By  on October 12, 2007

NEW YORK — After 20 years of flirtation, is the beauty industry finally ready for a Madonna fragrance? And how much would it be worth?

In the wake of reports of a $120 million deal the Material Girl is said to have inked with Live Nation, the long-talked-about possibility of a Madonna fragrance may become a reality: Live Nation would be gaining the right to license the singer's name for merchandising projects, which could include fragrance.

Madonna is no virgin to the licensing game, having reportedly shopped herself around the fragrance industry for more than a decade. But this time, it could be for real, after so many trips to the beauty altar. One cosmetics executive called the possible deal with Live Nation, reported in The Wall Street Journal, "a massive casting call" that could function as a magnet for licensing suitors.

"When something is done, it'll be absolutely phenomenal and one of those rare [occurrences] that will turn the industry on its ear," said Théo Spilka, vice president of fine fragrance sales and new business development at Firmenich. He compared it with Giorgio Beverly Hills and Calvin Klein's CK One, which were standout fragrances during the Eighties and Nineties, respectively.

Sources estimate that Madonna's megawatt name could power a $60 million to $80 million fragrance brand, and at least $200 million in sales globally. And industry experts agree, Madonna won't come cheap. Not all celebrity fragrance deals pay an up-front fee; many rely on a royalty of 2 percent to 5 percent of net shipments. And Madonna would likely require a hefty multimillion-dollar up-front payment.

Sources expect that Madonna would push the fragrance envelope to the seams with a bold, avant-garde concept, should she introduce a signature scent. At least a decade ago, Madonna first expressed an interest in the fragrance business and, at the time, shopped around a concept called Holy Water to several fragrance houses. She seems to have rekindled her curiosity for the business, according to one fragrance executive, who said the singer has met with Firmenich within the last year.

One thing said to have derailed earlier efforts — Madonna's reputation for being demanding, especially when it comes to royalty advances — is no longer as big a problem as it was 10 years ago, according to another executive, who pointed out that an earlier demand of $10 million up front would not be considered onerous today. He added that her rumored habit of demanding control amounts to a logical desire to manage her image.Several of the major players in the celebrity fragrance world admit a Madonna fragrance isn't that far-fetched a concept. "We have never been in dialogue with Madonna, but a Madonna scent would make sense [in general]," said Art Spiro, president of Liz Claiborne Cosmetics, which has just released the Usher fragrance masterbrand. "She is an internationally known celebrity who has appeal to a wide cross-section of demographic and cultural markets. It could be an interesting opportunity for someone."

The thought also intrigues Betsy Olum, senior vice president of marketing at Sephora. "There has been so much speculation over the years that Madonna would come out with a fragrance," she said. "She is such an inspiration, and I would inevitably buy her fragrance — however, it would really need a revolutionary new angle to it. If anyone can do this, she can. Madonna is the master of reinvention. The fragrance could help the celebrity fragrance industry in that respect."

Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, a group president of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., who oversees the fragrance division, conceded that "as for being a celebrity, she has been up there on the top of the charts and she has been able to reinvent herself several times."

And Madonna's polarizing image can help, since "a touch of controversy always sells." He cautioned, however, that licensing deals "take a meeting of minds and she is probably more demanding than most." But the big question, he said, is how much longevity the celebrity fragrance category can expect to enjoy. Added to this, "she has most of her career behind her," he said. But Bousquet-Chavanne noted that "she has a universality to her and a timelessness."

A department store buyer who declined to be identified agreed a Madonna scent could sell, but said "there would have to be a significant point of difference. The market is getting cluttered, so this type of a fragrance would depend heavily on strategy. Never say never — we'd consider it if it was the right project."

While at 49 Madonna is no teenybopper, neither are two of the celebrity fragrance market's latest major success stories: Sarah Jessica Parker, 42, and Jennifer Lopez, 38. However, said Christophe Cervasel, founder and chairman of Selective Beauty, Madonna's challenge might be courting the prototypical celebrity fragrance buyer: young women. "Madonna is a god of music for consumers over 20 and under 40," said Cervasel, who has in the last year inked scent deals with John Galliano, Jimmy Choo and Zac Posen. He added that he would expect her to create a fragrance that was big and bold and surprising and controversial at the same time. However, he cautioned, "To take risks and be popular at the same time is very difficult" in the fragrance business."Madonna's current consumer base is a little older, but so is Sarah Jessica Parker's," Liz Claiborne's Spiro pointed out.

Both Parker's and Lopez's scents are produced by Coty Inc., which declined comment on Madonna speculation Thursday.

Why hasn't the Material Mom done a fragrance before, given her megastardom? Certainly, while she's a fragrance virgin, she's experienced in making money — and controversy.

"Some people want to stay in their own areas — in her case, performing," said Spiro. "Others — like Usher and Beyoncé — can't wait to branch out into other areas such as apparel because they see their creativity in one area as transferable to another. For instance, Beyoncé couldn't wait to do an apparel line with her mother, and Usher is fashioning himself to design fragrance and apparel, as well as his music. It all depends on the person involved."

Whether Madonna does a fragrance or not, one thing is clear: the celebrity fragrance business is here to stay, at least in the short term. "Celebrities have all of the elements which you look for in a successful launch — a recognizable brand and an established consumer base, in particular. You still have to execute [the products] flawlessly, but the appeal is definitely there," he said.

"She is the Liz Taylor of her generation," said another top-ranking executive who spoke on a condition of anonymity. While he clearly believed in the pop star's potential, the executive also expressed misgivings. Some singers have branched out into apparel already, so there is a brand that can be touched. That's not true with Madonna. "I'm not sure whether it's a forward brand, or a nostalgia brand," he asked.

The executive pointed out that Madonna has flirted with the beauty industry for years, going back to the fledgling days of MAC Cosmetics, when she was photographed wearing the brand's T-shirt and making its Russian Red lipstick famous. Then she was the face of a Max Factor collection in Europe and Asia and sang in Estée Lauder's Beyond Paradise TV spot. But still no fragrance deal. "She was always the bridesmaid and never the bride," the executive said, adding that in the Nineties, industry executives may have shied away from first her brazen sexuality and then her religious mysticism.But that behavior now looks tame by today's standards. "We are living in the era of raunchy," he noted. "The pain in the ass part is the part that made her successful," another executive said, stressing that she has the staying power of a true star.

While her lithesome physique may improve her stamina during concert tours, Madonna's sinewy appearance may be a turnoff for mainstream cosmetics brands, according to Rita Clifton, chief executive officer of branding consultancy Interbrand. "In my view, she's not suited to conventional beauty products, like makeup and overt cosmetics," she said, adding tie-ins with health- or fitness-oriented products would perhaps be more appropriate. "What she's got going for her are the benefits of health and fitness; for her age she has an extremely bionic body."

Robert Passikoff, founder and president of a marketing consultancy and author of "Predicting Market Success" (John Wiley & Sons, $29.95), called Madonna's ad campaign with Versace "a disaster" last winter, saying a successful match between celebrity and company involves a matching of values and images. "Madonna was a disaster for Versace," Passikoff told WWD last December. "She's spent her career as an entertainer reinventing herself — it affords a very high level of schizophrenic values for people to look at. As there are no clear values consumers can put their hands around, it makes it problematic for a brand. There needs to be a level of consonance with brand values." (Versace, as reported, went with five models in its fall campaign, instead of shooting stars like Halle Berry and Madonna as it had in recent seasons.)

Some have intimated that Madonna's previous attempts at a fragrance deal unraveled because the singer demanded complete creative control. Gary Giblen, an analyst with Goldsmith & Harris who covers Elizabeth Arden Inc., quipped, "Probably some of the companies would do better with her having creative control. She created her own persona." He added that the pop icon offers "rich imagery" for a fragrance concept. He said that should Arden ink a deal with Madonna she could diversify its portfolio, which includes Britney Spears, as an "older-generation bad girl."

He added that if Arden's Mariah Carey fragrance performs well over the holiday season, it might encourage Arden to ink a deal with Madonna on the rationale that "it still has a hot hand in celebrity."When asked if Madonna would make a good candidate for a licensing deal, Firmenich's Spilka said, "She's been a viable property since back in the early Nineties when Unilever was pursing the idea [of a licensing deal] just before the 'Sex' book came out. There are very few viable people who have been going strong for more than 20 years, who continue to reinvent themselves in a beautiful and creative way."

"What Picasso was to artistry, Madonna is to the entertainment industry," said Joe Spellman, an industry consultant who often puts deals together. "But every time she goes to the altar, the suits say, 'maybe she's too young, maybe she's too old, maybe she's too out there.' This has been going on for 20 years." But with a deal like the one reported with Live Nation, Madonna could be packaged in a far more palatable way for the industry, he concluded.

But one expert who is not buying is industry management consultant Allan Mottus. " I doubt very much she would have much market appeal, either in apparel or cosmetics, due to the overall fatigue of the celebrity category."

Neil Katz, chairman and chief executive officer of Parlux Fragrances, confesses to being a Madonna fan, but he too has misgivings. "Years ago, she could sell fragrance," said Katz, whose company markets the Paris Hilton scent. "But I don't know if at this point in her career, she still has that strong a following. I don't know."

Katz acknowledged that Madonna is still selling out concerts, but questions whether the audience simply consists of die-hard fans wanting to hear the old songs. "You need a strong following," he concluded, "not a retro following."

Madonna transcends the traditional idea of a celebrity, according to Spilka, who called her "a person of incredible notoriety. People of her stature don't grow on trees."

Spilka said Madonna appeals to "everybody, all ages. She has a tremendous following with the gay community, teenagers, older people, people who have known her for 25 years and people who have just found out about her. That's what's so wonderful about her. Her music is in 120 countries."

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