Fine Fragrance Launches Post-Recessionary Consumers

By Eric Zeitoun, Dragon Rouge USA | March 30, 2010

Perhaps more than any other personal care category, fragrance launches capture the moment and crystallize how consumers react to changing societal dynamics.

Although data points seem to be contradictory at times, most economic indicators tend to suggest that the world’s major economies are on the path to recovery from what will have been the most grueling recession in decades. With the benefit of hindsight, here are some insights about the macro societal shifts that happened as a result of the recession, and the changes in consumer mindset that will have a lasting influence on the world of branding and packaging in the world of health and beauty.

Considering that the world of perfumes is generally a clear indicator of the world of personal care, this is where I started my investigation. Indeed, although they tend to be many years in the making, perfume launches capture the “air of the moment” and crystallize how consumers are reacting to changing societal dynamics. With the support and invaluable insights provided by our colleagues across the Dragon Rouge network (from London to Paris to Hamburg to Hong Kong), our New York-based team went on a quest to analyze how perfume marketers captured the macro societal shifts that emerged from the recession. We analyzed the most significant global as well as certain local perfume launches in 2009 and determined how they clustered in different groups and to which attitudinal mindset they spoke.

One of our initial finding was that perfume launches were articulated around two core dimensions, which were reflective of consumers’ likely reactions to the blow of the recession.
• The type of reaction triggered by the recession with “denial” on one end of the spectrum and“action” on the other end.
• The type of expression of the reaction with “brainy” on one end and “loud vocal” on the other end of the spectrum.
By further segmenting these four mindsets, we identified eight prototypical ways that consumers are dealing with the aftermath of the recession. These directions will continue to influence consumer attitudes, and therefore their personal care purchasing decisions. As such, they should offer some parameters for how health and beauty marketers in general and perfume developers in particular should think about innovating or optimizing their current product mix.
Two trends—foundations and back to basics—speak to the initial temptation to deny the harshness of the recession by denying its very existence and taking refuge in comforting values. We will then analyze how other brands offered to escape the real world through a universe of abandon or escape (another world and ritualistic indulgence).

Moving into the realm of those perfume launches that offer a hands-on pragmatic approach to the world rather than an escape or denial from the reality, we will then explore which launches offered a somewhat cynical view on the world (controlled power and no-nonsense trends) vs. the loud alternatives (Utopia and provocation).


Probably the most predominant reaction to the recession has been a focus on traditional values, classical cues and comforting flavors and scents. As the world as they knew it unraveled before their eyes, worried consumers looked back to the past (whether their own, or that of their country or civilization) to help ground them in the present and better address the volatility of an uncertain future. Many perfume launches tapped into the need for reassurance by going back to the very idea of familiarity or classicism expressed four different ways:

1. Celebrating long lost traditions like Serge Lutens celebrating Paris before the war with Nuit de Cellophane or Tom Ford reminiscing an old sultry tradition with the launch of his Musk collection.

2.Re-launching forgotten favorites like Le Vetiver by Carven, Robert Piguet’s Future, which was first released in the 1960s, Eau Sauvage which was re-introduced with an ad campaign featuring French actor Alain Delon in his youth.
3. Extending iconic classics like Christian Dior Fahrenheit Absolute or Azzaro Pour Homme Elixir, which claims to merge elegance, classicism and modernity.

4. Creating new classics like Yardley Heritage Collection or Profumi del Forte’s Versilia Vintage which claims to bring the“joy of rediscovering things we thought were lost.”

Back to Basics

As consumers learned to make the most out of their disposable income, they started promoting a return to life’s bare essentials. That’s why, over the past few months, we have been witnessing a re-emergence of pure ingredients meshed into earthy blends and yielding to natural territories. This trend explains multiple perfume launches under the theme of Mother Nature caring for its children. Hence the Swiss brand Shantara introducing Shaman whose scent is supposed to“evoke the virgin forest” and whose packaging design brings us back to the myth of the Celtic druids, or Anthropologie, which is introducing a collection of tea-based fragrances under the name “a rather novel collection” with each of the six flavors titled after a tea’s place of origin.

Meanwhile, Marc Jacobs introduced the Splash range with such scents as lemon, cucumber, apple or pomegranate and Orlane released its bouquets range, celebrating unique floral fragrances. Hermes approaches this theme through a lens of its own: the Hermessence Collection is based on the fusion of“sense, essence and essential,” calling its range of perfumes “a collection of olfactory poems” celebrating “nature reinvented, unexpected and poetic.”

Another World

Another way for consumers to deal with the recession was to simply escape from reality by seeking refuge in a fantasy world that was either exotic or mythical. This helps explain why so many new perfumes were launched around the romantic night theme, with Dior introducing Ambre Nuit as part of its cologne collection or Bath and Body Works launching Twilight Woods with claims to be “inspired by a romantic walk in enchanted woods” and whose design transports you through a painting by Corot or Caspar David Friedrich. Similarly Scents of the Time launched Night Star, a reference to Saint Exupery’s Le Petit Prince in a message of candid escape.

Avon has introduced the masculine version of Absynthe for Christian Lacroix.
Walking down the road of a psychological escape, D&G introduced the volume 11 in its Anthology series (referring to a Tarot card) filled with symbolism, secrets and mysteries, and Avon introduced the masculine version of Absynthe for Christian Lacroix in a reference to the magic potion that is both inviting, dangerous and lends itself to seductive mysteries. Another angle on the theme of escape has been one of physical escape into a world full of enchanting surprises and hopeful travels. Thus, L’Occitane went beyond its roots from Provence and introduced a series called Voyage en Mediterrannee, while Accessorize launched a signature fragrance designed to be a sophisticated fresh floral fragrance with an oriental twist.

Meanwhile Calvin Klein’s CKFree appeals to our desire to pack up our things and re-build our lives in a free and unbound land. It is deemed as “casual, spontaneous and confident, inspired by the spirit of the modern independent man who lives every day to the fullest.”

Ritualistic Indulgence

In the earlier days of the recession, when consumers felt paralyzed and cash-strapped, they yearned for a bit of indulgence to help soothe their anxieties. Hence their need for guilt-free indulgence they could justify or that they perceived as responsible and accessible; i.e., that wouldn’t truly impact their own or their children’s immediate future. In the world of perfume, this trend explains the introduction of new brands that spoke to sensorial values, emphasizing plush textures, strong scents as well as refined and sophisticated lifestyle. This paved the way for the launch of Eau Mega by Viktor and Rolf, which claims to help “the super heroine woman transform reality into her own universe of beauty and glamour and megafies the world,” or Victoria’s Secrets’ Velvet Amber Blackberry Fragrance which was designed to evoke the unique sensation of velvet—the plush texture, the rich depth of color, the indulgence, according to Victoria’s Secret.

Certain niche brands played down the idea of overt luxury in order to avoid the backlash against the crass wealth and opulence stigmatized by Wall Street—as viewed by Main Street—by using references to exotic cultures, rare ingredients and long lost traditions. Hence the launch of Pure Oud by Killian, a fragrance that reawakens the precious and sophisticated lifestyle of the Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile over-the-top celebrity endorsed brands managed to sneak in slightly more lowbrow brand extensions, such as Sean John’s I am King of the Night or Usher’s VIP.

No Nonsense

While yearning for honesty from their politicians, corporations and manufacturers, many consumers saw an opportunity to re-build a new world order based on mutual respect. That’s why, as we move into the camp of the perfume launches that offer a proactive view on the world post-recession, we identified a wave of introductions that spoke to the idea of pragmatism, simplicity and transparency. These perfumes adopted a modern, straightforward and unapologetic look and feel. For instance. Ecko by Marc Ecko is described as super crisp and clean and “designed for a man ready to defy convention, intrigued with exploring new boundaries and open to a world of unlimited possibilities.”

Avon’s Bond Girl 007 Forever is said to marry brains and seduction.
Asphalt Flower by MAC is billed as “a limited-life scent as bold and urban as the modern metropolis.”

In another expression of simplicity, Martin Margiela’s Untitled is a fragrance that does everything it can to look unassuming, whether through a lack of name or the almost experimental and scientific look and feel of its bottle design. Meanwhile, Miller Harris gets inspiration from iconic actress Jane Birkin to express the idea of effortless natural simplicity through his release, “Un petit rien.”

Controlled Power

As economists debated regulating capital markets gone wild, certain brands tapped into the need of consumers to regain a sense of control and order over the surrounding chaos by exuding strength of character, sheer power or mental control. Most perfume launches that fit into this category resorted to a tonality that is resolutely cool, deliberate and effortless.

Probably the best illustration of this trend is La Nuit de L’Homme, the new perfume for men by Yves Saint Laurent, which speaks about a “story of seduction, intensity and bold sensuality that lies half-way between restraint and abandon,” according to YSL.

Another masculine perfume launch plays off the same universe. Costume National Homme claims to target “the traveler of a symbolic metropolitan jungle who loves sobriety and likes to surround himself with unique items, and who combines elements apparently in contradiction, creating a new balance between night and day, severity and transgression.”

Its feminine alter ego may be no other than Avon’s Bond Girl 007 Forever which marries brains and seduction or Roberto Verino’s Gold which claims to be “naturally elegant without showing off but with the charming aloofness of one who is effortlessly stylish.”

Taking another spin on the idea of controlled power comes The Beautiful Mind Series, (the first volume is titled “intelligence and fantasy”), introduced as “a fragrance that celebrates the life of the mind that appeals to head and heart, by connecting the mobility of the mind with the depth of memory.”


Sheer optimism, positive energy and playfulness were other ways of reacting to the turmoil of the world economy. Certain brands resorted to a sense of candid hope while others expressed the idea that a new world order could mean building a world free from formality, rules or contingencies.

Victoria’s Secret released a fragrance titled Pink Peace Love Hope to showcase “bright optimism, youthful spirit and all the possibilities of a new world embodied in a limited edition fragrance.” The Body Shop introduced Love etc., a “perfume of love as universal force, a highly addictive, warm and radiant fragrance which embodies the exuberance and personality of our brand.”

In the campy category, two launches come to mind: Daisy by Marc Jacobs, which “marries elegance with youthful vibrancy, capped with an unexpected twist,” and Oh La La by Spanish designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, whose bold and playful design cues invite us to a brighter tomorrow.

Thierry Mugler unleashed a more personal sense of positive energy by extending his Alien range of products with the introduction of Alien Sunessence Summer Edition, which is described as “an intense citrine yellow stone, which blazes with positive energy that lets you discover a new intriguing world of comfort like the touch of warm sand.” Similarly, by celebrating pure love, Guerlain’s recent perfume Idylle is meant to be a declaration of love captured through a packaging designed as a golden teardrop to express the idea of feminine happiness, according to the company.


The loudest group of perfume to make a statement against the doom and gloom of the recession is bound by the idea of provocation, which can take one of three forms: rebellion, seduction or overt sexuality.

Daisy by Marc Jacobs combines elegance and youthful vibrancy.
Rebellion is best exemplified through a rock and roll attitude that smashes all conventions. Victoria’s Secret introduced sultry Love Rocks as “wild at heart, rock chic meets trés chic in this rebellious riff for a punk princess.” Anna Sui introduced Rock Me, a perfume that is an “easy, free-spirited fragrance designed for the rocker girl” and Mango released Lady Rebel as “a perfume that symbolizes the essence of a rebellious woman longing for freedom and the desire to feel the vibrations of rock’n roll flow through her.”

Pure seduction is at the heart of Loewe’s Aire Loco, which yearns to become “the unmentionable fragrance” that reconciles four women in one fragrance: the unpredictable and capricious diva, the rebellious and indomitable defiant, the hypnotic and sensuous seductress and the hidden voyeur. Similarly, Yves Saint Laurent’s Parisienne celebrates unbound seduction for a woman who is “incredibly free to act and think and lives and loves with no boundaries.”

Overt sexuality is front and center in the new release of Beyonce’s Heat, which promises to “catch the fever’” or Sasha Varon’s Soulgasm which is described as ‘a rush, a desire … inspired by the days gone-by of some of the most glamorous actresses and starlets of the 1920s, intoxicates the senses and excites the mind. ” If these words don’t give it away, the tagline might: “heaven sent, hell-bent.”

As we wend our way through another cautious year of recovery, think about how these eight consumer trends will influence portfolio management and innovation in the world of cosmetics and personal care at large. Here are just a few takeaways for you to consider:
• Is your brand portfolio addressing both the “proactive” and the “escapist” mindset that characterizes consumers in the post-recession era?
• Are you still primarily thinking about your brand in demographic terms when consumers themselves are increasingly blurring the lines between conflicting attitudes?
• Are you innovating through the lens of a single or multiple consumer attitudes? For instance, if your brand primarily speaks to the cautious escapists, those that speak to the foundations and back to basics trends, what could you do to appeal to the loud change agents who respond better to such trends as provocation or utopia?

About the Author
Eric Zeitoun is president of the New York office of Dragon Rouge (www.dragonrouge-usa.com), a leading independent brand and design consultancy with office in New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Hamburg, Dubai and Warsaw. Contact him at eric@dragonrouge-usa.com or call 212.367.8800.
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