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Mary J. Blige Shatters Sales Records at HSN

Mary J. Blige's debut scent My Life generated at least $3 million in retail sales in 24 hours, sources say.

On set with HSN host Callie Northagen.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For any industry executives wondering if it is possible to launch a fragrance exclusively on a home shopping channel, Mary J. Blige has proven the answer is yes.

This story first appeared in the August 6, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Blige, whose debut scent, My Life, went live on HSN at midnight Saturday, sold more than 72,000 stockkeeping units of fragrance and ancillaries in 24 hours — an HSN record — generating at least $3 million in retail sales, according to industry sources, and turning the traditional fragrance marketing paradigm on its ear.

“The most surprising thing was how quickly the fragrance was being sold,” said Blige with a self-deprecating laugh, on set between shows. “I kept going, ‘We’re where? It’s only 30 minutes in!’ I almost cried on camera, but then I thought if someone turned the channel at that moment, they’d be going, ‘What the heck is going on?’ So let me keep my tears to myself.”

Postshows, Mindy Grossman, chief executive officer of HSN Inc., noted that about 20 percent of those who purchased the scent were new to the shopping channel and added that nearly 10,000 customers signed up for the Auto Ship program, which allows consumers to set up recurring orders. “That’s pretty amazing, especially if you consider most who purchased hadn’t yet smelled the scent,” said Grossman.

Admittedly, launching a fragrance exclusively on TV — a choice which makes traditional sampling methods impossible — was a controversial decision, but it was one that Grossman, Carol’s Daughter founder and lead investor Steve Stoute and Blige, whose fragrance is marketed by Carol’s Daughter, were committed to from the beginning.

From the time the project was revealed, Stoute was steadfast in his belief that storytelling and credibility — and, of course, quality — were the keys to a successful product launch, and in stating that a home shopping channel provided the ideal opportunity to provide all of these elements in a unified package.

“The journey has been realized,” said Stoute, who was instrumental in putting the deal together — he took Carol’s Daughter onto HSN in 2008. “This is far different from traditional fragrance marketing, which has always relied on sampling and advertising. HSN is a great place to launch a product if you have a strong story to tell and credibility with your consumer. Customers want to be part of the experience, to fit into the story.”

As well, said Stoute, working with a shopping channel enables the brand and the channel to react immediately to market demand and consumer desires. For instance, Blige’s on-air time Saturday was lengthened significantly throughout the day due to customer demand. HSN’s servers at one point crashed due to the volume on its Web site.

People at home appreciate a story, someone who can relate to them,” Blige said of the format. “They’re sitting on their couch saying, ‘Wow, I went through that, too.’ It empowers them to want to do exactly what you did and better.” Of her unscripted spots, Blige said: “The thing about having no script is that the script is in you. Your script is knowing yourself and your product and your fans. It doesn’t work when you don’t know that, no matter where you sell. I wasn’t nervous, because I knew the love that I put into it, I knew the work I put into it, my life was put into it.”

Neither Grossman nor Stoute has a traditional beauty background, which both say allowed them to easily think of nontraditional — and, some would say, unorthodox — methods of selling fragrances.

“There are a lot of stereotypes of how you have to do something in the beauty industry,” said Grossman, who joined the channel in 2006 after stints at Nike and Polo Ralph Lauren. “It’s not that we don’t learn from that, but I think I was looking at it from a fresh point of view because I don’t come from a traditional beauty background.”

“I’m a guy who has built my career by creating footsteps where they never existed, and I entered the beauty business only a few years ago,” said Stoute, the branding and music impresario, who became involved with Carol’s Daughter in 2005. “I knew this would work, but I didn’t know if it would sell 30,000 units, 60,000 units or 150,000 units. But the success of this launch changes the existing business model for a prestige fragrance launch. I think the beauty business needs some different thinking in it. Everyone has to play a role in that in order to break the cycle and trigger growth. We’re going to keep looking for different ways to speak to the consumer where and how she wants to be spoken to.

“Also, we’ve reached a point where we have to accept the tanning of America,” Stoute continued. “We have to look at demographics differently — it’s not just about this many are Caucasian women ages 18 to 34, and this many are African-American women ages 18 to 34. Just putting people into boxes based on that is outdated.”

To those naysayers who say you can’t sell a scent without testing it, Grossman retorts: “How can you sell food on TV? You can’t taste it. If you can create an instinctive memory or you can create that feel in someone’s consciousness and give them an idea of what they’re going to get, you can sell a fragrance that way. Mary did a terrific job of getting her story across.”

The scent was introduced to consumers via one of the most comprehensive, 360-degree marketing campaigns HSN has ever produced, said Bill Brand, executive vice president of programming, marketing and business development for HSN. The elements included online, mobile, print advertising, public relations, events and direct mail.

Social media efforts drove millions of impressions, as did key celebrity endorsements and significant blogger outreach. Video segments — dubbed “Chapters” — of Blige’s life story were featured on HSN and online at hsn.com, as well as Facebook and Twitter. In addition, HSN distributed 100,000 direct-mail brochures and 300,000 targeted inserts to its customers; featured ads in Allure, Glamour and Essence; created a cross-channel TV spot, and distributed 50,000 snap bracelets embedded with the My Life fragrance at the Essence Music Festival over the July 4 weekend.

As well, HSN offers live-streaming video on its TV network (about 30 percent of HSN’s $2 billion yearly revenues are done online) and features 15,000 product videos, and mobile via its iPhone application.

“Mary will be on at least once more in the fourth quarter and will appear beyond that,” said Grossman. “Mary loves speaking to her fans, and what is especially exciting is that by the time Mary appears again, we will have 72,000 evangelists for the brand.”

During Blige’s hours on the air, many of her fans called in to chat briefly with her — beginning with Oprah Winfrey a little after midnight, and through the day including Taraji P. Henson and Blige’s sister-in-law, plus regular viewers. “Mary is my little sister,” said Winfrey during her call, noting she was “up way past her bedtime” at midnight. While she isn’t a huge fragrance wearer, Winfrey said, she loves the My Life body lotion and shower gel ancillaries. “Mary does everything with passion, and gives back. Now don’t stay up all night!” Winfrey admonished playfully before signing off. Naomi Campbell, calling in later, said, “I’ve just bought it all! Good luck, Mary — everyone out there needs this!”

As appreciative as she was of her celebrity callers, Blige seemed even more touched by the nonfamous fans who called in — and her intense connection with them was evident.

“It feels so great, because they have all grown with me — my ups and my downs,” said Blige. “They’ll go through it with me if I have to go through it again, because they know we all have work to do and a long way to go, even though we’ve made progress.”

A dollar from each unit sold benefits Blige and Stoute’s nonprofit organization, the Foundation of the Advancement of Women Now, which supports women in need, and Blige was especially appreciative of the sizable donation, which would be made to FFAWN postshow.

Later, Blige noted that the funds will be used to send women to college. “We’re already sending 25 women to college and this money will let us send many more,” she said. “We’re continuing to build up the Mary J. Blige Center for Women in Yonkers, and adding more services there to help women. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”

Blige, who is already designing sunglasses and has created T-shirts in partnership with Catherine Malandrino, said she is open to doing apparel and additional accessories lines “if it comes organically. The sunglasses came organically, and the Melodies [the name of the sunglasses line] will probably follow up with an accessories line.

“And Lisa [Price, the founder of Carol’s Daughter] and I are already on to the new fragrance.” Details? “Sorry, you’ll have to wait on that one! But I’m using what I learned in the development process for My Life to inform how I am creating the new one. I don’t know if I’ll go into additional beauty categories. I probably won’t touch makeup, because if I had my way, I wouldn’t wear any. I’ll probably do additional body items, skin products, more fragrances.”