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The Indie Brands Capitalising on the Fragrance Boom

Like skin care and cosmetics line before them, upstart perfume brands see a path to take market share from the category’s incumbents.
Missing Person perfume bottle.
Missing Person. (Phlur)

Key insights

  • Indie upstarts like Phlur, Dedcool and Dossier are disrupting the status quo in fragrance.
  • Accessible TikTok messaging, masstige price points and broad retail distribution have replaced the aspirational tools of fragrance marketing.
  • Gen-Z shoppers buy and apply a greater variety of fragrances than other consumers

When influencer Chriselle Lim relaunched the fragrance brand Phlur in February 2022, it wasn’t an obvious pairing.

Lim was best known for her style, part of the original wave of bloggers-turned-influencers. Her blog The Chriselle Factor and YouTube page were created in 2011. More than a decade into the project, beauty partnerships were far less frequent than rundowns of her favourite looks from YSL or Frame. That changed when The Center, a brand incubator, acquired Phlur from its founders in 2021, bringing Lim on as a co-owner.

“I never ever thought I would own a fragrance company or even be a part of anything related to fragrance,” she said. “I never identified as a fragrance girl.”

But Lim’s outsider take — matching a scent to a mood or occasion just like she would with an outfit — was one reason why Phlur was a breakout brand in 2022.

Lim joined Phlur in the midst of divorcing her husband; Missing Person, the brand’s first launch, drew on that personal story. The floral musk eau de parfum was meant to invoke nostalgia, like the scent of an old lover, she said. The Phlur team went so far as to spritz the scent on a T-shirt in an airtight bag for launch mailers. Within two weeks, Phlur sold through a year’s worth of Missing Person inventory; a TikTok video by beauty influencer Mikayla Nogueira went viral, spawning a 200,000 person waitlist. Today, the brand is sold at Sephora and Selfridges; earlier this month, it launched at Anthropologie.

Sales of fragrances surged during the pandemic as consumers looked for small luxuries to elevate their everyday. And that hold has continued. In the fourth quarter of 2022, fragrance captured the highest percentage of sales of any beauty category, according to the NPD Group and grew by seven percent year-on-year.

Historically, a select group of established French names like Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle and Sauvage, owned by LVMH, have dominated the fragrance industry. But that traditional, aspirational and one-size-fits-all approach to selling fragrance has changed. A wave of US-based indie brands have moved away from luxury marketing to tailor their message to speak to individuals. From lines like Phlur and Dedcool at Sephora to perfume brand Dossier at Walmart, brands are disrupting the elitist world of fragrance with masstige price points, broad retail distribution, and TikTok as their megaphone.

Abigail Jacobs, senior vice president of brand and integrated marketing at Sephora, credits Gen-Z with this shift.

“They are not thinking, ‘This is who I could become’ when they are shopping, which is what traditional fragrance marketing [told consumers],” she said. “They are finding the right fragrance that represents them at any given moment … Gen-Z wants to see themself in a brand.”

Telling a Story

Nine months before Carina Chazanas (who goes by Carina Chaz) launched her fragrance brand Dedcool, she created an Instagram as a digital mood board to conceptualise the brand. Chaz knew that more than any other generation, Gen-Z prefers buying into brands with a voice.

Unsure of what the final product would look like, the early days of Dedcool’s Instagram was a way to exercise brand values. A post that included a drawing of a skull indicated that the brand was unisex. Dedcool was also a green, nontoxic and vegan line, and in Chaz’s mind, the line was the party that everyone was invited to.

Dedcool perfume.

“I was looking at Le Labo and thinking ‘I could be that,’ but the clean, modern version,” she said. “I wanted to sit on the shelf by Le Labo and Byredo and have that minimalistic, monochrome feel, but be accessibly priced.”

The line ranges from $6 for a sample to $90 for a full size 50 ml bottle; it also sells fragrance adjacent products, like an air freshener ($12) and laundry detergent ($36). In August 2022, Dedcool became a cornerstone of Sephora’s indie fragrance push alongside other digital-first brands like Phlur, By Rosie Jane and Boy Smells.

The End of the Signature Scent

The third fragrance to launch in Phlur’s lineup was Not Your Baby, a sexy floral. Campaign imagery featured a woman’s smile accented by bright pink lips and a red lollipop.

Rather than attaching a famous face to marketing, Lim said, “I’m seeing fewer campaigns that are celebrity-facing or with models running through the field … people want to know how a fragrance is going to make them feel or how to wear it, that is what is going to make someone connect with your brand”

5 Sens, a new Gen-Z-targeted fragrance brand from Wander Beauty’s Divya Gugnani, is also emphasising that fragrance should be worn to match one’s energy.

“Gen-Z doesn’t wear the same fragrance every day, like their mothers or grandmothers did,” said Gugnani. “They change their fragrance just like they change their makeup or hair.”

5 Sens remains DTC-only (the brand will be launching in a national retailer in the spring); Gugnani launched the brand online first to have a full manifestation of the brand with robust content for shoppers to explore. Each of 5 Sens’s fragrances like Catch Feelings, include a detailed description of notes, videos and evocative prompts like “Let yourself go.”

Luxury Positioning, Masstige Prices

Unlike European fragrance houses that are pushing the limits of price, US indies are focused on affordability and accessibility.

Boy Smells entered the fine fragrance category in 2021; a 65 ml bottle retails for $98. Maison Margiela’s signature Replica franchise, meanwhile, sells a 100 ml bottle for $160.

Matthew Herman, co-founder of Boy Smells, said the approachable price point has enticed shoppers to try the brand for the first time.

“I think coming out of the pandemic, people are more willing to try new fragrances, as they are figuring out their new identities after Covid,” he said.

Best known as a candle brand, fine fragrance now accounts for 20 percent of Boy Smells’ total sales.

But as American indies try the high-low model with fragrance, Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry advisor at The NPD Group, said younger shoppers are willing to spend.

“The Gen-Z fragrance consumer applies fragrance more often and self-purchases more often than the total fragrance consumer,” she said. “They are also more likely to have spent more than $150 on a single fragrance [in the last] year.”

Sephora has been a battleground for these indie brands. As a prestige retailer, it is known to push a number of incumbents, but it will be adding five new indie fragrance brands to its assortment in 2023. This year’s Sephora Squad member also indexed heavily fragrance influencers like TikToker Emelia O’Toole, also known as Professor Perfume, and Maiya Nicole, the founder of online platform Black Girls Smell Good.

Jacobs said there is room for both heritage names and upstarts within Sephora’s strategy.

“These big brands are a meaningful part of our business, but shoppers tended to find their one signature fragrance and that was it for them,” she said. “These younger shoppers are playing around a lot more and willing to try multiple brands … you always have to be focused on your youngest client that’s joining the consumer ranks.”

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