Robin Burns-McNeill is casting aside the traditional strategies that she built her reputation on to break new ground in fragrance marketing. Instead of starting at retail as in decade’s past, “we build from the ground up and then we retail it,” Burns-McNeill said.
Since establishing Butterfly Beauty earlier this year, a subsidiary of firm Batallure Beauty she cofounded with Sam Ghusson a decade ago, she has returned to developing, marketing and distributing fragrances with a stable of three brands: Derek Lam 10 Crosby, Robert Graham and, the most recent, Elizabeth and James from the fashion world’s favorite twins, Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen.
“We’ve been in public companies and [have seen] great successes whether it’s Calvin Klein or Estée Lauder or Victoria’s Secret, but starting our own company was [a way] to leverage that experience and be able to develop brands in an unencumbered way,” she said during an interview at Butterfly Beauty’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan.
She’s preparing for the launch of the latest addition to the Elizabeth and James Nirvana fragrance brand, which hits sephora.com on Aug. 1 and Sephora stores on Aug. 18. The two eau de parfums, Elizabeth and James Nirvana Rose and Elizabeth and James Nirvana Bourbon, come three years after the debut of Elizabeth and James Nirvana Black and Elizabeth and James Nirvana White, and will be exclusive to the retailer through the fall season before rolling out to additional prestige doors early next year. Butterfly Beauty took over the license for Elizabeth and James Nirvana fragrances from Kendo Beauty Brands on Jan. 1.
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“Today, consumers are responding to authentically innovative and organically envisioned [product], whether it’s packaging or formulation,” Burns-McNeill continued. “When you’re in very large companies you have to be more formulaic for different reasons, and when you’re in a private company you can make choices to break that formulaic.”
This is the same person who spearheaded the launch of Calvin Klein’s Obsession in 1983, and built the designer’s house of fragrance. But she insisted that Butterfly’s approach to creating fragrance is different.
Burns-McNeill is using Butterfly as a vehicle to conceptualize and bring to market fragrances that don’t adhere to beauty industry norms. This differs from Batallure Beauty’s focus on private label for companies such as Express and European Wax Center, although all of Butterfly’s brands are clients of Batallure Beauty.
For Elizabeth and James, specifically, this means a large amount of sampling, or close to one million samples, that will be given out at Sephora during the first five months of the fragrances going on sale.
For instance, Robert Graham’s trio of fragrances that bowed in March came in 250-ml. collection sizes that retailed for $295 each and were adorned with figurines of a race care driver, an English bulldog and a ram’s head with green Swarovski crystal eyes. The bottles more closely resemble whiskey bottles than a “blended essence” (a formula with a higher concentration than eau de parfum) and the oversize boxes look like they house spirits, not fragrance.
At the time of its launch, industry sources calculated that the Robert Graham brand might hit $15 million in retail sales in its first year on counter. The distribution was extremely tight and a sales projection was further complicated by Graham’s audience of 5,000 collectors, whose buying patterns are difficult to read.
Derek Lam’s first fragrances — a collection of 10 scents that launched under the brand’s contemporary Derek Lam 10 Crosby label — was based on the designer’s recollection of New York memories, not specific ingredients.
Jan Hendrik Schlottmann, chief executive officer of Derek Lam, said finding a fresh take on fragrance is no small feat.
“You either do it from a new molecule or in marketing. And since we’re not a fragrance house, we did it in marketing. Robin thinks about it from A to Z, and Z is the most important part; it’s the consumer and how to get to her,” he said.
The two decided the way to get to the consumer was through using scent to evoke a moment in time as well as via a series of short films. (The content made it to the finalist round of TriBeCa Film Festival’s new TriBeCa X Award this spring.)
Also, instead of the typical licensing agreement inked by brands and the fragrance firms, the one between Butterfly Beauty and Derek Lam is a joint venture.
So is Burns-McNeill’s deal with Christian Louboutin. Louboutin Beauté, which launched in 2014 as a joint venture with Batallure Beauty, includes a range of nail polish, lipsticks, and lip lacquers and, come this fall, a fragrance, the designer’s first.