By  on August 8, 2014

The industry’s mania with celebrity is turning into a paradox, with the desire to put stars’ faces on beauty ads stronger than ever, despite reports of a struggling market for celebrity-branded scents.

Consider the deals done since April, not only for endorsements but also some branding propositions. Lancôme signed Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o as its new face, followed by fellow winner Cate Blanchett’s debut as the spokeswoman for Giorgio Armani’s Si scent. Meanwhile, MAC has announced plans for makeup collaborations with Brooke Shields and Lorde, to launch this fall; Coty will debut Enrique Iglesias’ first scent, Adrenaline; Pharrell Williams is introducing his first fragrance on Sept. 1, and One Direction, which reportedly has surpassed the Justin Bieber record with sales so far of more than $70 million wholesale, is said to be preparing its third fragrance, a new pillar. Are celebrity fragrances dead? Not completely, even though retailers appear to be very cool to the category.

“There still is tremendous appetite for product that is endorsed or sold by a celebrity,” says Catherine Walsh, chief communication officer of Coty Inc. She was Coty’s senior vice president of global marketing on the launch of Jennifer Lopez’s Glow fragrance in 2002, which touched off a wave that now accounts for 4 percent of the prestige fragrance market. Consumers and celebrities basically feed off one another, she notes, adding, “It’s insatiable because celebrities live their life on the Internet.” As a result, Wendy Liebmann, founder and chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail, points out that “speed to market” in marketing celebrity projects has dramatically increased.

“In a more challenging world economically, and more fragmented society, people are aspiring to be part of something,” says John Demsey, a group president of Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. “It’s all about community. When we grew up, you either liked the Beatles or the Stones or the Grateful Dead. Today there are, like, 500 of them. You never had such a proliferation of so much, so many stars in search of a product or in search of an audience than you have right now, because the distribution system opened up to the world with the Internet. Now people create their own e-commerce sites, their own publishing networks, their own social media. They garner press and they monetize themselves by themselves. This era of self-actualization by the star has filtered itself into the cosmetics and fragrance business.”

Going back to the halcyon days of RuPaul, MAC Cosmetics—with its all-ages, all-races, all-genders positioning—has had the flexibility, freedom and creativity to cast a halo of coolness around collaborative projects with well-known people that have been as controversial as Dame Edna, as unexpected as Marge Simpson and as iconic as Shields. James Gager, senior vice president and group creative director, points out that MAC has had the ability “to bring people into its universe and do a collaboration and then they leave.” But the resultant relationships form a loose family. That, however, is not the case everywhere. Gager questions whether every company needs a celebrity touting its brand as some sort of “golden panacea.” He says, “sometimes it can confuse the DNA of a brand rather than enhance [it]”—like if Clinique hired a pop star.

Carol Hamilton, president of the Luxe division of L’Oréal USA, agrees that a collaboration has to be genuine, or else “the consumer gives less and less value to that kind of spokesperson relationship. When you find somebody who truly embodies the essence of a brand and its values and then you develop a relationship with that celebrity, that comes across as meaningful and authentic,” she concludes.

When Walsh talks about the consumer’s “insatiable” appetite for all things celeb, she’s speaking of “the machine” behind the phenomenon. But it appears to need some tinkering, at least when it comes to the fragrance model.

Donald J. Loftus, president of Parlux Ltd. and executive vice president of Perfumania Inc., acknowledges that “the department stores are cooling off on the whole celebrity thing and pulling back their commitments.” One retailer, speaking not for attribution, says, “There’s not been anything new and exciting for a bit. The customer seems to lose her appetite very quickly.”

But there are a good number of successes, like Parlux’s Jay-Z launch, which ranked Number 10 in December and Number 22 for spring. Apparently that didn’t change retailers’ minds. “So Jay-Z they’re thrilled with and because they are,” Loftus dryly remarks, “they no longer consider him a celebrity. He’s an icon.”

Loftus maintains that a category that generated $110 million in department-store sales last year should be shown some respect. He thinks the industry erred when it insisted on merchandising celebrity scents as if they are just another lifestyle or designer fragrance. Celebrity fragrances have a younger, markedly different audience and they should be treated separately, maybe even merchandised upstairs in the junior department, he suggests.

“Maybe it doesn’t belong in a glass case; maybe it should be in a cool shop—with music playing or something that makes it more Hollywood,” he says. Loftus even proposes that Perfumania lease space and run it as a celebrity shop in stores.

Theo Spilka, global vice president of strategic licensing and business development at Firmenich, is working on a deal with Cher, a fragrance veteran of the late Eighties. As a matchmaker on many of these deals, Spilka says he is more cautious and selective about who he works with now, paying close attention to demographics and the strategy behind a brand. “The retailer has to be fully committed,” he says, noting that Terry Lundgren, the ceo of Macy’s, saw an opportunity in Justin Bieber to lure a youthful clientele into his store. “We don’t talk to as many celebrities as we used to. Not all of them bring something to the table. The thing today is to be extremely selective.”

Granted, says Joel Ronkin, general manager of North America for Elizabeth Arden, the firm has seen the cyclical nature of the category. But, he notes, “That doesn’t change the consumer’s appetite for celebrity fragrance.”

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