By and  on June 22, 2007

The celebrity fragrance growth engine began sputtering this year, but a new cast of high-profile faces aims to use their star power to reignite the six-year phenomenon.

The upcoming pack of celebrity scents includes M by Mariah Carey; L by Gwen Stefani; Covet Sarah Jessica Parker, the follow-up to Parker's first fragrance, Lovely; Usher's fragrance masterbrand, and Sean Combs' first women's scent, Unforgivable for Women.

Their red-carpet march into department stores this fall will make the retail landscape arguably more star-laden than it has been in the last several seasons. The question is: Can Carey and her famous pals keep the celebrity fragrance engine chugging?

After all, last year sales of women's prestige celebrity scents fell 17 percent, to $140 million, despite the fact that celebrity launches increased tenfold compared with 2003, according to The NPD Group.

Nevertheless, star-backed scents contributed handsomely to the $2.8 billion category last year. William Chappell, an analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey Capital Markets, said that, based on his conversations with beauty firms, including Elizabeth Arden and Revlon, it's clear that celebrity is currently underpinning fragrance sales. He forecasted, "Mariah should give pop to the business."

Referring to Arden's consumer surveys, Chappell said the firm found that 80 percent of all U.S. women and 90 percent of African-American U.S. women view the singer favorably. Carey also scored high in the U.K. and in Spain.

One of the bellwether American stores for celebrity scents is Macy's East in New York, and executives there have given the Carey fragrance a thumbs-up. Micheline Jordaan, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of fragrances, predicted that the launch "will generate a good deal of excitement. Arden is delivering great product — from the juice to the packaging and marketing elements. We are optimistic that this fragrance will perform very well."

She added that "the celebrity fragrance category has really become the ‘fashion' element of the fragrance business. It animates the selling environment through visual presentation and generates excitement among our customers. The performance of the category is influenced by the exposure, prominence and level of involvement of the celebrity in promoting the project. Though I must add that it all starts with the right juice. Looking at the extensive lineup for fall, it appears that the category is experiencing a resurgence with introductions from several prominent trendsetters from the worlds of music and fashion. We feel [the celebrity category] is still viable and will continue to be an important part of the business."She noted, however, that designer and luxury brands — like Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana — dominate the top of the rankings at the store.

A Macy's Inc. spokesman added that celebrity scents continue to sell well, depending on how the customers identify with the individual stars, "their style and what they have to offer."

However, in the mass market, retailers complain of not enough support for the grassroots channel. "Celebrity fragrance isn't the problem in and of itself," said a merchant with a top-three drugstore chain. "The problem is no one wants to spend money to advertise the brands."

In London, the more fashionable stores put little emphasis on celebrity scents, according to retail spokesmen, but the more mass and midtier retailers seem to be big on the category.

"Over here we are loving them," said Julia Bolsom, marketing director at A.S. Watson-owned The Perfume Shop, a perfumery chain with 152 doors in the U.K. and Ireland. "The U.K. customer can't get enough of them right now, but they do have to be realistically priced and in keeping with who the celeb really is to be a big success."

"The celebrity fragrance market remains strong in Superdrug," echoed Matt Twigg, fragrance buyer at the health and beauty retailer, which is also owned by A.S. Watson and counts 907 doors across the U.K. and Ireland. "Our customers love the fact that they can get a little piece of the A-list lifestyle through choosing a fragrance, such as Kylie [Minogue's Darling] or the Beckhams [Victoria's Intimately Her and David's Intimately His]."

Executives at both The Perfume Shop and Superdrug were bullish about the upcoming raft of launches.

"[Celebrity fragrances] will have another strong Christmas over here," said Bolsom. "Internationally renowned celebrities, like Prince and [Carey, Stefani and Christina Aguilera] will form part of its success, but there are a number of U.K. celebrity fragrances, which we feel will do just as well, plus the returning celeb classics from previous years.

"The U.K. customer is very celebrity-savvy," said Bolsom. "I think we have the added advantage of a large percentage of the U.K. media focusing on celebrities — this really supports celebrity fragrances."The U.K. market has seen a plethora of eaux linked to local personalities in recent times, sometimes from unlikely sources. Jade Goody, a reality TV contestant who became a household name for her apparent lack of sophistication, introduced Shh… last year, for example. Initially a hit, the fragrance was pulled from shelves in many stores for a time after Goody was accused of race-related bullying toward Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty while on a reality TV program. Shetty now plans to introduce her own fragrance, dubbed S2, this summer.

What's more, the trend has proved resilient in the face of celebrities acting badly. Several sources used Kate Moss to illustrate this point. The model, who fronts Rimmel cosmetics, emerged from a drug scandal and rehab seemingly more popular than before. Moss will join the global fragrance fray this fall, as well, although her scent won't be released in the U.S. until next spring at the earliest.

"I think bad celebrities sell more fragrance than good ones. We've always been fascinated by maverick baddies," said David Wolfe, creative director at The Doneger Group, dubbing their appeal "criminal chic."

"For some people, the trend has reached a saturation point, but celebrity seems to be the only method we have for getting a response from consumers because of the media overload," said Wolfe. Given the industry's current manic state of launches, he quipped: "Luckily, there's a new celebrity made every 15 minutes."

Britney Spears, whose behavior took a bizarre turn earlier this year, still has managed to hold onto the number-one spot on the list of women's mass market fragrances. However, E. Scott Beattie, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Elizabeth Arden, acknowledged that the pop star's personal troubles, including several rehab attempts, resulted in a sales drop of 10 percent.

The prospect that the trend may have peaked is a nerve-racking one for fragrance makers, given celebrity's ability to nab consumer dollars, despite sales declines.

Wendy Liebmann, founder of WSL Strategic Retail, said, "The trend is still alive. It's just taken on a lot of new faces. The notion of what a celebrity is has expanded." She noted that shoppers have come to view fragrances as they do fashion or color trends rather than a defining product with a 20-year longevity. "It takes a different mind-set to succeed. A fragrance doesn't have to have a 10- to 20-year run anymore. It's unrealistic to think it will."There was a time when simply aligning with a celebrity guaranteed a hit, noted Karen Grant, senior industry analyst for NPD. "We do know that having a celebrity who resonates with people raises the awareness of a brand, but today it takes more than a famous name."

In Grant's view, a celebrity fragrance needs to have multiple touch points, such as buzz from an album or fashion line, to succeed. "The fragrance should also be olfactorily different so it can stand on its own," said Grant, adding that younger consumers, who are generally the target audience for these scents, gravitate toward "sexy" notes, such as mossy wood and woody oriental.

Beattie of Arden reaffirmed the point, adding: "The celebrity also has to have some sort of beauty sensibility and fashion sensibility, and she's got to be passionately followed by a demographic that doesn't have to be hugely wide, but it has to be intense, vocal and well organized." Explaining the rationale for Arden's upcoming M by Mariah Carey introduction, he said, "She has a large body of consistently high-quality work. She's been able to develop her fan base globally and that's critical."

Beattie dismissed a prevailing thought that Europe shuns celebrity scents. He said, "The important thing is that these introductions are really being driven by global demand. The initial launch of products and the traditional fragrance launch platform in the U.S. isn't how you justify whether you do a celebrity scent or not. That's one piece of the puzzle. I know we get the stereotypes [for instance, that Europe isn't interested in celebrity launches] and we fight them all the time internally in our own business, as well. The world's more complex than that." Noting that Spears is "hugely popular in the Middle East," Beattie said: "You never really know how these things will connect with customers."

As for future celebrity licenses, Beattie certainly isn't ruling them out. "It depends," he said. "We would have to scrutinize the opportunities a lot more. Like any opportunity, there's a certain maturity cycle. You've got to be more selective."

The camp on whether celebrity scents have fight left or whether they've peaked seems to be split."There's been a reversal of fortune," said Gary Giblen, an analyst with Goldsmith & Harris, adding that people have grown tired of public missteps by the tabloid Rat Pack, which includes Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. "Celebrity is evanescent," he added, commenting that, if Carey's scent isn't a success and sales of Spears' scents decline, "the grand fizzle" may occur during the upcoming holiday season.

Beattie of Arden cautions that it is a mistake to look at American department stores and conclude that the movement is over. "It's like assessing American companies based on the American economy," he said. "General Electric is no longer an American company. It's a global company, and their earnings are being driven globally. These celebrities are the same way." He is confident that in 10 years the celebrity fragrance category will still be successful and significant.

Liebmann of WSL commented, "We treat celebrity as if it were a new trend, but it's always been so intriguing to people. With a $35 fragrance, you can peek into their lives. Its aspirational appeal, positive or negative, is still valid." — With contributions from Brid Costello, Faye Brookman and Pete Born

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