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The smell of sex: what is the future of fragrance campaigns?

As we obliterate binary ways of thinking in 2019, how do brands market scents in a progressive way?

Before facing battle, the Roman soldiers who roamed the planet over 2000 years ago would douse themselves in vials of rosewater. At the time, that potent, floral scent was closely associated with masculinity, power and strength, but you wouldn’t know that if you were to wander into the Debenhams beauty department in 2019.

Now, when you approach a fragrance counter, scents are generally split in two: divided by gender, either ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, and marketed to us in a way that makes absconding that binary somewhat scandalous. In a restrictive fashion that’s existed for the best part of a century, fragrances for women are typically floral, sweet and dainty, whilst men’s favoured scents are woodier and more powerful. Of course, there have been some exceptions (more on this later).

But as the gender binary in society slowly continues to dissolve, making way for a freer future, the way we approach fragrances has to go with it. These days, blues and pinks are no longer symbolic of male and female in the way they once were; gendered professions are a thing of the past, and maternity and paternity leave is well on its way to becoming a fairly dividable right by law in the UK. Men and women are, for many, simply becoming people, and the possibility of pushing a product to masses rather than a target market is something major fragrance brands are having to come to terms with.

It takes time to deconstruct a dog-eared approach though, especially considering the entire fragrance industry is estimated to be worth nearly $92 billion by the year 2024. A lot of that is built on how reliable the current system of marketing them is. Men’s fragrance campaigns, for example, have always carried the same connotations of unquestionable sex appeal and societal dominance. As a result, men buy into that, expecting some of those qualities to rub off on us. Some of it is true (the jasmine-like compound hedione, found in Dior’s Eau Sauvage, has a history of instigating the release of sex hormones in women), but most of it is simply a social construct, shaped by images of impossibly handsome men and the women they attract, that’s imparted upon us.

The male gaze is particularly piercing in 2007’s controversial Tom Ford for Men campaign shot by Terry Richardson, that saw bottles of the eau du parfum strategically placed over women’s genitalia; a move that got the adverts banned in Italy. But that notion of sex and skin being a commodity isn’t exclusive to men’s scents. In campaigns for women’s fragrances too, like the Eva Mendes-starring effort for Calvin Klein Obsession, nudity and nip slips dominate. The foolproof nature of that selling formula – contentious, carnal and defined by desirable body standards – has meant it’s become somewhat impossible to shake in 2019, even when the signs show that we’re desperately yearning to see something new.

But successful fragrance campaigns that do away with gender tropes and embrace a more open-minded approach aren’t an unfounded concept either. Back in 1994, the pared back campaign for the unisex scent CK One was considered quietly revolutionary by doing something so simple that it’s a wonder so few brands had even considered it before: enlisting a group of both men and women models (including a young Kate Moss) to promote the fragrance. The bottle and liquid, free of pretty pinks and masculine blues, was clear and unambiguous: for once, here was a scent for everyone. It was a wild success, at one point selling nearly 20 bottles per minute, and ultimately epitomised a generation desperately seeking rebellion in an age of grunge, protest and Nirvana dominating the charts. In a piece for The New York Times, journalist Eric Wilson labelled it “the olfactory talisman of Generation X”.

Sue Phillips is the CEO and founder of The Scentarium, a custom perfumery based in New York City. For decades, Phillips has been creating fragrances for both men and women, and understands the semantics of the debate: “Have you ever seen a masculine lemon or a feminine cucumber? Ingredients are genderless,” she says. “It’s only through marketing that women’s and men’s fragrances have been positioned as such.” Sue’s right: few fragrances dare stray from the labels of ‘Pour Homme’ or ‘Pour Femme’, but what’s the chemical justification for that? Or is it just more reliable to create a scent for each gender to avoid confusion, and force each side of the binary to feel more comfortable when they go to sample something at the beauty counter?

But the issue surrounding the restrictive manner of fragrance marketing doesn’t end with the binary notions of gender: a quick Google of “mens fragrance campaign” will prove that there’s a serious race issue at play too. You’ll have to scroll for some time to find a face for a men’s fragrance that isn’t blindingly white, cisgender and affluent. In fact, in the first 100 results, only one person of colour can be found, and that’s Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy, as the self-appointed face of his own fragrance. The same search tailored for women, for the most part, displays a similar trend, though Lupita Nyong’o’s stint as the face of Calvin Klein’s Woman scent in the summer of 2018 does deservedly make up many of the most popular results. However, it is worth mentioning that Nyong’o is not only an exception in the celebrity sphere but in fragrance advertising as a whole. With her eponymous scent and YSL’s ‘Black Opium’ respectively, Naomi Campbell and Zoe Kravitz may have fronted campaigns in the past too, but in terms of there being a visible model of colour being enlisted to be an ambassador for a fragrance, we’re still waiting for that to become a new norm. It has happened on a couple of occasions, as Karan of the prolific @moremodelsofcolor Instagram account points out: Omahyra Mota facing Jean Paul Gaultier’s 2003 Le Parfum Fragile, and Joan Smalls being the face of Moschino Gold in 2017. There is still a need for the imbalance to be addressed: “The discrepancy in the presence of white models and non-white models in these types of campaigns remains to be problematic,” Karan says. “Historically the beauty industry has been an arena for [the former], and this is strongly rooted in the fact that mainstream beauty companies have always had a white demographic at the forefront of their target consumer bases. This, in turn, is a result of the fashion and beauty industry alike perpetuating Eurocentric features as the ultimate standard of beauty, and disregarding anything that deviates from these ideals, which inherently minimises the opportunities available for models of colour.”

We should collectively realise that scent – unlike clothes – has the potential to be the most inclusive element of the beauty industry, as skin types and colours are seldom factored into the creation of fragrances at its base level; it’s only later down the line, when it comes to being peddled to consumers, that things become exclusionary. In a time when Rihanna is releasing 40 shades of foundation, quickly translating into commercial success, the idea of inclusivity should be cultivated in a brand’s DNA and brought out proudly onto billboards and TV teasers with pride.

When an industry has invested so heavily in an archaic method of marketing, how does it make way for a more liberally minded future? Like with most calls for change, it starts with the tastemaker brands and, over time, filters out. Perfumeries like Byredo, Diptyque and Le Labo choose not to gender their fragrances, though their reasoning is not one fuelled by a reading of the room in 2019, but rather an intrinsic understanding of the chemical compounds of scent. True, some notes smell different on different people’s skin, but gender seldom plays a part in it. That carries through to their campaigns, too: Le Labo and Diptyque use a clean, genderless approach, using the ingredients of their scents to push their fragrances on posters and digital advertising. Byredo follow a similar path; the only time they’ve strayed from that formula was to feature everybody’s favourite androgynous queen of cool, Freja Beha Erichsen, in a 2015 poster for a scent created to raise money for the Swedish branch of Médecins Sans Frontières.

That focus on scent rather than the celebrity-lead buzz around it has placed these brands at the forefront of the beauty movement in 2019, but to assume that the industry could go ahead without those lucrative endorsements would be silly. On a luxury level, perhaps we should look to Gucci as a good example of utilising the power of celebrity but doing so in a creative and nuanced way.  When it came to their most recent iteration of the classic Guilty fragrance, the brand merged the men’s and women’s campaigns together by placing Jared Leto and Lana Del Rey in the same animal-filled throwback fantasyland, one used that nostalgia, theatre and whimsy to sell the scent, rather than a deviant or hypersexual vision of power play between strong men and beautiful women.

Then there was the progressive campaign for ‘Bloom’, which placed actress and trans activist Hari Nef centre centre stage. Starring alongside photographer Petra Collins and actress Dakota Johnson, Hari is captured basking in beds of flowers dressed in Gucci clothing; not stripped down to show as much flesh as possible. It’s also interesting how Bloom suggested a female kinship that seems so rare, perhaps unprecedented in fragrance advertising. The whole industry is built on shrouding a mass marketed product to someone under the guise of the scent being ‘theirs’ and no one else’s; Bloom proved that fragrance can belong to many.

On a similarly unifying note, late last year Margiela unveiled ‘Mutiny’, a scent designed to capture “a reality under transformation” that was carried by the presence of its wide spectrum of spokespeople. Stars like Willow Smith and actress Sasha Lane, alongside models Hanne Odiele (who was born intersex) and trans activist Teddy Quinlivan, fronted the campaign. The fragrance, dominated by tuberose – a carnal and sexy floral smell present in both men’s and women’s scents in the past – focussed less on the traditional notions of beauty previously used to peddle perfumes, and more on the tenacious nature of each figure’s character. The release of the campaign coincided with Margiela’s Spring/Summer 2019 runway show, with films of these ambassadors emblazoned across screens that cradled the catwalk.

But it’s not just about who stars in what campaign, it’s about changing the way these campaigns are consumed by the public. After the IRL experience of the Margiela show, the campaign for Mutiny moved into the digital sphere, with the brand investing in digital advertising and creative collaborations with tastemaker titles online. Brands like Margiela realise that scent is experiential and is shaped as much by storytelling as it is the way the finished product actually smells.

In a time when retail spaces are suffering at the hand of online retailers, how do fragrances reach Generation Z? Well, some digital fragrance shops are shipping out mini samples of the same scent alongside full-sized bottles, so that customers can try the scent before they open the full bottle and return it unopened if they don’t like it; a more convoluted version of the scratch and sniff magazine pages of the past.

Then there’s the influencers. Kim Kardashian-West’s triad of emoji-inspired scents sold nearly 300,000 units in under a week through some savvy social media marketing: by sending gigantic chocolate love hearts encasing the fragrance to a cohort of influencers, who duly cracked them open to unveil the bottle that lay beneath. Nobody had a clue what the fragrance smelled like, but such an overwhelming launch, directly onto the IG feeds of hundreds of millions of people, made shifting the line pretty much child’s play.

It’s a technique that legacy brands will struggle to replicate without that kind of direct-to-consumer pulling power, but Margiela’s focus on innovation rather than foolproof conformity is a step in the right direction. Focussing on digital rather than print advertising, and developing stories surrounding scents, is the key way to tap into a new generation of people buying fragrances. In a sea of relative sameness, revolutionary experiences become the most desirable component of a fragrance, almost rendering the top notes and sillage obsolete.

That translates into physical retail spaces now, too. With department stores struggling to survive, flagships for each beauty brand have harboured a greater focus on the aesthetic value of their interiors and their promotional materials in public. Gucci’s Bloom campaign went beyond the video and beyond the bottle and offered an experiential set-up in airports around the world, with ornate furniture and flora making for the perfect Instagram opportunity. Le Labo’s stores feel like throwbacks to the early days of past century perfumeries. Even the legendary British fragrance-makers Penhaligon’s are going full Wes Anderson for their new Singapore flagships. The goal is to get people through the doors first, and lure them in with the power of association. If you want Generation Z’s hard-earned coin, brands are going to have to put the work in to make us part with it.

After years of trusting a brand’s archetypal vision of gender-restrictive and hyper-sexualised beauty, Generation Z seem to be the first group who are ready to turn the establishment on its head. We favour a more fluid interpretation to the one that’s fed to us, and as a result, we’ve started to change the way influence works in the beauty industry. After years of bright white, binary faces failing to capture the nuance and character of the customer, we’ve forced fragrance brands to respond. Margiela and Kim Kardashian West’s methods of promotion might just be the beginning of something bigger: of a fragrance that doesn’t discriminate and lures people in not with impossible beauty, but with influential figures; ones we often yearn to see ourselves in.