new brands, new consumers


In today’s New York Times, there are a couple of stories on perfume. Both contain surprises that attract the trend watcher’s eye and the marketer’s scrutiny.  

Surprise 1

One of the hits of the perfume season smells like rubber.  Horyn of the NYT describes it is “a manly, tasty blend of black pepper and bergamot with just a hint of Scotch pine, whiskey and – could it be? – rubber.”

"People are always shocked when they smell it. They’re like, ‘Oh, this is really good.’ Well, that speaks a lot about perfume today.  People are all too often prepared for something powerful and not immediately pleasant.” (Christopher Brosius in Horyn, 2005)

The perfume industry has always been able to reach beyond the merely pleasant and agreeable for scents that were more nuanced, interesting and mysterious. But this is the first time, I believe, they have willingly embraced something that was “not immediately pleasant.” It made me wonder whether the industry was breaking with what, a couple of days ago, we called minstrel marketing: the inclination to offer products and services that were agreeable, even when this meant they were also a little bland or entirely idiotic. 

In a fiercely segmented marketplace, some marketers are prepared to embrace a trade-off: in order to get real engagement with the consumer, they embrace something that is stranger and less agreeable. In this case, the perfumer achieves a smash hit with (and by) something that smells like rubber.  

This has an interesting implication for the world of marketing: we can now reach for brand meanings that were once out of bounds. Now the brand can have meanings that are dark and/or difficult, and/or a little odd, and/or really (not merely) mysterious. Once we give up being agreeable, an entire range of meanings and creative strategies opens up to us. (Several days ago, we noted this development in the case of Honest Tea.)

Surprise 2

The perfume in question is endorsed by and named for the Hollywood star, Alan Cumming. And this is really counter-expectational. For Cumming is not comely. He is not handsome, especially likeable, or even charismatic, except in that spooky way villains sometimes are. Here too I think we appear to see a willingness to “buy” engagement at the price of a marketing device that is unattractive or at least unconventional. 

If Cumming is now a useful celebrity endorser, the universe of acceptable endorser has just expanded dramatically.  Can a perfume contract for Steve Buschmi (sp?) be far behind.  Come to think of it, virtually everyone in Reservoir Dogs should be expecting a call.  Just kidding.  But you see what I mean.  If Cumming’s useful as a source of meanings for a brand, we are looking at a substantially expanded set of possibilities, one that takes the marketing world well beyond its usual band of happy, beautiful people.

Surprise 3

Gina Pell is the CEO of Splendora, a fashion web site. She is a sophisticated consumer of perfumes. She has a large collection of scents which includes Stella McCartney, Must de Cartier and Cuir de Russie by Chanel. So Ruth La Ferla of the Times was surprised that Pell also uses Curious. This is the Britney Spears perfume, something La Ferla describes as “a vanilla-and-peach-scented elixir that is distinctly mass market.” 

This is a mixing of the high and the low, the disciplined and, um, peachy.  When Silverstein and Fisk (authors of Trading up and members of Boston Consulting Group) observed this sort of mixing and matching behavior, they put it down to a wish to attain high status goods.   And La Ferla is clearly tempted by this interpretation, calling Curious a “guilty pleasure.”  And this may well be it. But when Pell is asked to explain herself she says she mixes Curious with Eau d’Orange Verte by Hermès, “to set her[self] apart from those ‘blind trend followers’ who would never dream of tainting their Fracas or Prada with a drugstore scent.

This mixing and matching behavior may be driven by a status motive, but we may also see it as an indication that where we do not create new variety, the consumer step in and create it for themselves. In Pell’s case, we are looking at customization that makes her scent absolutely distinct.  And down this road we may see a branded, commercial world in which there are, perhaps someday,  as many meanings as there are consumers.  And strewn along this road lay the ruins of the arguments of those who insisted the commercial society must always encourage a regression to the mean, a uniformity of offering, and a strict conformity of purchase behavior.  
Surprises 1 and 2 suggest that the meanings of the brand are becoming more various…and not a moment too soon.  Suprise 3 says consumers are becoming more various too. 


La Ferla, Ruth. 2005. The Guilty Pleasure of Smelling Like Vanilla and Peach. The New York Times. June 30, 2005. here.   

Horyn, Cathy. 2005. The sweet smell of celebrity. The New York Times. June 30, 2005. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Minstrel marketing and the Hegarty trade-off. This Blog Sits At… here.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Brand meaning management: new opportunities. This Blog Sits At… here.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Who is the Celebrity Endorser? In Culture and Consumption II: Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (releasing any day now, I promise.)

Silverstein, Michael and Neil Fiske.  2003. Trading up: The New American Luxury. New York: Portfolio.

3 thoughts on “new brands, new consumers

  1. dilys

    In the big picture, there seem to be “two kinds” of people, to oversimplify, the improvisational and the formal/dutiful. Myers Briggs P’s and J’s, for a kind of shorthand. The pendulum swings, and right now there is a pent-up demand for the tools to mix-and-match demanded by the former. Eventually that will prove tiring, and there will be pre-fab rules of thumb in the ascendant. Each style favors, and disfavors, a particular style of going at life.

    But of course mastering the provocative details of this temporal iteration (mixing Britney Spears with Prada), knowing what to offer in the mix-match toolkit, is where the fortune lies. Just don’t get used to it, the next New Thing will be a return to a simple fashion strategy. And the real coup will probably be making mix and match both stimulating and trouble-free simple.

    And please do another meet-up down the road. Sounds great.

  2. jens

    this here is a truely great blog.
    “i am lovin it”
    came over via tom asacker – and hey, happy to be here too.

    on perfume: the rubber thing reads great. i want it.
    off the track scents have always been arround, maybe not as visible in the mass-market. but traditional perfume houses – in england, spain, france even italy – always had a range of scents that were more irritating than pleasing. explore the whole range of those traditional houses and you will feel like in a colour-shop that does not only offer you the greens of summer, the blue of the sea and the red of roses… you will find every colour, for almost every nasty mood you might be in.

    and also the mixing thing has been arround for a while. my grandmother did it. and a number of my friends.

    more recently – when the whole perfume thing became a money machine the market filled up with lots of middle of the road stuff – not bad, by no means, all shades of beauty were discovered and most of it was very, very agreeable. i remember smelling calvin klein’s male scent for the first time and it did throw me off my feet – right into a freshly made hotel-bed…
    and i was not the only one.

    but, as it is, in a world filled with sweet surprises you need some reference. no rose without thornes.
    los contrastes!
    monotony kills beauty. every time.
    and always the contrasts.
    and again the contrasts to the contrasts.
    that is the rhythm of culture.

  3. jens

    har har.
    just checked allan cumming on google. he looks quite agreeable to me. quite a clean nice guy actually.
    and the X-men movie poster bares quite some rubber aesthetics too.

    not that much of a surprise then, is it?

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