5/29/16

"Niche" Is A Broken Concept. How To Fix It? Start By Ignoring Michael Edwards.


Milan


This year at Esxence, the Milan-based fragrance industry trade show, Michael Edwards gave his annual talk on the recent explosion of niche brands and perfumes, which by his account is almost too difficult to keep up with. He said that he catalogues perfumes because "all brands have their own language," which results in "a cacophony" that consumers are often confused by. He pointed out that among fragrance types, "shared," or unisex perfumes have risen from 17% of the market in 2006 to 37% in 2015, which is a staggering statistic. The "artisanal" fragrance industry, mostly niche, has seen the number of perfumes quadruple in the last nine years, from 261 in '06, to 874 last year. This is mind blowing.

This explosive growth has resulted in "a generation of orphans," according to Edwards, with niche brands moving so quickly that they're passing their own creations by in the process. When executives push new products this rapidly, they unintentionally dilute their brands by intimidating consumers, many of whom refrain from making purchases. Buyers simply move on until they encounter a more accessible, user-friendly brand, presumably with fewer perfumes, or perfumes representing more mainstream ideas. This steady stream of "newness" in perfumery is a negative, in his eyes. Releasing a dozen perfumes within twelve or eighteen months does not denote quality, nor does it make buyers feel comfortable investing in a brand. Furthering the problem is the fact that only about 20% of American consumers buy and wear perfume, meaning a huge swath of the market is untapped.

Edwards suggested that brands look to a future of aligning perfume with everyday products, like clothing and other accessories, a suggestion that frankly made little sense to me. I have no interest in buying a pre-perfumed shirt, for example. I have something for that already. It's called perfume. Edwards also suggested that niche brands focus on flankers, instead of new perfumes. He pointed to J'Adore and its countless flankers, claiming they focus consumers on one Dior perfume, which thus lends the Dior brand a more coherent identity. That Dior's designer identity drives consumer interest in J'Adore seemed irrelevant to Edwards. Also, he said that niche brands usually use one bottle design for all their fragrances because "niche is an experience," and by focusing on scent alone and not packaging, buyers are getting the full "experience." He added that niche houses shouldn't market test anything, and should ignore marketing altogether. I'll touch on these points again a little later.

The most confusing thing he dwelled on was his contention that Giorgio, the original feminine by Giorgio Beverly Hills, was the first successful niche perfume. His facts are simply wrong there. Had I been in the audience, I would have called him out on that, and he would have argued with me in his irritating high-born accent (probably with an "I'm talking"), and I'd have insisted that, despite his best intentions, he's simply fucking wrong on that one. Giorgio Beverly Hills has always been a designer label, and their debut perfume was simply an underdog designer product that happened to catch on with savvy GBH customers. To call it niche is dumb, especially for Edwards. If anything, Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop was the first successful niche fragrance, and it was released four years before Giorgio.

His suggestions that perfume be mated to products, that flankers are good, and that Giorgio was the first true niche phenomenon gave me pause in considering Edwards a credible authority on the subject. He carries himself as an authority, and he's certainly an invaluable part of perfume history, as both a fragrance historian and perfume evaluator, but at 72 years old, I wonder if he's past his prime, maybe even a little out of touch with the reality on the ground. The malls of New Jersey are worlds away from those of Milan, and I'll bet John F. Kennedy was in office the last time Edwards shopped in Hoboken. Still, it was interesting to hear him speak about this subject, and it led me to consider my own views on niche perfumery, and what I consider to be the main problem with niche.

First, let's remember what the word "niche" alludes to in this context. A "niche" in perfumery is a tiny corner of the market that is meant to appeal to an equally tiny corner of the consumer base, usually by appealing to a subset of people who seek a very specific experience. That's what makes Tea Rose so compelling as the "first" super successful niche frag. The Perfumer's Workshop was a relatively small, obscure company in 1977. They specialized in simple compositions that could be blended by buyers into whatever they wished. Tea Rose was intended to appeal to people who love the smell of fresh tea roses. It was a composition, not an oil. The perfumer behind it was a woman named Annie Buzantian, and her work appealed to a new generation of buyers, those coming of age in the late seventies and eighties. The mark of Tea Rose is that it was a perfume that made its brand visible to the masses, which is essentially the only way niche companies find real success.

Designer perfumes embody the opposite effect; they are successful only after the designer becomes known, and designers specialize in clothing, not perfume. Giorgio Beverly Hills became an attractive new company to California fashionistas, with Fred Hayman's aesthetic gaining traction in fashion circles across Los Angeles. Eventually this visibility made his brand's first perfume a viable commercial effort, and after some struggle it paid off. But Giorgio appeals to millions of people. It has been available at department stores and discounters for decades. It has mass appeal, and always had mass appeal, especially in the bombastic eighties.

With this understanding of the difference between niche and designer, I must direct your attention to the paradoxical nature of a "successful" niche. For a niche fragrance to become "successful" means that it becomes a big seller. This in turn means that people outside the intended target demographic are buying the fragrance. When a niche fragrance is suddenly sought after by millions of buyers around the world, it is no longer by definition a "niche" fragrance. It's now a brand representative, much like Tea Rose is the flagship for The Perfumer's Workshop. Although TPW lacks a real follow-up for Ms. Buzantian's masterpiece, other niche brands are able to capitalize on the successes of one or two frags. Eventually, with enough exposure and cultural integration, a perfume that was originally created with less than 1% of the buying public in mind can make a fragrance company a household name.

This leads me to the state of the market today. Look at all these fucking niche perfumes. I look at The Different Company, and what do I see? I see a name (The "Different" Company), and about thirty bottles that all look the same, but have different names printed on them. I'm not getting a sense of difference, certainly no differentiation, in a range with "different" on its labels. And all I have to go on is whatever copy the company uses to describe each product. Maybe I have a few reviews on Fragrantica and basenotes. I certainly don't have any personal experience with the brand. So with no compelling image to attach to any one particular fragrance, and the hearsay of others, what reason could I possibly muster to buy, or even try?

The "niche is an experience" idea that Edwards touted in his presentation is the crux of the problem. A niche perfume is not an experience for anyone - not yet. In order for someone to experience a niche frag, they must be compelled to try it by something other than its scent. Its bottle is, for better or worse, the true representative of what resides inside. With their dull, uniform bottles, niche brands eschew this massive commercial ploy, one that is endlessly and advantageously exploited by designer brands. People experience perfume with their eyes first, and their noses second. It's no different with books. We initially judge them by their covers, and their contents either affirm or dispel these first impressions. Without covers, or with boring covers, books must rely on particularly inventive titles to gain any meaningful traction.

Right now, many niche houses rely on titles alone to draw buyers, and that's simply not enough. Perfumes are an experience, but part of the experience are the packages they come in. Show me why a perfume called "Adjatay" is any different from its older cousin "Oriental Lounge." I can read, so obviously that's one difference between them. But what else? Show me. They're in the same boring, colorless, rectangular glass bottle, for Christ's sakes. At a glance, I can't tell them apart on the shelf.

You can apply this issue to many other niche brands. Some have two or three stock bottle designs, which is better than having just one, but not by much. Look at Slumberhouse, Byredo, Lutens, Le Labo. Sure, there's a distinct company "look" for each, but that look merely says "we all come from the same place." If I'm a niche customer, I want something that doesn't come from the same place. That's the point of niche. I want something unique. Something specific. Something singular. Something that stands firmly and proudly alone. I want to see a bottle representative of a niche. If the bottle shouts that its contents are designed for me, and maybe a handful of others like me, then I'll be motivated to buy.

One might say, "But Bryan, obviously a brand can't tailor a bottle for you unless you're in the market for bespoke." Wrong. I'm a potential niche customer, and even though it isn't bespoke, a niche perfume should feel like it was made just for me. I love the smell of green, violet perfumes, loaded with galbanum, oakmoss, citrus, woods, and animalics. I just want a perfume that concentrates those qualities into something unwaveringly, menacingly green. The bottle doesn't have to appeal to my personal aesthetic bottle design tastes. It has to appeal to the idea that its contents smell intensely, without a shred of compromise, grrreeeeeen. But if the bottle is the same as eight or nine others, none of which contain anything that smells green, I'd have to be a bored, dawdling customer who accidentally stumbles on this unfairly closeted green monster. After all, it has nothing to outwardly differentiate itself as something green.

Does anyone suppose that Pierre Balmain made selling a green perfume that difficult for himself when his brand issued Vent Vert? Of course not. Balmain is a designer firm, and in the early twentieth century it was a highly esteemed haute couture designer label, with good commercial visibility, and the resources to release a few great perfumes. But these fragrances weren't issued in dull bottles. Vent Vert came in a beautiful bottle with green grass as a cap, tied by a cute green bow. It advertised itself as a grassy green perfume by looking like a grassy green perfume - literally. This is called "marketing," that other nasty word that Edwards stupidly denigrated in his presentation. Of all the hair-brained things to tell people who are getting into a commercial enterprise, "Don't market your product" might very well top the list.

Of course you have to market, and market aggressively. How else will your buyers know you exist? Without marketing, in a public that has thousands of choices competing with your product, and with a target demographic of maybe 1% of potential buyers, it's like trying to lance a flea by throwing a sewing pin at it. Good marketing switches the odds. If thousands of buyers become aware that one perfume is out there, one that might be appealing to them, you go from hurling a sewing pin to driving a Buick at eighty mph. I happen to drive a Buick. Every time I get home, I have to scrape dozens of dead insects off the grill. Like a good ad campaign, I'm hitting things that I had a one in a million chance of hitting, and hitting them again, and again, and again.

Sure, it's counterintuitive. But it works. Creed does it, and they do it ingeniously, by spreading fabulous lies about products housed in customized bottles (Himalaya looks distinctly different than Spring Flower, which looks different than Aventus, etc.), which are then slyly pushed in fashion magazines and general-interest internet publications. What would Creed be if they rested on the supposed laurels of "niche is an experience," with every bottle a dull, colorless clunk of square glass? They'd probably be almost as successful and sought-after as The Different Company's products. If I had to guess, I'd say Erwin doesn't envy Jean-Claude Ellena, Thierry de Baschmakoff, and Luc Gabriel. Their glory is split three ways; Erwin's, once his father goes, will be all his own, to the tune of about a hundred million dollars in annual sales.

To sum it all up, let me say that this blog post is not meant to impugn Michael Edwards' many contributions to our culture. The man has created a directory, an in-depth database of virtually every serious perfume in existence, and that is no small feat. But when it comes to following advice, if you're in the business of starting a niche perfumery, I suggest you ignore the wisdom of Mr. Edwards. His suggestions are in no way advantageous to heed.

The future of a "better" niche fragrance industry must see perfumers, bottle designers, marketers, and brand executives refocusing perfume lines on every conceivable niche audience, with improved aesthetics and marketing strategies pulling customers into boutiques. The distance between niche perfumes and customers' wrists is crossed by harmonizing company creations with the fluid, vibrant, ever-changing nature of the public's imagination.


6 comments:

  1. 'Lancing a flea with a sewing pin' had me laughing out loud. I hear you on the serried ranks of plain bottles it is why I never could bring myself to test any of the Biehl Kunstwerke without outside encouragement. On the other hand, you could poke your eye out with the Van Cleef & Arpels Feerie bottle, but in terms of distinctive packaging there is a happy medium for sure. I dislike a lot about Bond No 9, but their bottles do at least have different patterns, ditto Aroma M and Sage Machado on the indie side of things. And even Les Parfums de Rosine have different coloured tassles. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah it's like feast or famine with certain brands in terms of aesthetics, and sometimes - rarely - they find a happy medium. For me, the packaging and the lack of marketing is what hurts most niche brands, in fact killing their potential before they even reach a customer. I see a bland looking bottle and even though I know it's the perfume inside that matters (certainly not the glass it's in), some subconscious part of my brain issues a quietly firm "Meh," and I move on without even attempting to "experience" the fragrance. Here in the West, we're conditioned to rate things based on appearance. Fragrance has that base covered by requiring a box and bottle. To not take advantage of that aspect of the "experience" seems foolhardy to me. But ok, I get it, they're being artistic. Still, for someone as influential as Michael Edwards to stand on a podium at a trade show and outwardly poo-poo the concept of marketing, to say that's it's a recipe for failure in any sense, be it packaging or fragrance, just smacks of stupidity. He's a brilliant man. He should know better. It's not the marketing that hurts these niche brands, nor the market testing. It's the inability to make a fragrance that smells good and easy to wear.

      Many Creeds smell highly tested to me. They're mostly "safe" and generally unisex, easy to wear. But they're made very, very well. They smell incredible, and the quality of materials is usually pretty high. You can feel that they're above average in quality within ten seconds of spraying the scent, and that feeling never goes away. Being "safe" and testing the demographics hasn't hurt Creed because they make excellent fragrances, AND they're smart about packaging. They maintain a company "look" without resorting to sameness/dullness. Ditto for Bond, although imo Bond could up their game in the fragrance department - they're the rare niche that's wildly better at packaging than at perfume.

      Delete
  2. I so agree about Bond No 9 - might be unkind to say 'fur coat and no knickers' but they are heading that way in my view.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They should team up with Yankee Candle.

      Delete
  3. Michael Edwards sounds like he should limit his role to cataloging & being the 'Linnaeus of perfume’ as Luca Turin calls him. He certainly doesn't know anything about running a business if he thinks marketing is a waste. Especially if starting a new "luxury" business. Unless you have a lot of movie star pals who frequent your popular boutique like Gaye Straza & the Haymans you better plan on marketing aggressively. (If you do have a lot of celebrity clients plan on marketing by gifting a heck of a lot of 'fume related swag.)
    As for "flankers" are the trend of the future I'd say Mr Edwards is unfortunately correct. These aren't booming economic times and we aren't going to see too many financiers funding "chance-y" sorts of ventures like new perfumes. (Brace yourself for another few decades of maltol & ethyl maltol bombs.)
    As far as packaging goes- We Westerners are much more forgiving of presentation. If you want to sell a luxury product to Asians you better plan on a luxurious & well thought out presentation start to finish. Estee Lauder has special enameled compacts in their Asian line of cosmetics complete with matching carrying bag, I have to offer "white glove" delivery for any art piece I sell out of my gallery here in Asia.
    I was under the impression that the choice of plain packaging for a number of niche houses was not only a stylistic choice but a matter of finances, a fancy custom glass bottle costs beaucoup $$$'s especially if you're just starting a new business with loads of other overhead to finance.

    I do wonder what the future of niche is though with Frederic Malle & By Killian being sold to Estee Lauder. Maybe a lot of niche will go mainstream? It might be cheaper just to buy a niche house than to develop a new fragrance line nowadays?

    I do admire niche perfumers like Andy Tauer & Mandy Aftel who decided early on that their businesses would remain small & limited in production. (And Mandy put a review I did up on her blog & personal web page, woo hoo!)

    I like many Creeds. You can tell they are very high quality when you sample or wear them. But many are a bit clunky, heavy handed and not terribly well thought out, Fleurissimo is like an industrial strength panty liner & Himalaya smells like an expensive mouthwash.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The sad thing is that Mr. Edwards fails to admit the reason niche has gone "viral" in recent years, a reason he's quite familiar with, I'm sure. The industry caters to the "1%" as a rule. Obscure names passed around only by people "in the know" who happen to live in rarefied environments like Milan and the Upper East Side, the lures available only at private parties and "trade shows" where blue jeans and sweat shirts aren't an option, and pricing fit only for people with $90K+ per year salaries (who could possibly indulge retail niche to any degree beyond three or four bottles without that kind of income?) . . . we're looking at the "niche" as the "rich." Tres exclusif!

      So sure, you can forego an interesting bottle and label and just slap any monochrome thing on a dull flacon with a lengthy price tag. You may sell it, too. But you'll be moving units primarily to a very limited audience, one with the financial means to give you steady business.

      This will prove to be the undoing of many brands. It has already harmed some of them, and will damage more in the future. Eventually the wealthier clientele begin to discriminate more, not less. They pick favorites. They eschew impulse buys, even though they can afford it. Many wealthy people are actually tightwads, and consider this quality one of the primary reasons WHY they're wealthy, so just splurging randomly is the stuff of nouveau riche idiots with checking accounts. The smart ones begin small and stay small. Not the best audience for a limited reach.

      I think the best thing is for these brands to consider niche as an "open experience" rather than just an "exclusive" one. Let the broadest range of buyers in. Find that sweet spot for each concept, and pull different ideas into tangential realms, but keep your appeal based on the overall brand, and not inane ideas being floated by perfume plutocrats like Edwards.

      Delete

Thank you for your comment. It will be visible after approval by the moderator.