2020 . 05 . 19 | written by Karen Marin

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Following the release of his 2019 annual fragrance report, I had the pleasure of speaking with industry icon Michael Edwards in April by way of a Zoom chat, he in Sydney and me in Paris. Michael shared personal recollections, fragrant memories, observations on the fragrance industry and a few predictions for the future.

Michael, please tell me what are your earliest memories of fragrance?
I must have always been intrigued by fragrance but never realized it. I remember back in school, I went to a Jesuit boy’s school, so fragrance wasn’t something you readily admitted to, but I remember buying a hair oil, Mitcham’s English Lavender. I thought the smell was amazing!
And I do remember in my early days buying fragrance for my mother because I thought she would love it. She wore Chanel N°5 but mostly Soir de Paris by Bourjois.

When did you first realize you were passionate about fragrances?
It was accidental. I was among the first generation of marketing people in the 1960’s who became intrigued by the power of fragrance. It was a time when mass marketing and FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods), new materials and active ingredients were hitting us all the time. And the problem was, as soon as you created a product around a magic new ingredient the competition would copy it or take it one step better. Against that background, we became intrigued by the mysterious power of perfume. I was working on shampoos at the time and I remember that we would change the fragrances quite frequently. Sometimes we found in consumer testing that people told us that the product had been improved when all we’d done was to change the perfume! It made no sense! And that was when I really became intrigued by the power of scent.

Can you share with me some memories from your days in marketing?
I had studied to be a biochemist and loathed it. I’d heard that marketing was the place to be because you got to play golf and take every Wednesday off. I never did learn to play golf and I never took a Wednesday off! But yes, it was a great time to be in marketing, during the same period as that television series Mad Men.
I worked for Lancaster cosmetics for a while and I remember papering my little office with Revlon ads, Fire & Ice and stuff like that. Marketing was exploding then, and I was mesmerized by advertising. I remember Intimate by Revlon, intrigued by the claim that it was one of the world’s 7 great fragrances. Funny though, I never discovered what the other six were! I plastered my office with all the fragrance ads, but cut off the brand name and changed them around, sticking the fragrance name from one ad onto a competitive ad. I waited for a month to see who noticed. Only one colleague did, and that convinced me that 90% of brand advertising doesn’t work!

You were born in Malawi, you have lived in the UK, Australia, Malta, France and the US, and perhaps elsewhere. Do you have fragrance memories associated to these places and moments in your life?
Yes, very much so. I remember when I was on assignment in South Africa for an 18-month period an old friend invited me to his beachside cottage on a gorgeous empty beach in the Maldives. I remember for my birthday I had been given a bottle of Carven’s Vetiver – the original, not the recycled one of today. I think it was the After Shave and that was important because it was a light scent. I probably would have been intimidated by a cologne. Oh, that smell I can conjure it up today and it brings back memories.
I remember going to Paris in 1967 on the way to going to work in England. I bought two fragrances: Eau Sauvage from Dior and Habit Rouge by Guerlain. I bought them for myself, I didn’t have a girl then. Subsequently Jo, who is now my wife; loathed Habit Rouge so I could only wear it when I wasn’t with her, but Eau Sauvage remains one of my favorites to this day.
I remember in Paris in 1992 being hit by Feminité du Bois. I was at the launch and although the name suggests something feminine it was not. It was the most magnificent scent experience. It was extremely unique for the time. Christopher Sheldrake and Pierre Bourdon had created four variations which they used to launch at the Palais Royal boutique. One of them – Bois de Violette, to this day I’m still using that, it’s an incredible twist on Feminité du Bois.

I know you are a gourmet and a fantastic cook. Does your love of fragrance contribute to culinary creativity?
You’re very sweet to call me a gourmet. I enjoy food and funny enough I think as I get older I enjoy comfort food more and more. If I didn’t have food I think I would be a very boring person and may even come to the point where I fell out of love with perfume. I’m not sure one influences the other. When I’m cooking, when I’m eating, I’m totally wrapped up in that and I’m not thinking about perfume.. The sensory experience that is the most important for me is the taste!

Let’s get back to your career. How did you go from working in marketing to creating Fragrances of the World?
In the beginning, I knew nothing about perfume – it was a jumble of smells until I went on a workshop with Firmenich in 1975. They had a technical guide called the Bouquet de la Parfumerie and it was my first exposure to the classification of the fragrance families. I would take the guide into stores and smell different fragrances and compare. It taught me an enormous amount. I’d become more and more intrigued by the power of the families. About a year later I went into prestige marketing for Halston based in Paris. Firmenich stopped producing their guide in 1978, and by 1981 I wrote to them and asked if they would allow me to revive it, help me to condense it and let me put it out to my staff around the world. Which they kindly did. It was quite technical, and I don’t think we did much training on it. But even with that, for the first time the fragrance staff had something they could sink their teeth into to help them understand what they were selling.
At around this time new world wines from Australia, Argentina and America were taking sales away from old world wines. They’d taken away the complexity and made it easier to understand by Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and such. I suddenly thought if that works for wine, why wouldn’t it work for fragrance? And that’s how I started.
I put together a fragrance workshop to try to explain to retailers, their staff, and the brands, what the fragrance families were about and how it worked. Well, my one problem was I didn’t have a booklet to give them. So that is why in 1984 I started my first guide, the precursor to Fragrances of the World.

Looking back to 1984, how many fragrances were launched then and how many in 2019? At what point did the launch volume explode and, in your opinion, why?
In 1984 there were 29 new fragrances and last year was just over 2000! The explosion came in the 90’s but let’s look at the history. Remember Charlie in 1972 had a huge impact but relatively few retailers. Then came Opium in 1977. Even then, retailers held back. Fragrance was interesting but wasn’t too important. Upscale department stores were in the business of selling clothes. Makeup, skincare, fragrances were considered an accessory. But by then end of the 70’s to early 80’s, women were the prime audience for buying fragrance. And in 1981 came the launch of Giorgio. For me that was the pivotal change. Retailers measure their categories by their ability to bring customers through the door and their ability to make stock turn. Giorgio did both. Stock turn was unbelievable. Suddenly fragrance became a core product. However, Giorgio initiated a vicious cycle where launches had to produce volume to anniversary last year’s sale.

And what is the background behind flankers. Why do you think brands go down this route as opposed to supporting the original scent?
The flankers came about because of the exploding cost of developing and marketing new fragrances. The idea in the 90’s became pervasive that to get a successful perfume you had to ensure it had wide appeal. But only a few fragrances succeeded. That meant marketeers were constantly trying to come up with something that would extend the life of their investment. And so, flankers were born. The first one came quite by accident, from Escada with Chiffon Sorbet (1993). Initially it was a lovely idea.

Looking at the annual launch report, we can see that fragrances classified as “shared” will quite soon double in number compared to what was launched only 5 years ago. To what would you attribute this trend?
There is nothing new about unisex. It goes back to Jicky (1889) from Guerlain. The one that really changed the whole métier was cK one from Calvin Klein in 1994. That was about the time that niche fragrances were starting to take off, and one of the problems was “who are you going to market to?”. The early niche brands such as L’Artisan Parfumeur and Annick Goutal had separate masculine and feminine fragrances but they were happy to sell to either sex. So, the idea came about that fragrances were shared. From a marketing and inventory viewpoint, it made a lot more sense. Whether it was an idea born out of convenience or out of conviction, it was ultimately a result of common sense.
However, having said that, in the big wide world, men are men and women are women and that’s why, with the major brands, you continue to see separate masculine and feminine fragrances. It also gives them the opportunity to launch two fragrances instead of one – two shots at the cherry. I can’t see that they are easily going to give up that opportunity.
As niche develops more and more, the shared concept will continue to evolve. We see it already for the luxury niche offerings. They are all mostly shared.

Another category that has grown exponentially over the years is niche. Where does the fascination with niche come from?
For me I’ve said before that we live in the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times is that niche gives us a nursery school for new brands. Some are good, some are serious, many have no idea, others are opportunistic, and occasionally, a new brand with a great concept will emerge. The reality is that for the major brands, since the cost of inventing and creating a new fragrance is so expensive, wouldn’t it make sense to have a look at what the bright new niche brands have come up and maybe buy it?
Out of a hundred ideas, maybe one will blossom!

Do you think there will be a surge in acquisitions due to the pandemic? To pick up struggling brands?
Not sure I go along with that because often those are very tiny brands. The major brands aren’t looking for bargains. They are looking for innovation, something that looks as though it’s got potential with good management and good marketing that they can then build 100-fold. But it has to be an original idea: a Byredo, an Editions de Parfums, a By Killian. The problem we face is that with so many of these niche brands, you can’t actually understand what the idea is. When I’m asked what advice I would give to a brand, I’d say “go create a boutique”, one shop that will force you to define the personality, the feel, the uniqueness of your brand. Notice that every brand that has been acquired has usually already created their own boutique. Aesop, Byredo, Annick Goutal. Each one expresses the personality of that brand. It’s not a marketing paper, it’s reality and that is probably the key discipline.

What other kind of opportunities do you see for niche brands?
My prediction for these brands is that there are three options: 1) they’ll go bust 2) they’ll raise more money or 3) they’ll change their marketing strategy. I suspect a lot of them will find ways to go down market because one of the biggest opportunities will be born out of the collapse of the mass market. But every major brand has gotten out of mass market. A niche brand opportunity will find a way to tweak it, to come up with something interesting at an affordable price. I suspect that a lot of niche brands who started high flying will look for a way to adapt their strategy to a more viable position. Already I’m seeing prices declining in many niche brands and I expect that trend to continue. It is a time of change.
Personalisation is another opportunity. Younger people are looking for ways to personalize their fragrance – you already see this in places like the Alchemist Atelier in Paris - it’s a growing trend.

What is your biggest lesson learned? What would you tell your younger self if you could?
The one lesson I have learned in my career would be what Edmond Roudnitska once said to me. I asked him what the most important lesson was that he’d learnt. “Simplify, simplify, simplify”, he replied. I learned the lesson. I create, I imagine, I plan. Then I simplify. And simplify again.

One last question for you Michael, but this is a big one: How can the industry get behind growing the entire fragrance pie globally vs taking market share from competitors? How can we better foster fragrance usage and consumption with our consumers?
It’s not complicated but you’ve put your finger on the key question. The reality, if I look back, is that we’re selling one-third less units now than we sold twenty years ago but for twice or three times the price! We’re our own worst enemy. The brands insist on continuing to describe fragrances quite differently. If this is a floral oriental, to another brand it’s an amber floral, to a third a solar floral, to a fourth brand it’s pure sexy. We have a cacophony of confusion now. That’s problem N°1!

Problem N°2? Rare is the company that massages and develops its brands. They launch them, next year for the anniversary, they launch another one. The rate of new launches, flankers, limited editions confuses not only customers but consultants. Now having said all of this; just by identifying it we’re not going to change the model.
But this is where I think the kind of projects I’m working on - creating cutting edge, customized, online and in-store apps for retailers - can make a difference. These are interesting tools, still keeping to the fragrance family, to help consumers discover what they like and not confuse them. You have to first win people’s confidence and only then encourage them to expand their tastes and try what they don’t know.

You asked me how we change things? It’s not complicated: we talk to people. Why can’t a brand go on Zoom and invite 100 people to join and have a discussion? We should be harnessing all those marvelous bloggers, encouraging them and briefing them to help us. When was the last time a brand held a Zoom conference to talk to bloggers about what they’re doing and try to answer their questions? We’ve got to spread the message, and we don’t do this. Instead we put out an advertisement and I come back to say: you and I can paper our walls with advertisements, change the names and see that only one person who walks by notices it!

But despite all the problems, I love this business!