Is it Possible to Remove Aspiration from Perfume – and Do We Want To?
Updated: Sep 6
The glossy ads of large perfume brands, effortless detached mystique, are hard for most fumeheads to emulate. As it is, your favourite bottle can set you back hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
Perfume has always been an aspirational product, a Veblen good. It reinforces our idealised or emulated self-image. We hope it conveys that image, to negotiate and navigate status within our social spheres. It can even be a trust and navigation tool- breaking the ice and disarming biases in new, desired social contexts.
Perfume is the adult equivalent of teddy or ‘blankie’, perhaps the imaginary friend you had as a child. A bespoke client of mine literally describes their intended scent as a ‘gassy hug’. We want to feel certain in an uncertain world. Perfume is our armour- asserting identity real or perceived, stamping the air with our strength and our dreams.
Glossy ads were ubiquitous pre-2010 for this reason. There was no social media in the convenience and omnipresence of today, where we can access lives and social circles formerly out of our reach or know. Media/industry gatekeepers set the tone and told us what mattered.
PERFUME MARKETING POST SOCIAL MEDIA
In the 2010s, the cultural and commercial conversations in perfume making changed. The rise of globalisation and mobile tech expanded our worlds, and shortened our attention spans.
There are far more things to distract us now, with far more specific targeting, so it's harder for any one message to take across the public mood. With no need for physical storefronts, and a gold rush of sales just a hashtag away, consumers also have far more choice. Rarefied worlds like perfume- once cultural monopsonies- were forced to (slowly) respond to the growing voice and buying power of neglected audiences.
The rise of niche perfume brands eroded sales of mass market [link here, see business plan] and celebrity perfume, expanded and reinterpreted ‘acceptable’ perfume feedstocks, and gave new feeling and customisability to the scent medium.
Overall the perfume consumer fragmented, onto the new global stage of the attention economy. The voices of private citizens, hitherto edited and elided by print and broadcast media, began to be heard. We began demanding diversity, intersectionality, goods reflecting who we are as individuals.
But a hint of the old perfume world remains. A clean, moody, stripped down aesthetic in premium packaging emerged from most niche perfume houses. Often upwards of £70 per 10 ml, a newfound/expensive/rebranded star ingredient, and purporting a complete reset of the perfume industry.
Inclusion and mission, but make it perfume (and yes, I see the irony. ;).
ANSWERING THE QUESTION
Theoretically, yes- but we haven’t and don’t want to.
Aspiration in perfume can theoretically be removed but would remove a large part of the b2c buying decision.
Would you honestly buy a perfume because the video/photo says it smells good? You might with the right concept but imagine a vid like this (it's quick). Those mediums, try as we might, can't capture us like a spritz or roll.
There would still be industrial application but rewarded here is price and precision, not imagination. We all want washing powder to smell like Tom Ford, but what about your sweets or your yoghurt?
I’d argue instead that the aspirational standard has inverted and fragmented.
People are looking within, matching and melding personal goals with personal identity. People now demand products celebrating the best of who they already are, an aspiration rooted in realism. Essentially everyone wants a bespoke perfume for cheap (as they should, but I'm still not dropping my rates ;).
Brand consolidation, entrenched artistic and marketing culture, and the sheer speed of change has left the perfume industry resistant to change (and struggling to get with the times). Case in point Guerlain, Dior, Jo Malone (owned by Estee Lauder at the time of controversy/publication).
Anyone can wear perfume, and anyone can make it. But unfortunately, the perfume industry clings to the old way of aspiration.
And let’s just call that what it is: one which benefits the white, rich, famous, cis, straight and/or pretty.
The difference is it’s okay now, or at least less punished, to say you won’t assimilate or negotiate. That your goals and image are cultural and/or internal.
This can only be good for the future of perfume and the fumeheads who wear it.
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