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PARIS — Chanel may already boast it has the world’s best-selling scent, but the fashion house hopes its most expensive advertising effort ever — a minifilm starring a couture-clad Nicole Kidman — will make No.5 even more of a blockbuster.

The two-minute spot, slated to debut in U.S. theaters Oct. 29 and on TV Nov. 11, is certainly a mega production, reuniting Kidman with “Moulin Rouge” director Baz Luhrmann and a crew of almost 200 for a five-day shoot in Sydney last December.

“The advertising campaign is key because it renews the image of No.5,” said Chanel president Françoise Montenay. “It’s more than a perfume, it’s an icon. That’s why we need iconic women — and Nicole is an icon. We’ve been dreaming of her for many years.

“For us, she is the most iconic person you could ever find,” continued Montenay. “She is really an actress. She can convey her emotions in half a second. With just one move of her face, she can make you feel something.”

According to Montenay, No.5 became the best-selling fragrance worldwide shortly after the end of the Second World War — and it has topped the charts in many countries since. But there is room for improvement. It lags at No. 4 in the U.S. and slipped from the top slot in France, edged out by Thierry Mugler’s Angel.

Asked how long it would take for Chanel to recoup the millions spent on producing the commercial and buying airtime, Montenay demurred. Instead, she characterized the Kidman project as an investment made not only in the interest of boosting sales, but “in terms of keeping the image modern.”

The Kidman spots are also expected to have a ripple effect on other Chanel products, most of which are on a strong growth track, she added.

Privately held Chanel does not give out financial information, but its beauty business is estimated to pull in about $2 billion a year.

While declining to provide dollar figures, Montenay disclosed sales performance by product category for the first half of 2004: Skin care was up 28 percent; makeup, up 10 percent, and fashion and accessories, up 38 percent. Fragrance lagged, with an uptick of only 2 percent.

This story first appeared in the August 20, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Market sources estimate No.5 pulls in at least $100 million in sales a year, and that about $10 million to $12 million a year would be spent on the Kidman advertising campaign in the U.S. and another $5 million to $8 million annually to place it in Europe. The Kidman ads will appear in 39 fashion, beauty and lifestyle magazines in the U.S. in both single-page and spread configurations, and are slated for cinema advertising in 25 U.S. markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

Montenay said prestige is a key fact of No.5’s position, something Chanel fastidiously measures, employing market research firms in 12 countries to do so every few years. The most recent surveys confirm Chanel’s leading position.

“What we are very good at is to work with the imagination of women,” Montenay asserted. “We make them dream.”

In an exclusive interview, Chanel creative director Jacques Helleu said Luhrmann approached the No.5 commercial just as he would a major motion picture, even employing the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and his “Romeo and Juliet” collaborator, composer Craig Armstrong, to concoct a stirring new version of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”

Helleu, who oversaw the five days of shooting, said he was struck by Luhrmann’s perfectionism — and Kidman’s professionalism in the face of it.

One might think it’s too much to ask an Oscar winner to do 27 takes of a scene with hardly any dialogue, but Kidman didn’t so much as flinch. “She has such confidence in him,” Helleu related.

The commercial is designed to reignite consumers’ emotional attachment to No.5 and express perfume’s sensual essence. Helleu said Kidman’s seductive powers, as expressed in “Moulin Rouge,” convinced him she was the perfect person to represent No.5.

The spots, while in the surrealistic tradition of past No.5 campaigns, has a strong contemporary resonance, with Kidman cast as the most famous woman in the world, relentlessly stalked by the paparazzi in a mythical metropolis. Seeking shelter from the flashbulbs in a waiting taxi, she finds it occupied by a ruggedly handsome young man who is completely unaware of her identity and fame.

He whisks her to his ramshackle garret in a skyscraper topped by a double-C logo, where love quickly blossoms and Kidman’s character relishes the freedom to be herself. Ultimately, after a few days of romantic bliss, she is discovered in her hideout and coaxed back to her old life and responsibilities.

But back on the red carpet at a premiere, the star can feel her lover’s eyes upon her from his rooftop lookout. She looks back toward him, wistful yet stronger, while he vows to never forget “her kiss, her smile, her perfume.” Then the camera focuses on the diamond-studded No.5 amulet draped over Kidman’s back.

“I think it’s very beautiful, and there’s a lot of emotion in it,” Karl Lagerfeld, who designed Kidman’s costumes, said of the spots. “For me, it’s like a big Hollywood production, but there’s a real magic touch to it. It was faultlessly done.”

The campaign also arrives in tandem with a line extension: a rose-hued line of No.5 bath products dubbed the “Seduction Collection” [see sidebar].

“They are very, very sensual. It’s important for No.5 that we have this feeling of sensuality, and we want to gain market share in toiletries,” Montenay noted.

The Kidman spots are slated to run over a three-year period. Although TV and cinema advertising is the focus, a print campaign featuring stills and resembling movie posters will break in October magazines.

To be sure, Chanel has a long history of cinematic and fantasy-themed advertising, counting Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, Carole Bouquet and Catherine Deneuve among its celebrity pitchwomen and filmmakers Luc Besson and Ridley Scott among those who have immortalized No.5 in commercials. Recently, Olympic-level synchronized swimmer-turned-actress Estella Warren appeared in the Chanel No.5 ads.

Helleu said continuous rejuvenation of the brand’s image is the key to its longevity. And given the relentless pace of fragrance launches — with more than 400 arriving on the market last year alone — stalwarts like No.5 stand out, he added.

In the past, Chanel was known for choosing up-and-coming stars to represent No.5. The first of that strain was Deneuve, the face of No.5 from 1968 to 1976. Helleu first saw a small photograph of her on the cover of Look magazine tucked under someone’s arm. He was lured by the fact she had been called “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

The daring Deneuve ads, in which she speaks of her intimate relationship with the scent (Deneuve says she wears Chanel No.5 behind her knees) met with rave reviews and is credited with reviving the brand, which had a fusty image in the Sixties.

An A-list, Oscar-winning actress like Kidman clearly represents a departure for Chanel. But unprompted, Montenay sought to distance Chanel from a slew of other beauty firms suddenly employing big celebrities as a ploy to boost sales. “It’s totally superficial,” she said. “There is no real link between the celebrity and the brand.”

And advertising and branding experts applaud the choice of Kidman.“They’ve been very good at using iconic people to represent an iconic brand,” said Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand Corp. in London. “They’ve been cool and contemporary [women],” she said. As for Kidman, “She’s not the obvious beauty and Chanel has never been about obvious beauty.”

But Clifton said the faces of No.5 and the cinematic advertising are only part of the successful formula, citing synergies with the “mythology” around the Chanel brand, its fashions, its “absolutely classic and beautiful, elegant packaging” and the iconic No.5 bottle itself.

“Chanel has managed to remain always Chanel,” agreed Dimitri Katsachnias, a founding partner at Garden and Partners brand consultancy in Paris. “As for advertising, Chanel is one of the few brands that uses advertising as a consequence of already defined values, rather than as a source for new ones.”

Katsachnias added Chanel No.5 campaigns have been expert at making classic symbols relevant in changing times.

And, in that way, it has remained evergreen.

“Chanel No.5 is truly a living brand with an essence,” said Jeanine Recckio, beauty futurologist at New York-based Mirror Mirror Imagination Group consultancy. “It evokes emotion and an image. It has a great story; its history provides wonderful credibility.”

Recckio said in today’s saturated fragrance marketplace full of gimmicky creations, Chanel No.5 offers a welcome change. She said it “evokes real, authentic luxurious emotions.”

“It is certainly one of the most enduring brands,” agreed Chris Cleaver, a director and one of the founding partners of Brandsmiths brand consultancy in London. He added Chanel No.5’s image renewal enables the brand to connect with new waves of consumers.

Part of its appeal, as well, is its quirky aura.

“Chanel always projects the brand in a sophisticated way — slightly not-of-this-world, which suits the brand that is not locked into time and space,” added Cleaver.

Neil Kraft, creative director of New York-based Kraftworks ad agency, said the Scott ad for Chanel No.5 — involving a woman, a plane and a swimming pool — “inspires me to this day. It was the first fragrance commercial that impacted me on TV. It was real, true beauty on TV.”

TV commercials are key in the U.S. for brands wanting their fragrances to score in the top 10, according to Olivier Van Doorne, worldwide creative director for Select Communications in New York. He added that while TV is generally considered a mass medium, it’s a good vehicle for Chanel No.5 since it is “selective” yet “with a vast reach.”

Kraft added he gives Chanel credit “for trying to do something new each time it renews the campaigns.”

For the latest ad iteration, the Chanel No.5 bottle itself does not appear anywhere. But there are many winks to Chanel’s heritage — some obvious, others not. Subtle references include a faded camellia — one of Coco Chanel’s signatures — etched onto a brick wall in the metropolis. And although Lagerfeld rarely intervenes in the beauty business, his couture creations for Kidman are integral to the campaign.

Indeed, his friendship with Kidman ultimately opened the door to the collaboration. While photographing the actress for Interview magazine several years ago, Kidman expressed her affection for Chanel, saying it was the only fashion brand she might endorse. Lagerfeld immediately expressed her willingness to Montenay. After 18 months, a deal was struck. As reported, it is for No.5 fragrance only, and Kidman is not obliged to wear Chanel for personal appearances.

Yet she was clearly in her element in Lagerfeld’s designs for the commercial. The designer said it was very “easy” to work with the actress, not only because of her “perfect” body, but his personal, direct rapport. Two spectacular dresses with trains anchor the commercial: a pink tulle-and-feather confection that opens the storyline, and a black column with a plunging back for the denouement.

The first dress, a marvel of couture workmanship in its weightlessness, billows sumptuously as Kidman’s character, distraught amidst a tangle of yellow cabs in a billboard-studded urban square, tries to escape the paparazzi. “You hardly need a wind machine to get the train up when you run,” Lagerfeld says. “And I must say, when she runs in that pink dress, it’s a moment.”

Kidman was clearly pleased with her costumes. In a film outlining the making of the ads, she twirls in the pink dress during a fitting, telling Lagerfeld: “It’s a work of art; it’s beautiful. It has to go to a museum.”

— With contributions from Jennifer Weil

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