Floris – a perfectly preserved brand

ImagePhoto – Floris

I had an interesting experience last weekend, one that few people are lucky enough to enjoy. I traveled around London smelling perfumes with a group of other fragrance geeks that included three perfumers. In St James, I visited the Floris shop at 89 Jermyn Street with Karen Gilbert,  a respected perfumer, trainer and product developer who has worked for well-known brands and has a phenomenal grasp of the industry.

The oldest British perfumery, founded in 1730, Floris has a very well-defined brand, which draws heavily on its history and tradition for imagery and positioning. The shop is a glorious mahogany-lined High Edwardian vision, with a marvellous dapper French-accented manager who understands the fine line between helpfulness and intrusion. While the point-of-sale materials and window displays are modern, the bottles and packaging are resolutely 1920s in styling, and give an impression of solidity as well as luxury, and the online presence is absolutely in tune with the physical. Both in the shop and online, Royal Warrants from the Queen and the Prince of Wales are discreetly displayed, as are letters from customers including Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill and Marylin Monroe.

The overall brand image is of a very British quiet elegance and insistence on quality, that places Floris squarely in the ‘upper’ bracket of our class system. It is so immaculately curated that it veers close to Disneyfication, but doesn’t quite become a caricature because of the subtle and intelligent use of modern touches, such as simple black and white website imagery, the modern point-of-sale materials and an ongoing product development programme which has seen new fragrances released that fit with current market trends.

This was when it became very interesting to be smelling perfumes with a professional perfumer. While I would spritz a paper strip and say ‘oh, this is modern, nice and fresh’, Karen would sniff several times, mutter mysteriously about Dihydromyrcenol, Galaxolide and Hedione and say ‘this is a nice twist on CKOne, made with good materials’, placing the scent squarely in the context of the successful products on the market. Karen explained that this is something most perfume-making companies do; take the fashionable or iconic form that customers understand, and simply add a half-twist of this or that to keep it from being a straight copy. This is a particularly intelligent thing for a company like Floris to do, because it keeps the brand’s offerings current and relevant to a larger and younger audience.

However, one of the problems with exclusivity and perfume is that your potential customers need to be able to physically smell the products, but you need to maintain your brand image. Consequently, Floris is stocked in John Lewis department stores and independent pharmacies in county towns; exactly the kinds of shops frequented by the fictional tweedy Honorables that are the backbone of a very British perception of what is ‘upper class’. Interestingly, the Cefiro fragrance which Karen described so precisely as being similar to CKOne is Floris’ choice for their range of hotel toiletries, used by selected five star hotels – another way to very efficiently place their products in potential customers’ hands while maintaining brand values and equity.

While that bottle of Floris perfume or bath essence might look as if it belongs in the bathroom of a Duchess’ country house, it’s equally likely to be bought by a tourist, as a present, or by someone who has used it in a hotel bathroom and enjoyed it. Whoever is managing the Floris brand is exceptionally skilled and I take my hat off to them.

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Normy news or How to float your product up the market.

This week a friend and I were talking about her blog and something came up which started me thinking about ‘norms’ – those essential stereotypes we use all the time in  marketing. The blog is about perfume, a pet subject of mine and a market which I understand well. It’s very clearly divided between high-end niche perfumes from brands such as Amouage, Editions de Frederic Malle, Serge Lutens, Caron, Guerlain, that you can only find in boutique perfumeries or exclusive department stores; mid-range such as Chanel, Dior, YSL, Vivienne Westwood, Prada, Clarins, Lancome that you can find in all department stores; lower-mid range like Cacharel, Diesel, Britney Spears, JLo, Beckham and Hugo Boss that you can buy in pharmacies and chains such as Superdrug and Boots and then the rock-bottom cheapies, copies and ‘in the style of’ versions you pick up for under a fiver in discounters. Anyone who has ever bought a bottle of perfume knows exactly how this works, where their favourite fragrance sits in this market and exactly where the line lies when buying a Mother’s Day present.

This week my blogger friend has been reviewing celebrity scents; about which there is much snobbery. The rise of celebrity perfumes is a recent phenomenon, even though there were a few notable perfumes released by actresses in the 1980s (Cher’s Uninhibited, Catherine Deneuve’s Deneuve, Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion). Since Jennifer Lopez released JLo Glow in 2002, to great financial success, the celebrity perfume model has been so profitable that the trickle has now become a deluge, with reality show personalities and pop stars releasing a new fragrance each season and actresses replacing models as the ‘face’ of a fragrance. Evidently, this is a money-spinning opportunity like few others. With raw ingredients costing relative peanuts compared to the final sale price, most of the financial investment goes into marketing and branding – from designing the bottle to funding launch parties and a media-blitz to launch the product.

Yet there has always been a little moue of distaste at the idea of wearing perfume sold by a celebrity. Somehow it’s not a chic as a perfume from a saddler such as Hermes or Gucci, or a dressmaker, like Dior, Chanel or Yves St Laurent (though admittedly, they do know a few things about being chic). But what qualifies them to know anything about perfume, apart from a well-defined sense of personal taste and an understanding of the changing fashions? Coco Chanel was no more trained as a perfumer than Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears or Snooki. (Whatever Snooki is – an orange cartoon character, I believe?) But it’s exactly that kind of sniffy little comment that makes most of the population unwilling to admit ‘I smell of Paris Hilton’s CanCan’, but perfectly happy to say ‘I smell of Lancôme’s Ôui!’

Admittedly, there is often a small but essential difference in the money spent on the juice in the bottle. Higher-end perfumes often contain rather more expensive ingredients, and are developed by a prestigious ‘nose’ – effectively an olfactory creative director who composes the formula to address a loose and evocative brief. For mass-market celebrity scents, less is spent on ingredients and the brief is usually dictated by a marketing team who tightly focus-group how the target market wants to smell, rather than giving the nose creative control. This explains why there is so much uniformity among the mass-market scents – a fairly universal fruity/sweet/patchouli-based fuzz seems to be what the teens and early twenties focus groups said they wanted a couple of years ago, so that’s what Proctor & Gamble and Coty are putting into bottles and stickering with random celebrity names. And let’s be honest – the celebrities are signing up because it’s a great earner. Popstars and tv show personalities know that their fans will want to buy a £20 bottle of perfume so they can smell like their favourite star. These aren’t classic perfumes created to stand the test of time, they’re FMCG, to be used up and moved on from.

This flood of mass-market fragrances from celebrities has shifted the stereotype and reshaped the market, and now perfumes ‘created’ (perhaps ‘approved’ is more honest) by actors seem to be given more credibility, placing them with fashion designers, jewellers and saddlers, albeit on the bottom end of that mid-range. With financial constraints having an impact on our buying habits, the days of splurging at the Chanel or Guerlain counter are over, and consumers are looking for less expensive alternatives for everyday wear to the office or supermarket. The early-adopters SJP and JLo have been taken into the fold and accepted as vendors of quality goods, with SJP’s Lovely inheriting the mantle of Lauder’s White Linen as a school-run classic for Boden-wearing mummies, while Halle Berry, Kate Walsh, Jennifer Aniston and the Beckhams’ are producing surprisingly good affordable perfumes and aftershaves that are impressing the ‘squeezed middle’ market and critics alike. As for the originals I listed earlier, check out eBay, where vintage bottles of Deneuve now sell for astonishing prices.

It seems that the way to get a marketing stereotype to shift and allow your product to move upscale a little – to come in from the cold to become a popular lower-mid-range fragrance – is to float on an enormous tide of poor-quality mass-market copycats and to pay attention to your brand and imply better quality by injecting some of your personal taste and insisting on slightly better quality ingredients and slightly less focus-grouped formulae.

Integrity, it seems, actually does smell better.

Truly Bradley, meekly

or How Brad Pitt led Chanel off-brand
I am a perfume geek. There are blogs for people like me. Just as avid bird watchers are called birders or twitchers, I could be called a fragonerd, a perfumista, or a fumehead. So you can imagine the kerfuffle in my little world when a new Chanel No.5 perfume advertisement comes out. OK, it’s not as much excitement as when Chanel releases a new perfume, but it’s close. Especially when the new tv ad features the first male spokesmodel for No.5, and Brad Pitt at that.
When the new celebrity representative was announced, there was a little debate about whether it was appropriate to have a man representing the world’s most famous feminine perfume. But let’s be honest, that’s a proposition we can figure out in a flash: if you wear Chanel No.5, Brad Pitt will fancy you. Kerching. As advertising goes, that’s a killer.
But what about the brand? After the super-slick, glossy and elegant adverts of Chanel’s past, I could see Mr Pitt fitting in if he looked as classically beautiful as he did in Meet Joe Black, clad in an immaculate Chanel suit, looking debonair and effortless. The Chanel brand, after all, is wonderfully curated and epitomises a very particular heady combination of luxury, quality and chic. Hermes has luxury and quality but is mumsy, the Italians are fashionable but slightly tawdry (you get the feeling that Gucci might be worn at a Bunga-Bunga party, which takes the shine off it a little), the British have quality, class and heritage but are not chic. No-one but the French fashion designers quite hit that deluxe/fashion/chic combo that Chanel, Dior and YSL have created and maintain so well. This is in a way the ultimate market in which your brand image is your greatest asset, because all these houses are selling is image.
Let’s be honest, Chanel is so precise in its branding that even the house’s designer, Karl Lagerfeld is only ever seen sporting monochrome clothing cut razor-sharp and styled to the extreme. Previous Chanel ads that I’ve just enjoyed watching on YouTube have included Ridley Scott’s 1986 vision of a woman in corporate America escaping in her shiny black car for an assignation in the great American desert. Luc Besson in 1998 gave us his glorious fantasy re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf,  then came 2004’s contentious but utterly glamorous Baz Luhrmann and Nicole Kidman collaboration and the most recent advert with Audrey Tatou on a sleeper train to Istanbul. They all share those brand markers we identify as Chanel: a very specific palette of colours – black, white, gold, scarlet; glossy production and styling; a recognisable piece of retro music; a setting in a city and involving travel or escape; and very importantly, a love story either played out or implied.
Given this heritage of Chanel advertising, I expected the new Brad Pitt ad to feature our hero in full-blown killer suave mode, seducing every woman watching with a single raised eyebrow (don’t believe it can be done? Sean Bean achieved a nationwide knee-tremble with his single sentence on the 2005 Christmas advert for Marks and Spencer). But of course I was sadly disappointed. Yes, Brad is as handsome as can be, and those few wrinkles around his eyes add to his sex appeal and hit the target audience of 30+ years old straight into the run-up to the Christmas present-buying season. Yes, of course Brad will shift product and yes, of course men will feel they are taking on an aura of Bradness if they give their lady love a bottle of No.5. I can see that casting Brad as opposed to George ‘Swooney’ Clooney is a canny move, as his appeal is more casual, modern and democratic, given George’s classical Cary Grant look and slightly retro style. Yet those would be exactly the attributes I’d have judged to be more in tune with the brand. Touche Chanel for being clever and playing the off-beat card. (Or maybe George was busy filming for Nespresso.)
But was it clever to go completely off the guidelines?
I will grant that at least the ad is in black and white, the Chanel brand colours. But in fact, it is a soft grey, which has none of the sharpness we associate with Chanel. Brad stands in the corner of a dappled grey set, under an offscreen light that swings about alarmingly. He has long hair and a neat goatee and his cheeks are oddly matt in close-up. He is wearing a slightly creased shirt and chinos and looks as if he’s about to teach an Art class. I’m sorry, but this is not the image of luxury that will encourage me to drop fifty quid for the smallest bottle of No.5. He’s handsome, he’s in his mid 40s and heading towards rugged, he speaks in beautifully enunciated honeyed tones, but he hasn’t made enough of an effort to get me to part with my hard earned cash. (Sorry Bradley, no hard feelings. Try rocking up in a suit next time, darling man, and taking me somewhere posh.)
But hey, even seriously blah, functional, casual styling (with rumpled sleeves – they don’t have an iron?) can be redeemed by fantastic copywriting, right? I mean, as a copywriter I have to believe that. So does this blow me away? Well. Here’s the copy:
“It’s not a journey. Every journey ends, but we go on. The world turns and we turn with it. Plans disappear and dreams take over. But wherever I go, there you are. My luck. My fate. My fortune.  Chanel number five.  Inevitable”
Meh. Standard 90’s mumbo-jumbo. It mentions one of the distinguishing features of a Chanel ad – the journey. But no, apparently ‘it’s not a journey’, which blows that one out of the water. The ad doesn’t speak about perfume, luxury, France, Coco, Chanel, making movies, Brad himself or the meaning of life, let alone the meaning of forking out fifty knicker for this particular bottle of scent.
I quite like “wherever I go, there you are” – that speaks to me about the ubiquity of the planet’s favourite perfume (by sales). But it has nothing to do with the man saying it. Similarly, “My luck. My fate. My fortune” trips off his silver tongue very nicely, though it means little when you think of it. However, we ladies do wear our favourite perfume for special occasions and if we’re lucky, we’re more likely to encounter Fate and Fortune when we’re sporting heels and lippy. Again, it doesn’t scream ‘Brad’ to me, but I guess it’s OK for Chanel. However, this is Chanel: since when has ‘OK’ been good enough?
There is a splash (ha!) of black and gold, as the obligatory packshot is set agains an image of the world at night, cities illuminated beneath the golden elixir that is “one of the pleasures of being a woman”.
I do, however like the punchline of “Inevitable”. It really is very No.5. It speaks of the fact that women expect to grow into No.5 as they grow up, positioning it as something to be looked up to and looked forward to. It’s justifiably referred to as iconic and the bottle is a symbol in its own right. With my perfumista head on, I’d say the fragrance itself is still held up as an exquisite piece of work and is highly respected (though not worshipped as reverentially as Guerlain’s Mitsouko).
Overall, I’d say Chanel have got a great piece of PR here but nothing that actually adds to their brand. Indeed, I think the scuzzy presentation and lack of glamour is detrimental. The Baz Luhrmann/Nicole Kidman advert was panned because it was so camp and overblown, and Nicole’s breathy “I’m a dancer!” line often comes up in sarcastic remarks on perfume blogs, but nonetheless it was visually stunning and glamorous. Gael García Bernal was ravishingly pretty and Nicole did her Moulin Rouge character Satine and wore fabulous gowns. Sadly for us and for Chanel, in this new ad, Brad isn’t ravishing in scarlet tulle. Hell, he doesn’t even do a good old Coco Mademoiselle gender-bender twist by dabbing a little No.5 on his own neck. This ad misses too many tricks and is too mediocre.
But as a copywriter, I’d like to shake the hand of whoever came up with the genius line: “Inevitable”.
Postscript
Ah. The day after I posted this, amid a great hoot and holler of comment online in all kinds of media as well as blogs, a follow-up was released. This features exactly what you’d expect of a Chanel ad: gloss, glam, gowns, global locations, and a massive floating bottle of perfume. It’s still not a great ad – it’s too chopped and incoherent to be anything more than just OK – but at least it is very evidently a luxe ad for a luxe product. Inevitable, indeed.October 2012