Monday, September 7, 2009
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 protecting...us. 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.