Niche Perfumes: Style, Substance and Finding the Balance

What is ‘niche’?

The dictionary defines the word thus:

1. a shallow recess, especially one in a wall to display a statue or other ornament.“each niche holding a shepherdess in Dresden china” synonyms: recess, alcove, nook, cranny, slot, slit, hollow, bay, cavity, cubbyhole, pigeonhole, opening, aperture…

2. a comfortable or suitable position in life or employment. “he is now head chef at a leading law firm and feels he has found his niche” synonyms: ideal position, calling, vocation, métier, place, function, job, slot, opportunity…

ECOLOGY a role taken by a type of organism within its community. “the niche left vacant by the disappearance of wolves”

3. a specialized but profitable segment of the market. “a niche market for quality food”

wall-niches

The word is being bandied about with increasing frequency within the perfume industry and because of this it seems to be losing some of it’s potency. Niche, for many people who love perfume, represents a company that solely produces scent; in small batches using quality ingredients. Niche means buying into exclusivity, of wearing a scent made by an artist dedicated to their craft.

There is also the assumption that a niche perfume will be special in ways that fragrance from a large company isn’t. It will be different, maybe even unique; it will step over the boundary from wearable perfume into art, to be spritzed on and marvelled over. Considering the price tag attached to many niche perfumes, the customer has come to expect all of the above mentioned plus exquisite packaging and a ’boutique shopping’ experience; be that physically or digitally via the company’s website.

This demand for something special, something other than what’s available at the counter of the department store, has led to a huge influx of ‘niche’ perfumes created by big brands, marketed to ooze luxury, quality and exclusivity but which in reality are no more ‘artisan’ than the mass produced offerings in the local chemist. Meanwhile, there are genuinely talented perfumers who feel they are struggling to carve out their own tiny niche within this larger ‘niche’, their product becoming overshadowed and wildly outsold by their wealthy competitors.

During the time that I have been writing this blog, I have come across many small brands, tentatively introducing the fruits of their labour to the market. As a rule I do not publish a review about a perfume that I have not enjoyed. Because most of my interest lies in discovering these truly niche companies, I somehow feel that in writing negatively I would be damaging the already tentative hold that has been established. I understand that there is a need for honest opinion, if the only reviews available on a perfume are positive then a potential customer can be led to a misguided purchase. I seek out what intrigues me and if I don’t like it I don’t review it. There are other exceptionally talented writers out there who are willing to be critical about a perfume; I don’t feel that I am one of them.

There is one particular factor that I do feel needs to be critically addressed however and that is the importance of product branding. As this blog evolves and I discover more about the industry, I find myself increasingly bewildered by extreme cases of style over substance. Even more frustrating is when the opposite happens; when a lovely perfume is branded poorly, the lack of aesthetic appeal leaves a lingering feeling that the scent is not somehow worth the money required to purchase it. The subjective nature of perfume does indeed extend to the way it is presented, as olfactive tastes differ; so does one’s idea of what is aesthetically pleasing. I feel strongly that there is no room in this cut throat industry for poor quality when it comes to branding. If a perfumer is proud of their creation then the huge amount of work that has gone into it should be evident to the customer in every aspect of the presentation.

Companies that have obviously placed priority on style and marketing over the quality of the actual perfume infuriate me. But I feel equally exasperated when I come across a lovely fragrance that looks like it’s packaging was made at the kitchen table; and not in a deliberately quirky, homespun way. As a reviewer I feel duty bound to sing it’s praises, help generate interest so that other people will discover that inside the cheap bottle there is a beautiful perfume just crying out to be worn and appreciated. But other people’s initial reactions will probably be the same as mine: The perfume doesn’t look like a luxury item, why does it cost so much? In much the same way that I feel begrudging towards cheap juice inside an expensive bottle, I wonder at the massive oversight made by some perfumers when it comes to the importance of presentation. Balance is required for both parties and I’d really like to see it happen more often.

So what steps can be taken to enable small businesses to find that balance on the increasingly slippery ladder to success? How does an artisan with a limited marketing budget get their product noticed? I can only answer this question from the perspective of a customer, former merchandiser and fragrance writer. I am by no means an experienced business woman and if I were a perfumer I would have lost my nerve long ago. This industry is brutal, it’s like haute couture fashion except even more subjective. The restrictions and regulations hanging over the heads of perfumers are increasingly inflexible. The cost of production is high so the price point in turn must be high. And it’s solitary work, hundreds of hours spent at the organ blending, re-blending, perfecting, pondering and deliberating.

It takes a pretty spectacular individual to create, package and sell their product successfully and it’s very true that not all artists are good communicators. The process of making a scent, conveying emotion and mood through olfaction is an art form; actually selling that art is a whole different ball game and requires a different approach. Not every artist is a salesperson. It would also be true to say that some of the most effective salespeople have little real appreciation for the product they they are touting. They may have no artistic flair at all. Companies trying to relaunch a once established name, or those whose first thought for their business was how they wanted their product to look before it has even been created would also benefit from a little more balance; beautiful packaging will be enough for some but it will never convince the connoisseur.

Those perfumers inexperienced at sales and those working with a limited budget can find their scents woefully overlooked because the branding isn’t strong enough to hold it’s own. Without the help of designers and PR people, that beautiful perfume might never sell to it’s full potential. On the other hand, perfumes that are placed into the hands of salespeople who care very little for the juice they are marketing will most likely be unable to convey the message that is intended by the perfumer. As scent is so subjective, package and market it wrongly and it’s illusive beauty will be scrubbed out by inappropriate branding.

The saying ‘never judge a book by it’s cover’ springs to mind here, but in this fast paced age of instant gratification it is becoming a more and more outdated concept. Until the invention of digital smellovision it will be impossible to convey the contents of a bottle of perfume without first offering the customer guidance via it’s wrappings. For small niche perfumers this is even more important because the price point of the fragrance is so high and their own marketing budgets are often very limited. There are no megastars available to pose seductively, eyes closed in rapturously golden photoshopped billboards. The truly niche companies have to give their customers another reason to consider spending upwards of £100 on a bottle of perfume, before they have even smelt it. People are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to spending. Luxury items need to be dazzling.

Dazzling doesn’t have to mean blingy. Nothing says quality better than chic simplicity. As a customer I believe it only takes five things to make a good perfume stand out from the crowd: a beautiful bottle; crisp, excellent quality packaging; clear photography; engaging copy and the opportunity to sample.

The bottle and it’s box are the first physical contact a customer has with a scent. It needs to be a tactile experience, one which will encourage them to remove the lid and inhale the scent within. Shape, weight and colour should all be taken into consideration. The customer will be imagining that bottle in their own home, sitting on the dresser or in the bathroom cabinet; a luxury item, the finishing touch to their daily beauty routine.

The logo should be artistic without compromising clarity so that the customer can actually read the name of the brand. I believe simplicity is always most effective because it allows for a diverse range of tastes to become intrigued by the contents of the bottle. If the budget doesn’t allow for expensive embossing or colouring on the packaging then the typography should be strong enough to convey quality and luxury on its own. The same applies for the website. Simple, strong graphics and accessibility far outweigh the need for fancy Flash animations.

Photography should be professional, artfully shot and above all it should express the mood of the fragrance. The visual identity of a perfume will stay in a customer’s mind as they take their first sniff. As most niche perfumes are only available in a select number of boutiques, the majority of custom will come via the internet; therefor the imagery of a brand has to entice and excite the customer’s eyes before it can excite their nose.

Information about the company, it’s ethos and descriptions of the perfume is entirely personal to the creators and therefor is perhaps the most subjective aspect of all. As a customer I like to know about the personalities behind the brand, their motivations and inspirations. I like to see a note listing, however vague it might be; I also prefer a concise description of the scent without too much elaboration. (As a writer I tend to go off on my own creative, sometimes obscure tangents about a perfume and I find that easier to do when my own interpretation isn’t coloured by lots of flowery prose. I appreciate that this is personal to me and will not apply to the majority of customers.)

The main reason I am able to write this blog is because I can purchase samples. I live in a sleepy little corner of the UK where perfumeries are few and far between. I cannot simply wander into town to get my fix. I believe making samples available for purchase via the website is an essential part of selling a fragrance and they should be presented to an equally high standard. Sampling always feels to me like a kind gesture from the perfumer, it say’s “try this, I hope you like it.” It encourages a return visit. Personal touches are very much appreciated, as long as it’s done with elegance and style.

I feel I should state again that I am no business woman and I can only imagine the difficulties of establishing a brand in such a crowded industry. I can simply offer the perspective of a merchandiser and writer who is constantly searching for new scents to inspire me. I’m bewitched by aesthetics almost as much as I am by perfume. For me the two are closely linked. As a customer I want the whole package; the luxury, the feeling that I own something special; beautifully crafted and presented to reflect the amount of money I have paid for it. When I buy a bottle of perfume it is not a throwaway purchase, it’s a treat I can afford myself only a few times a year. I don’t want to regret that purchase, I want to enjoy every single spritz from beginning to end and I want to save the empty bottle because it’s just too lovely to dispose of. I don’t believe I am alone in wanting all those things from a perfume.

I believe that’s what it takes to create long lasting success, that and lots of shouting on social media sites. Word of mouth has incredible power these days. As long as the perfume can deliver what it promises then why wouldn’t people want to buy it? Looks can only carry a brand so far though, at the end of the day if the juice is of a poor quality then the truth will out eventually. I want to see more talent shining though while the glamorous facade falls away in tatters. I want to see importance placed in the right areas: If the brand is strong then make sure the perfume matches it; if the scent is glorious, dress it appropriately. I have enormous respect for those who have already struck the perfect balance, I am grateful to be on the receiving end of all your hard work.

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4 thoughts on “Niche Perfumes: Style, Substance and Finding the Balance

  1. I agree with most of the points you’ve made in the post but I have a couple of thoughts I want to add.

    In my opinion, indie brands (where a perfumer is a company owner) that do not position their perfumes as luxury goods (read “charge reasonable price”) are exempt from the expectations I have for luxury brands. I might be fine with a really simple packaging from such brands – as long as their perfumes are good. But if a brand charges arm and leg for the bottle of their super-niche perfume I expect it to be on the level of any other luxury goods. The juice itself still matters the most but if I see poorly executed packaging I start thinking where else in the production process details didn’t matter to that brand.

    1. I totally agree with you Undina.

      This article is focused on companies that charge upwards of £100 for their perfume. I agree that one does start to wonder what else isn’t up to standard if the packaging is poor.

      Indie perfumers are yet another subset to add to this already complicated structure. I believe that if a perfumer is going to sell their product then the quality of the packaging, however simple, should still be excellent. It doesn’t take a lot of money to market a brand successfully, it just takes a particular way of thinking and as I mentioned on my article, not all artists find communicative sales easy. There is a marked difference in a customers attitude when it comes to luxury items yet it only takes a few extra tweaks and some careful thinking to raise a product’s identity from homespun to high end. If the perfume is good then why shouldn’t it be able to compete with the big boys?

      I don’t have a lot of money to spend so I often find myself steered towards perfumes with a reasonable price tag. Perfume is a luxury item for me whether it’s £40 a bottle or £240, it’s all relative. I still want that £40 bottle of perfume to look AND smell great. There is still no excuse for poor branding, it just doesnt have to be so expensively done.

  2. ‘I understand that there is a need for honest opinion, if the only reviews available on a perfume are positive then a potential customer can be led to a misguided purchase.’

    I am a big believer in this, because I don’t think that readers of blogs who only find glowing reviews of a perfume will automatically think: ‘Ah, but there are probably a load of other bloggers who have hung back from writing anything negative but who didn’t in fact like this one’. I think readers are more likely to spring for the much hyped scent that may in fact garner so many good reviews that no one dares prick the bubble.

    On the packaging front, I can think of niche brands in a mid-range pricewise that would benefit from a smarter bottle, which is what I think is holding them back. To be honest, I thought Shay & Blue had perhaps spent a disproportionate amount on ‘the look’ rather than the juice, but the packaging and marketing were amazing! Even if I had liked more of the range, the low price was slightly unsettling to me and almost didn’t fit with the gorgeous presentation, which was easily as nice as Penhaligon’s. Which begs another question in fact – how much do you have to charge to be credible as ‘niche’?

    1. Hi Vanessa,

      You’ve raised some really interesting points!

      Firstly, I find writing negative reviews tricky for a number of reasons: It’s not that I’m particularly afraid of ‘pricking the bubble’ and more that my reviews tend to be a little (read ‘a lot’) on the whimsical side and I just don’t think that my style of writing really suits overly critical or negative wording. I know I can’t control who visits my blog but hopefully those who do read it will come because they know what to expect from me. Those on a first visit might take one glance at the style and understand that this blog is more about storytelling than critical reviewing. That’s what Kafka’s blog is for and few could do it better.

      Secondly; Shay and Blue did indeed look very beautiful for the surprisingly low price tag I agree. I also agree that until I had spends some time wearing the scents I was wondering what the quality would be like. I really love the simplicity of the perfumes, they are kind of honest don’t you think? The packaging is lovely but it’s not over the top and flashy or blingy. It just says chic to me. The price was a wonderful surprise for someone like me who just can’t afford to buy most of the perfume that I really love. Shay and
      Blue is attainable AND pretty AND I genuinely enjoy the fragrances. It’s a win win situation for me there.

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