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.
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.)
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.
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.