Fragrances The War of the Noses

  • Tropical beach, blazing sun, men in white suits, winsome native children. A horse gallops along the shore as a light plane lazes overhead. A beautiful woman sits in a convertible, adored from afar, drenched in diamonds, caressed by a soft-focus camera. The plane lands, several dapper gents step out and launch a poker game. As the stakes escalate, the sexiest of them frets, "I'm a little short." The woman takes charge. "Not so fast," she says, removing a huge sparkler and tossing it onto the table. "These have always brought me luck," she purrs.

    The star of this semi-surreal video is Elizabeth Taylor, which is fortunate, since a lot is riding on the spot, dubbed "White Diamonds: The Movie." Cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden is gambling on Taylor's beauty, celebrity and legendary appetite for diamonds to launch its new perfume in the face of tough odds. Times are shaky in the $18.5 billion U.S. cosmetics and toiletries industry, yet no fewer than three giants are launching new fragrances this season, reportedly spending as much as $25 million each on advertising alone.

    With the floral White Diamonds competing against Estee Lauder's spicy SpellBound and Calvin Klein's fruity Escape, there will be no escaping the coming onslaught on the American nose. More than 70 million fragrance strips have been bound into magazines, and in department stores spray-happy models are out in force. This month's Elle arrived for 14,000 upscale subscribers looking like a bulbous videocassette -- which in fact it was. Lauder had pouched its TV promo for SpellBound in a sort of marsupial setup.

    This marketing mania is based on necessity. Department stores have traditionally been the point of sale for high-quality perfumes, but, as Lauder CEO Robin Burns observes, "the stores are in turmoil. You don't see so many consumers with shopping bags." Like many luxury goods, cosmetics have faltered in this recession. The aggressive, gotta-have-it-all mind-set of the 1980s has evaporated.

    Swept out of favor is the sexy image of '80s best sellers like Yves Saint Laurent's Opium and Klein's Obsession. The cry now is for romance. Lauder's ads for SpellBound simply show two people looking into each other's eyes. In a Vogue interview, Klein rhapsodized about days with his wife Kelly that have no edge and precious few events.

    Arden has the least anxiety about attracting customers because Taylor has just embarked on a national tour. "Bringing Elizabeth Taylor into a store is more than anyone else has to offer during a recession," says Arden vice president Clare Cain. The actress proved her merchandising powers with her first signature scent, Passion. Why does Liz's succeed while other celebrities' fragrances have failed? Arden CEO Joseph Ronchetti explains, "Liz Taylor is an individual that a lot of people will relate to. We've all known people with drinking problems, we've all had weight problems, and she's coped so beautifully." He adds, "And she is really an outstanding beauty." For those who grew up on National Velvet, that may be the most important factor of all.

    The race is on and will heat up as the holiday buying season approaches. The early advantage seems to go to Escape. "It's a killer," says Allen Burke of Dayton Hudson stores. "A runaway hit." But the three giants are most concerned with long-term sales and permanent market niches. That takes a big budget and intelligent strategy, which is more than what's behind many minor scents, including most celebrity and designer fragrances.

    The vessel that holds the fragrance obsesses designers. In the '20s, Coco Chanel cut hers from crystal in a severe, geometric shape, setting the standard for power bottles. At the time it spelled freedom and modernity to women, and it is still immediately identifiable. Now companies look for a mixture of old-fashioned quality and contemporary flair. Klein's pristine tube for Escape began in his mind as an appurtenance in an English travel case. Arden headed down to the rhinestone mines. For SpellBound, Lauder added a detachable atomizer, achieving a sort of nostalgic novelty. "Success is like a one-armed bandit," observes Pierre Dinand, a French designer who has created more than 300 perfume bottles, including those for SpellBound and Escape. "To succeed, you need to have a row of cherries. If you have four cherries and one banana, it's a flop."

    Each of the new elixirs sells for about $200 an ounce (with the lighter eau de toilette costing substantially less). The marketing truism is that perfume is an affordable luxury; the woman who can't afford a Chanel suit can buy the fragrance. But if romance is on the rise now, so is frugality. Says marketing consultant Carol Colman: "Consumers might question cutting off something for the kids in order to buy a bottle of perfume, when there are three or four on the dresser already."

    But those three or four are just what the industry is counting on. One 1980s legacy that no one is rejecting is the rise in popularity of a wardrobe of scents -- one for the office, another for evening, still others to match season or mood. Brand loyalty is virtually a thing of the past. In another trend, women are using men's scents increasingly, especially Armani, Calvin Klein's Eternity, Chanel's Egoiste and Guerlain's classic Vetiver.

    The perfume business today is a contest between commercial calculation and customer whim, with the marketers growing ever more sophisticated. But there are still a few wild cards in the poker game. This fall will also see the launch of Omar Sharif's signature scent for women, which will come in at $750 an ounce. For this whopping sum the customer gets a Baccarat crystal flacon and two refills a year for her life -- or the perfume's. Who knows? Four cherries and a banana? Or maybe a five-cherry row.