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The Post-Pandemic Opportunity in Fragrance

After a year of booming sales, the fragrance industry is turning its attention to the post-pandemic era, where shifts in product discovery, marketing and more will dictate the sector’s future.
Fragrance companies Boy Smells and Liis look to a post-pandemic opportunity.
Fragrance companies Boy Smells and Liis look to a post-pandemic opportunity. Collage by BoF.

In 2020, fragrance emerged as a star of the pandemic as consumers turned to perfumes, colognes, candles and more to escape the then-grim reality. A year later, the category has yet to slow down.

While other beauty sectors suffered throughout 2020, by August, fragrance sales had increased year-over-year. In the first quarter of 2021, fragrance sales reached $954 million, according to data from the NPD Group, an 82 percent increase from the first quarter of 2020, and a 35 percent increase from pre-pandemic 2019.

“Last year, the increase in fragrance sales was shoppers wanting to be transported to a different time. This year, it’s all about starting fresh and new,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry advisor at NPD. “They want to get out there and they want a new fragrance when they do.”

With momentum still strong, brands are eager to invest in the space: Ulta Beauty launched over 70 new fragrances in 2020 and plans to debut even more this year. Beauty giant Coty released several fragrances this year, with the company’s luxury fragrances from Marc Jacobs, Burberry and Gucci “outperforming,” according to the company’s Q3 earnings report.

Smaller companies see opportunities, too. Boy Smells, the five-year-old candle company, launched fragrances for the first time this year, while Scentbird, the startup that mails consumers fragrance samples, debuted several new scents through its in-house fragrance brands Sanctuary and Confessions of a Rebel.

But even as fragrance sales soar, the industry is changing. Messaging about attraction and sex have mostly been tweaked to focus on self-care. Shoppers are increasingly seeking out companies that focus on sustainability and evolving gender norms. And when it comes to buying new scents, in stores and online are both important channels, and so fragrance companies must rethink how they will position discovery.

Marketing That Smells New

Within the industry, the marketing of fragrance has shifted away from hyper-sexualised, rigidly-gendered messages.

Along with the rest of the fashion and beauty industries, an increasing number of brands are experimenting with gender-neutral scents. The move is especially important to Gen-Z customers, who are more comfortable with gender fluidity than previous generations. Fifty percent of Gen Z-ers believe gender labels are antiquated, according to a survey from advertising insights firm Bigeye.

In fragrance, the move toward gender neutrality dates back to 1994 with the launch of the first unisex perfume, Calvin Klein’s CK One, which went on to become a best-seller. But while CK One and other gender-neutral scents typically stick to citrus notes, some fragrance companies are embracing stereotypically feminine fragrances like rose and marketing the scents to everyone. Boy Smells’ newly-debuted fragrances, for example, are gender-neutral, but co-founder Matthew Herman said the company purposefully uses scents that have traditionally been associated with one gender, like rose or musk, and often mixes them.

“We want to mix traditionally masculine and feminine notes and throw away outdated gender ideas that men are supposed to smell like wood and musk and women smell like flowers,” he said.

Marketing a fragrance to everyone helps brands cast a wider net, an important tactic for small brands competing with fragrance giants.

“If you say you’re a woman’s fragrance, you pigeonhole yourself, but if you say nothing, you let anyone appreciate it,” said co-founder Alissa Sullivan, co-founder of new fragrance startup Liis, which launched this month.

Still, in the “very traditional” fragrance industry, said Jensen, many shoppers prefer gendered fragrances. But there is still an opportunity to evolve. Penny Coy, vice president of merchandising at Ulta Beauty, said several new Ulta stores opening this year will display fragrances categorised by brand, rather than gender, as its existing stores do.

“We want to convey to the guests that it’s perfectly fine to shop either-or,” said Coy.

The tone of advertising around fragrance has also shifted: A historically sexualised industry, perfumes and colognes often relied on gender stereotypes and objectifying women in their marketing. Instead, brands are marketing fragrances as something that shoppers should buy for themselves — an especially attractive message during the pandemic.

“Fragrance campaigns have been about sex and attraction — like how if you wear the latest Dolce & Gabanna fragrance, you will then get to have sex on a rock on the Amalfi Coast,” said Herman. “But shoppers are more emotionally capable today. Fragrance should have more growth and self-reflection [in marketing].”

“If you say you’re a woman’s fragrance, you pigeonhole yourself, but if you say nothing, you let anyone appreciate it.”

Spritzed With Sustainability

Fragrances are also being marketed — and manufactured — with sustainability in mind, including the increased use of upcycled ingredients.

“It’s a vital way to make better use of the earth’s resources to reduce our impact on the environment,” said Emily Bond, the head of fine fragrance North America at Givaudan, one of the world’s largest fragrance manufacturers, of upcycled fragrances. Givaudan has used upcycled ingredients for fragrances like the Nue Co.’s Forest Lungs and St. Rose’s Vigilante and expects that consumer interest in upcycled fragrances will only increase as the clean beauty craze continues.

However, upcycling presents hurdles: Herman said upcycled ingredients are expensive and that many fragrance companies are waiting for the process to become more accessible. Marketing upcycled ingredients can be difficult as well, with consumers used to expecting “newness” in beauty, said Bee Shapiro, founder of the fragrance company Ellis Brooklyn, which uses upcycled ingredients in both its Salt fragrance and an upcoming fragrance launching in September.

“We talk about upcycling,and people comment, ‘is this using garbage?’” Shapiro said. “The beauty story needs to be told a little differently.”

Thinking About Discovery

With stores shuttered in 2020, many shoppers began buying fragrances online. Even with store doors reopened, brands are working on ways to maintain that channel and see purchasable samples as the cornerstone to their acquisition strategy.

“Discovering a new scent is very rare [online],” Jensen said. “Everyone needs to be creative in terms of how they sell online.”

Boy Smells and Liis both launched their fragrances with sample sets. Herman said while Boy Smells doesn’t make money on the sample sets (four scents sold for $16), the marketing value makes them worth the cost.

“It’s the best way to reach the DTC customer and allow them to experience the full range of the product,” he said.

Even with an eye on digital, fragrance labels big and small are still leaning into retail. Boy Smells started wholesaling its fragrances to Nordstrom in March while Liis will be sold at concept stores like Arielle Shoshana in Fairfax, Va., Rennes in Philadelphia and the Sunroom Boutique in Austin, Tex. Earlier this month, Coty debuted a touchless fragrance device for shoppers to smell fragrances, which will roll out at beauty retailers soon.

“We were thinking about what the new norm was going to be, and very quickly, the idea [became] a connected device, touchless, to respect the idea of hygiene and safety,” said Thierry Moliere, senior vice president of sustainability, tech and innovation at Coty. He added that the device — which can disperse a single droplet for shoppers, which is potent enough to smell, but not overpowering — is also meant to improve in-store browsing, as it won’t overwhelm the space with scent.

Continuing to invest in physical retail experiences will be crucial for the future of fragrance, according to Moliere.

“E-commerce is a key driver, but perfume is an olfactory experience and the physical point of sale is important and critical,” Moliere said.

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