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Forget about thinking outside the box. How about outside the entire solar system? That’s pretty much what Thierry Mugler did some 21 years ago when it dreamt up Angel, a blue fragrance that smells a bit like candy and comes in a star-shaped bottle that seems spawned from a UFO.
This story first appeared in the June 21, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Hardly an obvious winner, sales started out slow, but Angel quickly became a commercial force that remains out of this world.
It’s estimated that a bottle is sold every 10 seconds worldwide, and the scent continues to top rankings in many countries. Some years ago it even supplanted France’s perennial number-one women’s perfume, Chanel No. 5, for a period of time.
Turns out going against the grain is a recipe for success in the fickle world of fragrance sales. “You definitely have to find a concept which is out of time—or timeless,” offers Vera Strubi, the fragrance marketing visionary who launched the Angel project in 1992. “[Angel] was a game-changer—in many ways,” says Deborah Walters, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for cosmetics, fragrances and intimates at Saks, which carried the fragrance exclusively in the U.S. for several months after its introduction.
Angel had multiple unusual facets: The juice was based on edible notes and housed in a bottle that lay flat and was refillable. Fittingly for a scent backed by no market research, it employed guerilla sampling techniques and relied on high service quotients.
Even its name was newfangled.
“When Thierry Mugler created this fragrance, the tag line was ‘Beware of Angel,’” recalls Christian Courtin- Clarins, chairman of the supervisory board at Groupe Clarins (Mugler’s owner), who explains the idea is that in every woman there’s a nice and a naughty angel. “Each element of the marketing mix—from the fragrance to the bottle, name, communication—was in rupture with the codes of the market and permitted the brand to bring a real added value,” says Charlotte Tasset, Printemps chief merchandising officer for beauty, child and lingerie. “It was a concept that was audacious, innovative and brought a new gesture, a new approach to selective perfumery.”
Some retailers welcomed Angel, while others rejected it. “When Angel launched in the U.K., it was a fragrance like we had never seen in the country before,” reminisces Mark Tranter, fragrance buyer at Selfridges, where Angel—and Mugler’s newer from-another-planet scent, Alien—remain in the top five.
Those rankings are not an anomaly. Rather, they illustrate Mugler’s unique model for creating blockbuster fragrances. “They are really about creating a long-term business model with the emphasis on the customer experience,” says Walters. “What worked then works today.”
“Mugler has always thought differently,” agrees Lucian James, creative director and founder of Paris-based strategic consultancy Agenda Inc. “More than anything, it’s a brand that knows how to make people feel something. In marketing, as well as in life, that’s 90 percent of the battle.”
Paradoxically, much of Mugler’s strategy sprang from corporate limitations.
“One of my first mottoes when I arrived here was to say that constraints create talent,” says Joël Palix, the energetic president of Clarins Fragrance Group and director general of Thierry Mugler SAS. Palix, an exuberant executive partial to Mugler suits, became the president of Thierry Mugler Parfums in early 2007 when Strubi retired. He says family-owned Clarins doesn’t have deep pockets and is by nature risk averse, since the firm’s foundation is in skin care—a category that demands the utmost precision.
Another big constraint is brand awareness. “We are not a major fashion brand [today],” says Palix. “We don’t have the traditional conditions for succeeding in fragrances. I tell my team to leverage those constraints and turn them into advantages.”
Creating unique products is key in the “ultracompetitive landscape,” he says. “The product needs to be stronger than the brand.”
From the outset, Angel was nothing if not unique. “The scent was polarizing,” says Walters, of the juice concocted by perfumer Olivier Cresp, then of Quest.
“If two percent of women love it and 98 percent hate it, that’s fine,” laughs Palix, with an accent on “fine.” “We are the happiest. It’s a fragmented market. So if you manage to capture 2 percent of women in every market with one product, you are among the top-10 women’s fragrance leaders. That’s what we try to do.”
“Mugler knows that by trying to appeal to everybody, you appeal to nobody, and that it’s better to get the pulses racing of a few than to try to convert everyone into a consumer,” says James. “They’ve always understood that you need to draw consumers in, not chase after them.”
Angel, first carried in just 200 French doors, also had La Source—a fragrance fountain to refill bottles—from the outset. The idea stemmed in part from the fact that manufacturing the scent’s bottle was so expensive that there had to be an additional revenue stream.
The brand was also one of the first to employ social marketing, even before the digital age. As with Clarins skin care, each box of Angel contained a card for consumer feedback. That evolved into what’s today called the Circle, comprised of clients who can receive special products, previews, information and tips. It now ties in more than a million members.
“Our best ambassadors, our evangelists, are the first women who wear it,” says Palix. “Initially there was only a very small fraction of women willing to take the risk.”
Angel’s rollout was gradual because Clarins didn’t have a large team or the subsidiary network it has today. Palix estimates Angel took about five years to really gain traction and considers the two to three years after its launch as a “seeding period.” “I see our responsibility like a gardener’s; we have these beautiful plants or beautiful trees,” continues Palix. “They are at various stages—some are little seeds in the earth, some have started to blossom and some are like solid, big trees. But all need care.”
Still, by the mid-Aughts, Angel’s business had started to plateau. “The business model had to evolve,” says Palix. “We were becoming a classic, and a classic for us had to combine some unique ways of marketing Angel.”
For one, Mugler expanded distribution in the U.S. and stepped up the advertising budget, signing on Naomi Watts to represent the romantic side of the scent, and then Eva Mendes to embody its more sensual part.
Limited-edition line extensions were also launched, such as the Liqueurs de Parfum, involving perfumes treated similarly to luxury spirits, and The Taste of Fragrance, which introduces into juice compositions what the company calls a “taste enhancer.”
“We explore the boundaries of perfumery, mixing the savoir-faire of perfumery with one of the other métiers,” says Palix, adding that every once in a while, Mugler opts to add “a new branch to the tree.”
A full 18 years after introducing the Angel eau de parfum, the brand launched Angel Eau de Toilette, for instance.
“Time is the essence,” he says. “Masterpieces take time to create. We launch when we are ready and sometimes we postpone.”
Since 2009, Angel’s sales have grown by 30 percent. (By comparison, the premium women’s fragrance market worldwide rose just 4.1 percent between 2009 and 2010; 9.8 percent between 2010 and 2011, and declined by 0.4 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to Euromonitor.)
Mugler has also set itself apart by creative social networking—in addition to The Circle, the brand has created platforms such as the Blogalaxy, which started by inviting fans from the Circle to write blog entries on the Mugler brand. Mugler instigates fetes, too—Angel parties, for instance. Here, through the Internet in some markets, the label locates its best ambassadors, invites them to organize parties and sends them a kit of materials, such as samples, to animate them. In the U.S. it has held Celestial Events after hours in department stores, where, for instance, new products are presented to consumers, who can also buy limited editions.
The Angel Room Service, also launched in the U.S. through its e-commerce sites, involves a monthly subscription fee (with three options) allowing people to get three packages of the scent’s products, including full and sample sizes, during a year.
“I like to mix digital and the physical,” says Palix.
Today Mugler’s overall strategy is bearing fruit. Angel ranks in the top 10 worldwide among women’s prestige fragrances, according to Palix’s estimates. Last year it was fourth in France, seventh in both the U.S. and U.K. and 13th in Italy, according to The NPD Group.
Hoping to strike twice with another unusual fragrance concept, Mugler introduced Alien in 2005 with a similar strategy, albeit in broader selective perfumery distribution.
“We were not the best-selling new fragrance of the year,” allows Palix, qualifying the scent was in the top 20 in 2006, the top 25 in 2007 and 22nd in 2008. “[In April] our ranking was number 10 in France. So you see the time it takes to become a classic?”
Not to mention a certain degree of convincing, especially when a fragrance carries such an unusual name. “There is no way many women suddenly decide that ‘Alien’ is their fragrance,” Palix reasons. According to Strubi, some people won’t even try the scent because of its name. “You have to be sure that your fragrance is so good that once people start wearing it and other people smell it, then slowly you build the success,” she says.
“Alien is a more deliberate attempt to provoke the audience, to be deliberately extreme and to extend the idea of Angel to a darker, more mysterious territory,” says James. “It’s marketing built more on the visceral appeal of the brand.”
Further, some people believed the opulent juice with an overdose of jasmine sambac was almost masculine in nature. The company deployed a massive sampling campaign to develop Alien, both at point of sale and in the press. And three years after its launch, Alien’s communication was changed. “The initial concept that Mr. Mugler had in mind was a messenger of peace, and we found this a bit too mystical,” says Palix. “It evolved into a solar goddess, and that image was very well-received and gave a boost to Alien.”
Since the purple bottle was considered a bit dark, summer versions were introduced along with other line extensions, such as Essence Absolue, which involved a new generation of flacon.
“We create a collection of bottles,” says Palix, noting that it’s become a signature of the Mugler strategy. “We don’t replicate each bottle. This is a way of differentiating.”
Alien may have started slowly, but sales are soaring now. Palix’s goal is to make it one of the top-five fragrances globally in the next three years. “It has the potential to overtake Angel,” he says. “Right now it’s 80 percent of [the Angel business], and in markets like Italy, England, Germany and the Middle East it has already overtaken Angel.” According to NPD, in 2012, Alien ranked fifth in the U.K., seventh in Italy, 14th in France and 43rd in the U.S.
The third major fragrance introduction by Mugler was Womanity three years ago. It’s taking longer to gain traction than its predecessors, which Palix acknowledges could be due in part to the fragrance’s fig-caviar accord. “It is a segmenting juice that, like with Angel or Alien, has managed to stand out from the competition, and that pleases a certain category of clients. The weakness may be in the communication, which is less aspirational than on the preceding launches,” says Printemps’ Tasset. “It’s a launch that allowed us to recruit a younger clientele to the brand.”
“It’s a slower build, but steady,” agrees Selfridges’ Tranter.
Despite the company’s track record, it’s increasingly difficult to get retailers to agree to such a prolonged time frame. “Where it’s more difficult nowadays is to convince retailers that we have got time to install a new product,” says Palix. “We’ve seen on Womanity that the time line of giving us several years to build such a fragrance is more difficult to obtain. This is something to think about, in terms of strategy.”
Strubi stresses the importance of patience rather than having great expectations from the outset. “Everybody today makes a plan, a two-year plan, with huge figures. You have to be brave enough to put in small figures and grow the figures every year because you are quite sure that it will work but it needs some time. If the retailer is not overloaded with product and your brand is strong enough, you can convince him to keep the products in stock.
“We created a lot of buzz when we launched” she continues. “Everybody is looking to please the retailer, while in fact customers—they love something special. A good fragrance is something that’s an evocation, an emotion—it’s not a commodity.”
Executives believe that to solidify Mugler’s emotional relevance today, it needs a closer tie-in with fashion, and in April, Palix announced he is looking for a full- time creative director to oversee both the fashion and fragrance businesses. “We need to give more thought about how important and how much we invest behind fashion, because we have managed to compensate for the lack of fashion until now,” he says. “But to go to the next stage and be in the top five feminine fragrance brands, now is the time to obtain more support from the brand itself.”
“No fragrances are successful without the image of fashion,” says Courtin-Clarins.
“This idea of one brand, one creative vision is very modern, very contemporary,” says Palix. “It’s what people are asking for today, and that could have an impact on our future business.”
Mugler fragrances, which currently place eighth globally among luxury feminine scent brands, perform best in the U.S. and Europe and have registered strong growth in the Middle East and Latin America. The company has targeted Russia, Asia and travel retail as key areas of future growth.
As for a new fragrance? “Not in the near future—our last launch was in 2010,” says Palix.
“Mugler doesn’t play by the rules of luxury, which are now so overestablished that innovation has become difficult,” says James. “There is a purity about Angel, which is unique. It’s a great product which appeared at the perfect moment, and everything appeared to be aligned to guarantee its success when it came out. Like all great successes, it seems to have been a perfect mix of talent, strategy and some happy accidents.”
So could lightening strike for another label with an out-there fragrance idea?
“Many brands have tried to replicate the success of Angel,” says James. “But none have succeeded.”