Has the fragrance industry jumped the shark?

Fragrance Industry

Has the fragrance industry jumped the shark?

I’m reminded recently that it wasn’t very long ago when I wrote a blog on fragrances. It challenged conventional wisdom. It was controversial. But I’ve no regrets about having undertaken the endeavor, and no sense of loss about ending it. Since ending it, I’ve had a somewhat jaded feeling about the direction of the industry and lack of innovation.

Since I stopped publishing the site last year, I’ve kept some tabs on the fragrance marketplace hoping for something that would provide a “must-buy” for me. My own collection is rather sizable and adding to it means that I need something not already represented. That’s a challenge for most people, and especially one for the enthusiast. To that end, I stopped buying until I’d found something truly worthwhile. Something that bespeaks the right sense of creativity, the appropriate polishing touches, and an end-result that inspires me to make what is normally an impulsive purchase for many people.

Fragrance IndustryAnd it’s no surprise to learn that nothing comes to mind.

That’s right. Nothing at all.

It means I’m either difficult to please or exceptionally jaded. Or perhaps both. Or it’s simply a statement on the fragrance industry that they’ve not really moved the needle much in the past few years on breaking new scents or trends. Five years ago, the trend was summed up in one word: Oud. It was the element everyone needed to include, define, interpret, or offer as a selection in their line, and nearly every niche player in the fragrance market jumped on the bandwagon. And it was played more often than the current formulaic pop-song until every offering in every season offered up one ingredient: Oud.

Jumping the shark

Imagine for a moment that you’ve been tasked with operating a successful restaurant. Before someone suggests, “Yes, people run successful steakhouses everywhere using Aged Prime Beef and they make very decent money in doing so,” I’ll point out that I’ll agree with that statement. On the other hand, every restaurant hasn’t become a steakhouse simply because it’s worked for a few places that have a great reputation. And fragrance isn’t steak, but bear with the analogy. Because in that restaurant you’re being tasked with the use of a single ingredient in every creative way possible. Let’s suppose that ingredient is a parsley root. You already have the parsley and need to use the rest of the vegetable somehow. And you’ve heard that someone has come up with several items on a menu using the ingredient — parsley root soup, parsley root fries, mashed parsley root with heirloom potatoes…you get the idea. It’s been so ignored that discovering the versatility is eye-opening.

Now let’s suppose that you’ve jumped on this trend, gotten some mileage, and others are finding slightly different uses for the lowly root vegetable as well. Soon, everyone is offering up some variation of parsley root in nearly every dish.

“Please mom, not parsley root again! That’s the 5th night in a row!”

Fragrance IndustryParsley root becomes the equivalent of turkey the 3rd or 4th day after Thanksgiving. You’ve been there, done that, and you’re ready to call for delivery from the local pizzeria. But since you refuse to use anything else, your parsley root, much like holiday turkey and Oud, has become your signature and whether your customers still desire it or not, you’re trying to reinvent it or simply looking for more customers who haven’t yet had their fill of it.

This is the perspective I’m noticing on the fragrance industry, specifically the niche market. It’s become so drunk from the success of one ingredient that it’s forgotten how to innovate and struggling to find that next Holy Grail to replace Oud. Too much of a good or bad thing is just too much. Period. Those who recall the episode of the TV Series “Happy Days” may recall the episode in which Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli agrees to a motorcycle stunt in which he rides his motorcycle over a tank containing a live shark. That was the turning point where the series ran off the rails and lost its viewership. It might have continued but viewers became so disenchanted that afterward, all that was to be written was the eventual epitaph. Ergo, the phrase of “jumped the shark” came to be, and everything overdone has been since associated.

Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.

Readers, we’re over Oud. It’s had its moment, but the train has left the station and moved on. There isn’t much more imaginable with Oud without the infamous “jump the shark” entering the description. Elvis, or in this case Oud, has indeed left the building. And the new stagnancy of the fragrance industry is now realizing that. Those who have a favorite variation are not likely to be swayed. Anyone late to the party will have missed all the good jokes, the last magnum of champagne, and the memorable events that will be the insider story that they didn’t see firsthand. Oud gave the niche market fire. And Oud burned it out from becoming largely derivative of too many other fragrances in the market using the ingredient.

It would be easy if that were the entire story. It’s not. And the tough times for perfumers that are emerging certainly haven’t come as a surprise.

Fragrance IndustryThe sad fact is that people aren’t buying, and the saturation of that small niche community of enthusiasts — the one that hasn’t considerably grown from its core — hasn’t helped. The commercial market is saturated as well, without much room for smaller players. There aren’t many people left, leaving lean times for those who weren’t crafting their next act while the Oud-intermission was playing. And people I still know in the marketing end of the industry don’t have much solace to offer, since many of the current products just aren’t catching fire. And consumers are played out.

While unfortunate, this came as little surprise, at least to me. After years of collecting, there’s no ‘next’ act, and I’m left enjoying what I’ve collected. Everything else eventually becomes merely comparative. So many are still savoring their own collections and have probably arrived to similar conclusions. Commercially popular mainstream fragrances have proven moribund and dead-common, lacking in quality. And now the niche segments of the market have fallen short on innovation. It’s been time for something else to breakthrough and no one’s yet nailed that.

The United States is notoriously a very tough market for the fragrance industry due to our expectations for specific value and quality. As I heard years ago from perfumers in conversations, we have certain expectations before parting with over $200 for a bottle of imported fragrance. The bottle needs to be unique, the packaging needs to show quality and finesse in the presentation, and the overall scent experience needs to be captivating. It’s a sad epitaph in returning some time after my departure to find a landscape that hasn’t fundamentally changed.

Even worse? The artistry and innovation are absent. It leaves me with one parting thought: Where’s that vision that once existed and will it return?

Managing Editor