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Speaking the Language of Beauty

Kevin Marshall
  • Exceptional packaging is a brand’s single most effective frontline tool to create an immediate and emotional connection with a consumer.
  • A fragrance bottle needs to provide the brand team with an appropriate platform on which to build a total sensorial experience, across many consumer touch points.
  • Designing and manufacturing a bold and exciting statement commensurate with a brand’s positioning can pay off for the long term.
  • Synergy between market insight and creativity will be key to launching new and meaningful products.

Through the ages, the expansive art of creating perfumes and their valuable bottles has been enchanting the aesthetically and sybaritically inclined among us. It’s safe to say that long ago fragrances and their unique vessels firmly took root in our modern consciousness as a romantic, and often iconic, art form.

But if we’re to take the Roman historian Pliny’s word at face value, glass, by far the most widely and creatively utilized material for designing beautiful fragrance bottles, had humble beginnings—it was accidentally discovered by a group of hungry sailors on a Phoenician beach. The crew started a fire in order to prepare food and decided to use some cargo to support their cooking utensils. As luck (and history) would have it, that cargo was natrum, a subcarbonate of soda. The heat of the fire beneath the blocks of natrum began to melt the substance, and combined with the sand on the beach, voila, formed a rudimentary type of glass. Never in their wildest dreams could those hungry shipmen have realized that their “discovery” would ultimately, centuries later, lead to the craft of perfume bottle design as we know it. They got a hot meal, and the rest of us a mind-boggling gamut of historical and provocative bottles to cherish and enjoy. Not a bad bargain.

Fast forward to 2012, and launching a successful fragrance program not only involves art and craft—it involves science, consumer insight, media awareness and, as always, fresh ideas. Of course, gorgeously executed bottles in amazing materials (glass or otherwise) and great secondary packaging are critical must-haves. In fact, considering that nearly 80% of all purchase decisions are made in-store or at counter, exceptional packaging is a brand’s single most effective frontline tool to create an immediate and emotional connection with a consumer. And connect it must.

Creative professionals are charged with designing engaging, compelling packaging that embodies a brand’s positioning, as well as delight its target audience in new and meaningful ways. Today, consumers expect more from their products, and fragrance packaging—like all packaging—must simply work harder.

Of course, a fragrance bottle needs to effectively represent the fragrance it contains, but it also needs to provide the brand team with an appropriate platform on which to build a total sensorial experience, across many consumer touch points if need be. A tall order, but the good news is that when it’s done well, consumers respond. According to Karen Young, president of The Young Group, the prestige fragrance sector was on the rebound in 2011, with U.S. business back up to pre-recession levels (at approximately $2.79 billion). And while total global unit fragrance consumption (in prestige and mass) was still down in 2011 compared to the 1990s, fine, prestige and mid-tier fragrance markets all showed signs of growth.

Fueling the Upsurge

What’s fueling this upsurge? Newness, as always, is driving the market, but celebrity fragrances, in particular, had a very strong showing in 2011 (the category grew, according to some analysts, approximately 57% in prestige in 2011). As one would expect with celebrity-based brands, innovative, on-point packaging is a major factor in creating an impactful fragrance experience—especially when a star’s name is fronting the program. Needless to say, it’s imperative to inherently capture a celebrity’s DNA when creating her bottle. The package design and full spectrum of branding elements must represent who this person is as an artist and personality, otherwise it will lack credibility and authenticity. It must speak the language of beauty as well.

Recent standouts in this category are Beyonce’s Pulse and Madonna’s Truth or Dare. The Pulse packaging is strong, tall and striking. The bottle stands inverted on its cap, which is executed in sharp, shiny silver and reminiscent of a dramatic gown or cape the singer might wear onstage. It’s a great marriage of theater, attitude and celeb appeal. The bottle is memorable, and equally important, it beckons the consumer to pick it up and try the product.

Madonna is known for her vast collection of perfumes and genuine interest in fragrance, and word has it she collaborated heavily in the creation of her Truth or Dare line. The packaging is contemporary and sexy, and possesses a rich, albeit minimal, color palette of white and gold. Part of the program rationale was to create something that reflects the provocative duality in human nature—and the bottle does just that by striking a balance between sophistication and edginess (the studded cap and bottle certainly add to the edginess). Like Madonna, the bottle seems to send multiple, often dichotomous messages simultaneously—which is exactly the point.

Other notables are Justin Bieber’s Someday, which has amazing market presence due not in small part to his existing fanbase and the brand’s savvy use of multiple media outlets, and Taylor Swift’s Wonderstruck, which makes good use of new decoration technology, namely a holographic/iridescent overspray and tint technique perfected by SGD.

Regardless of whose name is on the bottle, one thing is clear: According to Virginia Lee, senior research analyst at Euromonitor International, companies feel that celebrity fragrances are a great way to reach younger consumers, and the market’s appetite for these types of products doesn’t appear to be abating. That’s excellent news for package designers and brand owners alike.

The Classics

At the opposite end of the “What’s New and Hot” spectrum are “The Classics.” Interestingly, classic fragrances and big, feminine florals are re-emerging as important consumer destinations. According to The Young Group, well-conceived, strong floral fragrances totaled just over 50% of the market in 2011, and a look at some of the top performing brands will underscore what a critical investment creative and engaging packaging and branding can be. Christian Dior’s J’Adore (and its various incarnations) continues to spellbind, and with that beautifully feminine bottle, those elegant Galianoesque metallic neck rings and smooth, jewel-like cap, it’s no surprise.

The legend and allure of Chanel continues to resonate, as both Coco Mademoiselle and the perennially iconic Chanel No. 5 were among top sellers in 2011. Both maintain momentum as they currently rank in the Top 20 on Givaudan iPerfumer’s “Top 20 Feminine Rated Fragrances (USA), January through March 2012” and Chanel’s Coco Mile’s popularity is quickly growing. It is no coincidence that beautifully designed packaging that consistently communicates a brand’s core messages (in this instance elegance, classicism and bold femininity) continues to captivate the market’s attention. Creative consistency and clarity counts. Naturally, it goes without saying that the scents within the bottles have much to do with a brand’s continued success, but without compelling packaging that speaks succinctly to the consumer, any brand’s chances of success (even an iconic brand like Chanel) diminish.

A few other classic fragrances with firm market traction are Estée Lauder’s Beautiful (whose simple and quietly feminine packaging still feels modern) and Thierry Mugler’s Angel.

Many years ago while walking the factory floor at a leading glass house, I happened upon the technicians painstakingly producing the Angel bottle. Sharp, dramatic and immediately recognizable, it’s no wonder the brand is still doing well today. It is proof positive that designing and manufacturing a bold and exciting statement commensurate with a brand’s positioning can pay off for years (and decades) to come. Taking risks has its rewards. 

As the branding paradigm becomes more complex and consumers’ expectations of designed experiences expand, packaging and its functional (as well as emotional) benefits will become increasingly important to address. In today’s high-stakes, billion-dollar global luxury market, a brand looking to establish itself (or maintain market share) needs to maximize every possible advantage at its disposal. Exceptional packaging and crisp messaging now matter more than ever, particularly in a business as fiercely competitive as fragrance.

With spending on the upswing, brand teams must continue to be nimble, sensitive and aware of their consumers’ needs and desires. Synergy between market insight and creativity will be key to launching new and meaningful products, and advanced materials, new technologies and the cross-pollination of lifestyle influences will allow designers to stretch like never before, all in hopes of delivering an exceptional brand experience. And creating those experiences is what will keep consumers coming back, time and again.

Kevin Marshall is the vice president and creative director of Marc Rosen Associates.

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