added back in I felt like I was back on familiar ground. Still judging and having to reconcile brief descriptions with ones three or four times longer I was still more scientist then writer.

It was only in the final category X-Factor where we were asked to let anything else we thought to be important to be weighed that my usual context returned. Now my communicator was pulled out of the locker a little the worse for wear but finally given an opportunity to add to the process. It was here where I did think in terms of how the entire package came together. With all of the context added back in I had another score to provide.

This opportunity to see both sides of the criticism/judging coin was illuminating. I think I want to make sure going forward when communicating that the judge and the critic find a way to co-exist.

Mark Behnke

Fourteen Basic Perfumed Plots?

When it comes to fiction there is a thesis which says there are only a finite number of stories. Everything which comes from that is derivative of the original. The problem with this is there is no agreement on how many comprise the baseline. The number varies from three to twenty. Which says to me there is some flaw in the thesis. In perfumery though that might be more accurate than in prose.

What got me thinking about this is a couple of recent reviews, of a chypre and a cologne, elicited two different e-mails on how derivative they were. These are two of the oldest perfume forms there are. How different from 1917’s Chypre de Coty and Jean Marie Farina’s 1709 Eau de Cologne does it have to be? The outlines of chypre and cologne were set by those two perfumes that is why we remember them. The question becomes does everyone after just become a different form of flattering imitation? My correspondents believe that if it comes close enough then they are unworthy of being seen as original. Just as with the concept of a finite number of basic plots I believe it is what a creative team does with these forms which allows them to tell a similar story but not necessarily the same story.

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I would say that neither Chypre de Coty or Farina’s cologne would be lauded as the very best chypre or best cologne. In both cases I view them as the alpha with a lot more of the alphabet to come. The pinnacle comes when a creative team looks at these nascent forms and evolves them. The originals are still there within but the fragrance itself is different. That’s the easy case and not what my correspondents were talking about.

In both of these recent cases the question centered around whether changes have more to do with concentration changes on a classic form of chypre and cologne. If you upgrade the raw materials while making it stronger; is that different? I am more inclined to agree with my correspondents on this point. Although in the cases we were discussing I don’t agree with them that is what was going on. I feel the creative teams were going for something different and the similarity is more pronounced but not flat out copying. I absolutely see the counterpoint being offered. I just think these new perfumes did provide something different.

When I look at the classifications in Michael Edwards’ Fragrances of the World and see the entire perfume concordance broken down into fourteen categories I think perfumery is closer to living up to the thesis that there are fourteen basic olfactory stories. It is up to the creatives to make us forget that.

Mark Behnke

The Empire Strikes Back?

Blogging about anything falls into a funny grey area when it comes to the big corporations we are writing about. These megaliths are used to having their way when it comes to presenting their products for the best possible outcome for the company. Then there is the community of passionate supporters who eat away at this perfect corporate world.

Those of us who write about perfume not as a job but out of a sense of love and passion got a look recently at what happens when one of the big corporations wants to use their resources against us. About a week ago I woke up to find my social media blowing up because the parent corporate entity which owns Guerlain, LVMH, had the blogger Monsieur Guerlain removed from Facebook and Instagram. In response Monsieur Guerlain took down his blog and removed all other social media accounts. The short version is Monsieur Guerlain linked to another website’s story on some future Guerlain releases for 2016. LVMH decided this was beyond what could be tolerated and took the action that it did. (If you want the complete story along with the legal implications please check out this link from Kafkaesque which covers it all thoroughly).

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I Find Your Lack of Compliance….Disturbing.

What is chilling being this action was taken against a blog that for ten years has been one of the greatest resources for all things Guerlain. The man behind the blog truly loves everything Guerlain. That passion reverberates on every syllable on that website. That LVMH has made the decision to obliterate that resource with their strong-arm tactics is worrisome.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Death Star that is LVMH has also been busy looking out for their other brands. Earlier this year Fragrantica published an early piece on the upcoming Dior Poison Girl. They were fairly quickly asked to remove it which they did. That is the biggest perfume blog in the world with the most readers. Still LVMH decided there was no need to have any advance word about their product to that passionate community.

There is one commonality to both of these cases. The linked story that Monsieur Guerlain posted carried a bit of criticism of the upcoming releases. The Fragrantica Dior Poison Girl article was done in a neutral tone but the commenters were critical, almost harshly so. Which leaves the open question was it the early knowledge or the implied criticism of the direction of these venerable brands which caused the heavy handed response? We will get no satisfactory answer but it seems safe to say the perfumed blogosphere will take this as a warning that our little rebel forces are no longer being tolerated by the Empire that is LVMH.

The good news is after a coordinated effort from a number of bloggers, lead by the aforementioned Kafkaesque, over the removal of Monsieur Guerlain; the Facebook page was restored. It will be interesting to see if Guerlain was able to exert pressure to get the Empire to stand down.

Mark Behnke

What’s in a Name?

The perfume brand which has always provided me the most pleasure is Jean Patou. Early on in my perfume acquisition stage I was shown the original fragrances composed by perfumer Henri Almeras from 1925-1946. In 1984 Jean Patou re-released all of these fragrances under the name Ma Collection. These were incredibly faithful to the original formulations. I have since compared them to vintage bottles and most of the differences can be attributed to the difference in age. Smelling these the first time was one of those perfumed coup de foudre moments. I set off on getting the best version of those Ma Collection bottles I could. They all hold a very cherished place in my heart.

For years I wanted Jean Patou to be as cherished a heritage brand as Chanel or Guerlain. In 1999, Jean Kerleo handed over the in-house perfumer reins to Jean-Michel Duriez. By making this change it seemed to indicate the future was bright. When Proctor & Gamble acquired them in 2001 I was very hopeful especially because they kept M. Duriez. The construction of a boutique in Paris made me believe a new era was near. Then nothing. I constantly asked anyone I thought might know, “Is there any news about Patou?” Only to get a negative response.

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Until in 2011 I got a different answer, “Patou has been sold to an English company, Designer Parfums, Ltd.” I had never heard of them but I was again hopeful. The new management again made an excellent choice as new perfumer in Thomas Fontaine. Right away they stated their intention to re-release the original Jean Patou fragrances as the Heritage Collection. This time I was a little less enthused because of the numerous restrictions on the use of keynote materials in all of those perfumes. M. Fontaine was going to be handicapped in trying to reconstruct similar accords with the modern equivalents.

I have touched on this difficulty in the articles I wrote comparing the original Patou pour Homme and Vacances with their Heritage Collection versions. M. Fontaine has done an admirable job but the Heritage Collection versions bear only a slight resemblance to their forerunners. At first I was sort of okay with this but now I am concerned that this is a little disingenuous.

I think all of the Heritage Collection fragrances are good to very good there is not one I consider poor. There is also not one which should share the name of the perfume it is imitating. I think it is confusing for the consumer. Someone who has read about Patou pour Homme being the greatest men’s perfume ever will unlikely walk away from the Heritage Collection version thinking that. There is where I wish they would do something different in the naming of these new versions. Patou pour Homme could become Patou pour Homme Moderne; Vacances could become Vacances Legere. In the case of Amour Amour they have made the name change to Deux Amours. I don’t know for sure but I am guessing Amour Amour is trademarked by something else and they weren’t given permission to use it. Although probably forced by legal reasons the name fits as a second version of the original.

It is probably too late for anything to be done in this case. I am hopeful that with the trend of resurrecting heritage brands we have seen over the past few years that if it is going to be a reinterpretation of the original it should also have its own name.

Mark Behnke