Monday, September 7, 2009

Market Driven

Wondering why more and more mainstream fragrances keep getting worse and worse?

In this article, Chandler Burr discusses the not-so-new technology and sales survey methods that have been tailored to the fragrance industry in recent years.

Hmmmm. I have a hunch. (A “hunch” by my definition is a mysterious process by which a human mind -- one human, ideally -- will put together a vague, amorphous idea or decision, based on knowledge gleaned from different disciplines, along with specialized experience and a little time to think.) “Hunches,” aka “creativity,” are where the good stuff comes from -- or did, once.

I worked in the late, lamented music business, leaving it as it abandoned its own lifeblood: the discovery of new, the cultural catalyst, by way of the hunch. It’s now the realm of marketeers, focus groups, lawyers and bean-counters. I can’t help but see many parallels between that now-moribund business and the modern fragrance industry.

The first clang of music’s funeral bell was “Soundscan,” a Neilsen-owned ratings system whereby actual sales figures could be transmitted to subscribers from cash registers, instead of depending on verbal or written reports from stores. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s all just product, right?

Not necessarily. The reporting process bought time. It was essential to what was called “artist development,” which gave the artists some room to, well, develop; to get better, in other words. Groundbreaking talent was given time by way of a certain amount of industry hyping. Clerks had time to talk up good music and play it in the store. The ground was laid at the niche outlets, and only then was it taken to mainstream. All of this gave authentic word-of-mouth time to spread, which could take years. Now, it’s all about how many units sold last week.

Madonna is one example. Her first record was in the process of failing spectacularly, because only “urban” (read: black) radio would play it -- she sounded black on that album -- but, when they discovered she wasn’t, they backed off. “Pop” (read: white) radio wouldn’t play her because they thought she sounded too black. It was a social, and commercial, Catch-22.

The president of Madonna’s label wasn’t willing to give up on her that easily. He’d had a hunch about this snotty girl. He instructed everyone: keep trying. Don’t take “no.” Call in your favors. Buy some time while we figure out what to do. And during that time -- a few months -- the “Lucky Star” video appeared, and the nascent MTV began playing it. Within a year, Madonna was the biggest star in the world.

What would happen now?

That first record would have died. No one would know it had ever existed. It would slip into the not-urban not-pop chasm without a sound. Without impressive Soundscan figures, the corporate Suits would have forbidden any more spending. No more videos, no tour, no appearances. At the next marketing meeting -- four weeks later -- the record would have been declared a “stiff.” Next!

This dragon-swallowing-its-own-tail strategy of selling only what has already sold has been responsible, imho, for the rise of so much shoddy, market-driven music.

(If Madonna isn’t your favorite example of success based on a hunch, consider Bruce Springsteen: both of his first two records stiffed and the overheated p.r. for the third -- “Born to Run” -- caused a consumer backlash that took years to fade. Still, Springsteen’s label stuck with him, because the man who found him had time to keep the Suits at bay. Today, Bruce would be driving a truck.)

The Burr article says also that this polling research -- which includes exit polling on why-did-you-buy -- is expensive, so much so that only the big boys can afford it. The retailers, of course, want to minimize their risk; they want those sales figures and will only deal with manufacturers who can supply them. This neatly cuts out the innovative, the niche, the indie, the hunch.

Furthermore, once there is a chart, everybody wants to be on it; this company, NPD, has established a “Top 100” (sound familiar)? To get on this Top 100 list, companies will do whatever it takes, including more trade and consumer advertising, more point-of-purchase, celebrity shills, whatever; the money has to come from somewhere. Where does it come from? The cost of production, of course! The quality of the ingredients that can be used, in other words, to make the fragrance itself. Expensive, hard-to-source ingredients are doomed. Well, they were anyway; as of the reformulation deadline, January 2010, the bean-counters will have had their way, all in the name of It’s pretty impressive, when you think about it.

Market-driven: right into the ground.

It’s not just fragrance, or music, or movies. It’s everything.

Why did we become so afraid to take a chance?

*you may have to register with the New York Times to access the article. It’s free, and if you don’t like giving them your demographic info, hey...just make the stuff up.

Photo composite by Olfacta; all rights reserved.


ScentScelf said...

Sing it, Olfacta.

Good heavens, I remember Soundscan entering the picture. Right around the time Wayne Huizenga was looking for "content," and purchased a sports team, right? Zoiks.

Market-driven has entered the way of things to the point where audience surveys...erm, parent polls...have actually driven the curriculum content and structuring at more than one school I know of. Forget hunches...even expertise and knowledge, those factors which are often the bedrock of hunches, but don't have the quick creative mojo, are being dismissed in favor of what's the top answer on a Family Feud-like poll of the audience.

Give the woman what she wants, said Marshall gum, there is a customer service element to retail...BUT...there is no need to water down a something into a dreckless inoffensive nothing just because it will draw the biggest neutral numbers.

I think maybe being afraid to take a chance is tied to no longer being okay to be wrong sometimes. Important to be understood by all--and that understanding needs to happen without any need to enlighten. Your burger will be exactly the same, no matter what franchise you walk into. You all pass the class.

Your clothes don't fit, and you have no identity, but by gum, the kids are alright.

Olfacta said...

Absolutely. You're in education, have I guessed correctly? Add to this that employment has become so draconian that everyone's afraid to be wrong -- sticking your neck out simply gets your head chopped off. Who was it who said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee? All the designers' self-esteem remains intact, whether it deserves to be or not.

ScentScelf said...

Yes, I have been in education in two iterations, "academia" and independent schools. And arts/non-profit, and the corporate world. It's been a delightfully long, forky road.

(Just deleted a whole bunch else to day, because essentially it's a lot of) Unh-huh. :)

Original ideas are in danger. I think that's one reason why I pretend to have the budget for Malle fragrances, and so appreciate an indie like Liz Zorn/Roxana Villa/Laurie Erickson, who you know are applying a creative vision to their fragrance. Not that the hard-working faceless folk at IFF don't try, but they do have to work around the "consumer data."

Anonymous said...

One of the best analyses I've seen of the way in which an art or an artistic business sinks into a wide shallow sea of mediocrity. Thanks, Olfacta.
-- Gretchen

Rappleyea said...

Do I hear an AMEN!! Brilliant analysis. But I'd like to respectfully disagree with your closing question. I think that question should be "Why did we sell our souls?" When did money become more important than art and creativity?

Thank you for such an insightful post.

Olfacta said...

Thanks, Gretchen!

Olfacta said...

Hi Donna -- I wonder sometimes if our culture's dirty little secret is that we don't have enough money to live the way we've been convinced we deserve to live. Hence nobody seems to have enough. Add that to little or no real education (see ScentSelf's post), dumbed-down mass media -- the makers of which are laughing at their audiences all the way to the bank -- and you have an empire of negotiable souls that can be had cheap.