Sarah McCartney: Non-Aspirational Scents

Image of perfume bottles used in a blog post by Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays.
Image of perfume bottles used in a blog post by Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays.

Perfumer, Sarah McCartney’s observations on mainstream perfume advertising and how it plays on women’s desires and their insecurities.

Perfume advertising and branding is – 95% of the time – aspirational. Fragrances are attached to designers or to a celebrities and imply that if we just had this bottle, then we’d be a little more like a rich person, one step closer to their success.

Perfume companies rely on customers’ aspirations – their hopes that wearing a scent which is advertised by Johnny, or created for Justin or was once worn by Cary or designed with Tom in the room – will rub off on them. Brand owners launch a fragrance which is an abstract embodiment of their spirit. Spray on their scents and a sniff of their success comes as part of the package.

However, those perfumes’ sales are slowly but inexorably falling. Perhaps there are just too many. Perhaps they are gradually disconnecting from their customers’ worlds.

Then there are the niche brands whose perfume designers bang on about using terrifically expensive ingredients, or about their rich famous customers (who are quite often dead and unable to argue the facts, or royalty – Hollywood or traditional – and won’t stoop to argue), or rely on astonishingly costly packaging to get the point over. For the moment, these are growing.

Perfume houses with a history saw niche fragrance prices going up and decided to have a share of it; now you can find limited editions in smart stores of ranges which cost four or five times more than the same brands’ high street offerings. Either that or they buy their competitors. Often, niche brands are set up using venture capital funding with the intention of building a brand (without actually having to make any perfume themselves) and being bought out.

Designer and celeb brands tend to go in for fanciful, emotional persuasion: Truth or Dare, Sauvage, Twilight, Realities or Romance anyone? My absolute favourite abstractly named aspirational perfume is Marry Me.

Every now and again descriptive perfumes come into fashion again. Taking the gourmande trend to the max, we have Prada’s crossover from abstract to practical: Candy; it smells like sweeties. It’s popular because it smells familiar, and it absolutely nails it.

Gourmande fragrances smell like deserts. Why not? We like puddings. The rise and rise of the salted caramel fragrance has been an interesting trend to watch. (Salt has no smell, by the way, but salted caramel sounds groovier, don’t you think?)

Demeter / The Library of Fragrance has led the way in affordable “smells like the name” fragrances since in 1990s, some great (Playdoh), some middling (Jasmine) and one or two are appalling! (Pizza anyone?) Some border on novelty – Baby Powder, Waffles, and Dirt – but what they do is marvellous. You should all have some.

There are celebrity and designer fragrances which smell like puddings too, but they don’t go all out and say what they mean. They stick with the abstract aspirational names: Forever Glowing – a honey toffee from Jennifer Lopez, Fame – honey apricot from Lady Gaga in a bottle that looked like an alien egg, Royal Desire – mandarin, blackberry, marshmallow from Christina Aguilera.

This article first appeared on http://www.4160tuesdays.com/blog/ in May 2016.